Africa has a frankly intimidating number of countries, so I’ve divided them into five regions: North, East, South, West and Central. I started with Eastern Africa because it was New Year’s Eve, and I was going away with some vegetarian/vegan friends, and I wanted to cook for them. It turns out East Africa, including the countries of Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, has an enormous diversity of vegan dishes that are all pretty different and super tasty. East Africa and North Africa seem to be the best represented in Brisbane in terms of restaurants, so I had actually been to an Ethiopian restaurant before and tried different types of curry and injera bread, and therefore vaguely knew what I was aiming at. One thing I knew for certain is that if an East African dish is spicy, then you’re going to cry.
Bayenetu with injera
This was the New Year’s Eve feast, and it went down pretty well with herbivores and carnivores alike. It started off with me dubiously beginning my hunt for teff flour, which I had never even heard of before. I have since found that it’s sold in a local supermarket and a local health store, who knew? Teff is a type of grass native to East Africa, whose seeds can be ground up into a dark earthy flour. Injera bread is made by adding teff flour to water to make a runny slurry (appetising, no?) and adding salt, then letting it ferment at room temperature for about a day. The fermentation is a necessary step, because there is no yeast or rising agents in the mix, just flour, water and salt, so the fermentation gets it bubbly, light and breadish. I started the fermentation in glass and then transferred the mix to metal to transport, and it seemed like that made most of the bubbles pop, and I had to leave it a while longer to get them back. I’m not sure if it was the metal or the transferal that did it, but I think glass would be safer. Something about glass being nonreactive is tickling the edges of my hippocampus from undergraduate chemistry practicals? Anyway, after a day fermenting, the teff smells pretty earthy, but not unpleasant (at least not to my sensibilities). It kind of reminds me of the smell of blood and bone fertiliser, but not the nasty bits? This isn’t sounding appetising, perhaps I should stop. Rest assured, the final product is very delicious. After fermentation, you just fry little pancakes of the mixture in a skillet, and they get spongy and bubbly and light and delicious. Bayenetu just means a collection of meat-free dishes, and mine included atilt wot (cabbage, carrots and potatoes in turmeric sauce), azifa (green lentil salad), gomen (sautéed leafy greens), Inguday tibs (mushroom curry), mesir wot (red lentils in berbere sauce), fasolia (green beans and carrots), kik alicha (yellow split peas in turmeric), beetroot and potato salad, buticha (chickpea and lemon mash), timatim salata (tomato salad) and a green salad. A lot of the dishes use spices/flavours like garlic, onion, tomato, capsicum, turmeric, ginger, jalapeños and berbere. Thanks to my friends for helping me to rescue the injera and also taking such a professional photo (they have a fancy camera, not just an old iphone…).
Langouste á la vanille with vegetable achard and fried plantains
For this meal we are travelling east of mainland Africa to some African island nations, starting with The Comoros, which consists of a number of volcanic islands northwest of Madagascar. Given its central nature between many countries and continents, The Comoros has had a varied history of inclusion in major trade routes, as well as inhabitance, from people of mainland Africa, the Arabian Peninsular, Malaysia, the Persian Gulf, Madagascar and, more recently, as a result of French colonisation. Since the 1800s, much of The Comoros and neighbouring Madagascar were devoted to plantations for crop export, including sugar, ylang-ylang, coffee, cocoa beans, sisal and vanilla. Indeed, despite vanilla originating from Mexico, two-thirds of the world’s vanilla today are produced by Madagascar, The Comoros and Indonesia, earning the specific variety grown there the name “Madagascar vanilla”. This history therefore makes it slightly less surprising to find a vanilla-based dish in this part of the world. The national dish of The Comoros is “langouste á la vanille”, meaning “lobster with vanilla”. The seafood at the centre of this dish is freshly caught from the surrounding waters, most traditionally a rock lobster, although sometimes substituted for prawns, langoustines or even scallops. I used a local oceanic crustacean that is sort of between a prawn and a lobster. I grilled the raw and halved crustaceans with olive oil, then topped them with a sauce made from cream, wine, vanilla beans, shallots and butter. I was surprised by the subtlety of the vanilla flavoured sauce – it brought out the natural sweetness in the lobster flesh and was, of course, delicious with all of the French-inspired dairy fats and wine. Vegetable achard is a typical dish from the island nation of Mauritius, off the east coast of Madagascar, which has a similar history of inhabitants as The Comoros, as well as a notable Indian population of labourers. This Indian influence is clearly visible in achard, which is a dish of lightly stir fried vegetables with onion, chillies, garlic, turmeric and black mustard seeds that is then gently pickled so that the vegetables are full of flavour and still have a good amount of crunch. I also served fried plantain bananas, which are common throughout Africa and always a welcome touch of sweetness in my book.
Nyama choma, sukuma wiki, ugali and kachumbari
Nyama choma means “grilled meat” in Swahili, and is popular throughout Eastern Africa, but especially in Kenya, where it is commonly cooked for celebrations and is sometimes considered a national dish. It is essentially a barbecue over a low heat for many hours, often on a charcoal grill outdoors, in order to make a delicious meal out of even the toughest of cuts. Any type of meat can be used for nyama choma, but goat, beef and lamb are some of the most popular, and the raw meat is usually simply seasoned prior to grilling, for example with salt, oil and garlic. For my nyama choma I used lamb cutlets, and served them with some traditional sides, including sukuma wiki, which is a delicious dish of sautéed kale and vegetables, flavoured with garlic, onion, cumin, coriander, turmeric and lemon. I love the name of this dish, which translates from Swahili to “stretch the week”, referring to the common practice by frugal cooks of plucking leafy greens from the garden and whipping up this side dish to help the other groceries through the week go a little further, especially during periods of scarcity or hardship. As one who dreads grocery shopping, I fully endorse the practice of using garden produce to stretch out the time between supermarket visits! Ugali is a carbohydrate staple of Kenya and Tanzania, consisting of a thick paste made by combining white cornmeal with salty boiling water. It’s usually eaten by hand, used to scoop up accompanying foods like a utensil, and is thought to trace back to the 16th-17th century when maize was first introduced to Africa from the Americas, before which sorghum and millet were the staple grains of the continent. Kachumburi is an East African salad, containing chopped tomatoes, onion, chillies and herbs such as coriander. The dish is clearly connected to a similar Indian salad “cachumber”, from which the African name is thought to derive. Altogether this was a wonderful fresh take on the “meat, carbohydrate and vegetables” theme present all over the world, offering up a balanced and fresh blend of flavours.
“Wat” is a particular type of curry from Ethiopia and Eritrea, which can be made with any type of meat, but which is particularly popular with “doro” (chicken), along with a flexible assortment of other vegetables and/or boiled eggs and spices. Indeed doro wat is sometimes said to be the national dish of Ethiopia, where it is usually eaten with injera bread communally, with the chicken cut into twelve pieces to symbolise the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. I made my doro wat according to, as far as I can tell, a common/traditional recipe, first slow cooking chopped onions for at least an hour in a skillet until they had broken down, then adding large quantities of niter kibbeh, which is a dangerously delicious spiced clarified butter. The spices in question used to flavour the butter (before being sieved out) include onion, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, pepper, cardamom, cloves, fenugreek, coriander seeds, cumin seeds and turmeric. Once the onion and clarified butter have been sautéed into a thick and aromatic paste that will ultimately thicken the stew, lumping great tablespoons of the searingly hot berbere are added (although I added fewer tablespoons than specified by the recipe… forgive my cowardly tastebuds). Berbere is a bright red spice mix from East Africa that adds an incredible savoury flavour, including spices such as chilli peppers, garlic, ginger, basil, korarima, rue, ajwain or radhuni, nigella, and fenugreek. I finished my doro wat by adding chicken pieces (pre-marinated in lemon juice) and water, simmering until the meat was cooked through, then adding boiled eggs. The niter kibbeh and berbere added a complexity of flavour that I would usually associate with Indian curries, but with added exoticism of the origins and ingredients of another continent. The inclusion of boiled egg was a nice cool contrast with the spicy stew, and it all went very well with the soft and spongy injera bread, which soaked up the excess liquid into its pores and gave my soft palate a rest from the chilli.