It began a decade ago with a call from a friend in West Africa asking me to get in touch with a young Malian woman, Oumou Nomoko, who had recently moved to Edmonton. It ended with her preparing a feast (or several) of thanksgiving for African food in my kitchen in northern Nova Scotia. We had much to be thankful for, not least that we had finally met each other and that we had both just written books celebrating African cuisines.
Hers, Les Gourmandises de Dilly: La Cuisine Africaine, a collection of traditional recipes from the West African countries of Mali and Burkina Faso, and mine, Seven Grains of Paradise: A Culinary Journey in Africa, which highlights some of the marvellous foods, farms, crops and food cultures on the continent.
Thing is, until this year, I had never actually had the pleasure of meeting Oumou. Ours had been a tenuous and improbable connection. The friend who had initially put us in touch, a colleague from my time as a BBC correspondent in Mali, was a friend of her parents in the Malian capital, Bamako, and he had been concerned that Oumou needed a motherly ear in her new home in Canada. But she was in Alberta and I was in Nova Scotia, so we spoke only on the phone. Then we lost touch for a time because we both wound up back in West Africa, in different countries, working with different development agencies.
Her work involved food security and she spent a lot of time within vulnerable communities with rural women, who inspired her with their spirit, energy and expertise when it came to cultivating and cooking traditional foods. My work involved research into foreign investment and influence in Africa, which led me to notice how the industrial food system was starting to threaten Africa’s traditional foods, which were at the heart of a book I was writing.
The rest, as they say, is the confluence of history. Just as I was finishing up the edits on my book earlier this year, I received an email from Oumou, telling me she had just completed a cookbook showcasing the wealth of knowledge of West African women cooks. She invited me to her book launch in Montreal, where she was now living and working in the inner city on a project to help fight poverty and provide food security for marginalized groups.
I couldn’t make it to Montreal, but took the opportunity to invite her to the launch of my book, which Sheree Fitch had so kindly agreed to host at her thriving new Mabel Murple’s Book Shoppe & Dreamery in River John. Within minutes, Oumou replied that she would take a week’s holiday and hop on a bus, come to Nova Scotia for the launch. Further, she would bring lots of ingredients from West Africa, and we would spend a week trying out the recipes in her book.
And so it was that we finally met and found ourselves together in my kitchen, listening to a playlist of both haunting and lively melodies from West Africa, while we talked, laughed, cooked, exchanged tales of Africa and how we were missing it, and savoured the aromas coming from the pots – the pungency of “soumbala” (a nutritious condiment made from the fermented seeds of the locust bean tree), the tang of shea butter as it melted (extremely nutritious oil from the nut of the shea or karité tree indigenous to Africa), the nuttiness of the “fonio” (one of the world’s oldest and most nutritious grains). The day that she served us Riz étuvé au gras au soumbala (West Africa’s famous “jollof rice” with soumbala with a medley of vegetables) was a visit to culinary heaven.
On the day of the launch, Oumou was back at it in the kitchen, showing me how to prepare traditional beverages from fresh ginger, from “da” (red petals of the African hibiscus), donuts with sesame (indigenous to Africa), and chopping up watermelon (another African crop), all of which would grace the tables that evening. Oumou’s contribution and presence made the launch of the book on African culinary treasures at Mabel Murple’s Book Shoppe something very special indeed, another dream come true at Sheree Fitch’s Dreamery.
It was a marvellous visit, a rare chance to celebrate foods from Africa, a continent that never seems to get the credit it deserves for its diverse, complex, nutritious and wonderful cuisines. That week is high on my list of things to be grateful for on Thanksgiving Day this year.
Oil and Soumbala Steamed (Jollof) Rice
(with a medley of vegetables)
Preparation time: 2 hours
- 1 kg rice
- 500 g beef or mutton (optional)
- 250 ml peanut oil
- 2 medium onions (sliced)
- 2 fresh tomatoes (finely chopped)
- 1 medium cabbage (chopped into bite-sized chunks)
- 2 carrots (chopped)
- 2 small zucchini (chopped)*
- 4 cloves garlic (crushed or finely chopped)
- 4 Tbsp tomato paste
- 300 g soumbala (if available)
- 2 to 3 bay leaves
- 1 tsp salt, black pepper to taste
* other vegetables can be added or substituted, such as sugar peas, turnip
1. Rinse and drain the rice; set aside
2. If using soumbala, cover with water; leave to soak
3. Cut the beef or mutton in cubes; rinse
4. In a large saucepan, heat the oil, add meat and onion slices. Let cook until golden brown stirring regularly
5. Add chopped tomatoes,tomato paste and soumbala (if using)
6. Stir and allow to simmer 5 minutes
7. Add 2.5 litres water, bay leaves, cabbage, carrots, zucchini, garlic and salt
8. Bring to a boil; cook for 1 hour
9. Once vegetables and meat are well-cooked, remove from liquid; set aside in a bowl
10. Check seasoning; add salt and pepper, if needed
11. Add rice to liquid in a saucepan; cook for 45 minutes
To serve, place rice on a large platter. Cover with vegetables and meat.
“Da” or Bissau (red hibiscus) Cordial
Preparation time: 25 minutes
Makes approx. 1.5 litre
- 1 cup dried (red) hibiscus flowers (sometimes known as “bissap”)
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (or banana or strawberry flavouring)
- handful fresh mint leaves
- 1.5 litres water
1. Rinse the hibiscus petals; place in a pot with water. Bring to a boil, simmer for 25 minutes
2. Remove from heat; add mint leaves; allow to cool completely
3. Pour through a sieve to remove the hibiscus petals
4. Add sugar and flavouring of choice
5. Refrigerate for 3 hours. Serve chilled.
Garnish with a fresh mint leaf or two.
Donuts with Sesame
Preparation time: 1 hour
- 1 kg white flour (or unbleached white)
- 125 g salted butter (softened at room temperature)
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract (or 1 envelope vanilla sugar)
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 150 g sugar
- 500 ml milk
- 500 g sesame tahini
- 1 litre peanut oil
- sesame seeds
1. In a large mixing bowl, stir together 1 kg flour with 500 g sesame tahini
2. Add the butter, eggs, salt, vanilla and baking powder. Mix well
3. In a separate bowl, mix together the sugar and milk; add 500 ml of water; add to the large mixing bowl
4. Knead well until dough becomes smooth and silky (the dough should be thick enough to work well). Let stand for 15 minutes
5. Spread the dough out smoothly on a smooth surface coated in flour
6. Heat peanut oil in a large saucepan
7. Cut into small pieces and form into balls. Fry in oil until golden brown
8. Roll in sesame seeds; allow to cool
Ginger Pineapple Juice
- 1 litre water
- 100 g fresh ginger, peeled
- 300 g pineapple, peeled
- cup lemon juice
- ½ to 1½ cup sugar
- fresh mint leaves
1. Place the ginger, pineapple and the lemon juice in blender; add water and blend until smooth (the ginger and pineapple can also be placed in a large mortar and ground to a pulp and then mixed with the water and lemon juice)
2. Filter the liquid
3. Add sugar according to taste; mix well
4. Refrigerate. Serve chilled with fresh mint leaves