29 January 2007 (Ugbowo, morning)
I have now accomplished cooking my first pot of coconut rice. I’ve known how to cook it, in theory, for a while now. I just never practiced it. Efe put in the request last week. I was grateful, because I was getting a bit bored with the various stews and soups I had been preparing on my one propane burner, in my little kitchenette. It was a challenge I happily took on.
Coconut Rice is deceptively simple in its ingredients: coconut milk, onions, fresh pepper (bullion, if you like or) salt. That’s it. Well, let me tell you, the process of preparing it is an affair involving – quite literally – blood, sweat, and tears. There is no such thing as canned coconut milk here in the market…at least not in Benin. So, I had to go about extracting the milk from the real coconuts: not an easy business. Efe’s grater is less than Ikea-standard hardware, so, it took me well over an hour to grate the coconut and press all the milk out. In the process, I mangled my fingers and nails (a woeful sight, especially for a slightly vain girl like me). Just as I had started grating – as sure as the sun shining – NEPA seized the light. There is no fan in my kitchen, and the heat coming from the cooking process is unbearable. I was dripping, probably adding a bit of “Toja flavoring” to the mix! If I hadn’t begun to cry before then, with my sore fingers and miserable sweat, I surely shed a few tears cutting up all the onions…
Alas, I prevailed. Efe and I were enjoying a very sweet edition of Coconut Rice, with spiced meats that evening. Delicious!
Now, one of my favorite things to eat in this world is Banga Soup. It is an Urhobo specialty. The base of the soup is palm kernel juice: palm kernels boiled, mashed and pressed. It is a rich, red, oily and very flavorful liquid. Added to this are local spices, some of which are indigenous to the Delta, fresh “native” salt (marsh salt, which comes in beige, chalky blocks that are ground in a small mortar into a fine powder), fresh, hot pepper, various kinds of fresh fish, and if you like…and I like…snail (the large, land-based variety). My favorite combination is periwinkle (small-shelled water-based snails which, when cooked, turn a bluish color), crab, crawfish, and snail. You eat it with Starch: liquefied cornstarch fried in a bit of palm oil. It is a gooey dough that takes a bit of finesse to “cut” it into small balls to dip in the soup. My grandfather taught me how to do this well when I was a child here.
My Auntie Mairo’s Banga soup is the best around. It is just as Mama Mewe (my grandmother) used to make it. I have watched Auntie prepare it several times now, and I know how to cook it…in theory. I hope to have the courage (and fortitude) to make it myself before I leave. Of course, this is food that shouldn’t be ingested too often if one is watching one’s weight (an everlasting concern for me!), but ah, it is so sweet!
I really have eaten well here. There are no preservatives or pesticides in most of what I eat and things are made wholly from scratch. Oh, and because electricity is so fickle, most of the food is freshly made every couple of days. In the U.S. I have to augment my stew with tomato paste to enhance the flavor; here, the tomatoes are so juicy and flavorful that I haven’t needed the added punch of the canned paste. I remember eating raw tomatoes as a child here (sometimes we froze them before snacking on them). I haven’t been moved to make this simple delicacy in the States: the tomatoes aren’t as flavorful, unless I grow them myself in the summertime garden. Here, I make my groundnut stew from real roasted groundnuts, which are grown in the Northern part of the country. This is the way it’s supposed to be, and it makes a real difference. You buy beef that is butchered the same day it is sold in the market. It is a bit tougher than U.S. beef. I think it has to do with the absence of hormones and the cattle graze solely on grass, and get a lot more exercise. Real, juicy, sweet pineapples; fat pawpaws (papayas, best eaten with a pinch of rough salt sprinkled over the wedges); sweet, fat little bananas that are native to West Africa (best eaten with freshly roasted groundnuts). Ooh, and I can’t wait for mango season!
This entry has made me hungry…
How to Make Coconut Rice:
3 cups of rice
2 coconuts shredded and pressed for milk, along with the coconut water (or 2 cans of coconut milk)
4 bouillon cubes (1 tbsp)
2 medium onions (sliced finely)
Fresh pepper (sliced finely; in this instance I use a red scotch bonnet/habañero peppers)
Serve with Dried or Smoked fish, sardines, or spiced meat (meat is always optional, as this dish is a treat all by itself).
- Salt and parboil the rice (not for too-too long)
- While the rice is parboiling, prepare the other ingredients
- In a separate pot, simmer the onions, pepper and bouillon in the coconut milk until the flavors begin to blend well together
- Add the parboiled rice (with remaining bit of water) and mix all together, stirring often until cooked completely. Check for salt, and add more, if necessary…
- Add the smoked fish just at the end of the process
- If you decide not to use smoked fish, I prepare the spiced meat separately: I boil the meat until tender with garlic, ginger, thyme and salt. I then fry the meat, sprinkling dried red pepper just as they come out of the pan (it adheres better this way).
- Bon Appetite!