Monday, July 12, 2010

Adventures in African Cooking: Getting started

I grew up eating good African food of the East African variety: a lot of maize meal, greens and coconut milk, from the Swahili influences of my Kenyan youth. I love Swahili food, but more about that later (or in Swahili Kitchen, which I published in 2005 with Javed Jafferji).

For over a year, I've been cooking, eating and shopping in Liberia. I've cooked for a film crew in Robertsport with only local ingredients, plundering a neighborhood lime tree so we could make bottles and bottles of fresh juice. I've wandered local markets, figured out how to use biterball and taken a liking to consuming handfuls of hot pepper at a time. I also now run and co-own a tapas and cocktails bar in Johennsen that uses only local seafood, fruits and vegetables. Every day I eat Liberian food. But I still feel like I'm just now learning how to cook it.

Enter 'Liberian Cookhouse Cooking', the Peace Corps cookbook that sells for close to $30 at the Abi Jaoudi supermarket. It has 169 recipes adapting Liberian food for American kitchens, along with colorful anecdotes and illustrations by former PCVs (that's Peace Corps Volunteers, for those of you slow on the acronyms). I've enjoyed the book, but haven't cooked from it yet. When I tried to look up a recipe for Liberian hot pepper sauce, there was none to be found. What? No pepper sauce? That's right. I had to call Tina and Miriama in Robertsport to talk me through the process, and you know what? I failed.

Lucky for you, loyal readers, I consider it a personal affront that I live in Liberia but cannot yet make, from memory, an excellent, rich red pepper sauce to put on my morning rice and give me early hiccups. I also want to be able to summon a deliciously thick groundpea soup with fish, chicken and shrimp--which incidentally, is what right now I am eating for breakfast. Add to the list potato greens, which I now saute at Tides and totally adore, cassava leaf, fever leaf, torbegee, bitterball and the Liberian way to cook pumpkin.

As you've heard me bemoan for over a year on this blog, I often find Liberian food too oily for my taste. When there's an inch of red oil covering my potato greens and I need to squish them against the bowl to get even some of the oil out, I am usually not that pleased with what I have eaten. But I've also been asking the people who cook for us--Miriama in Robertsport and Loretta in Monrovia--to scale the oil back, and have been really pleased with the results.

Also, there's Ro-zi's, where we eat brunch on the Sundays we're in Monrovia. Ro-zi's makes what she calls "creative Liberian fusion" and the food is good. I wish I had a bowl of her collard greens and fried rice right now.

So basically, I'm going to start learning how to cook Liberian food--not just Liberian dishes, but the strange and wonderful vegetables, tubers and fruits that find their way to the market and to my table. Welcome to my Adventures in African Cooking.

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