The food in West Africa is GOOD. The geography has blessed the south part of the region with sea access (lots of seafood), tropical weather (lots of fresh fruit and vegetables) and a French heritage.
By default the main dish here will include: 1) your carbs, 2) your sauce, and 3) your meat/fish. And mostly all the food is eaten from the same plate by all the people eating together, and with the hand.
In the Ivory Coast one of the main dishes is the Futu Banane: You cook manioc (which is a root) and banana. Then you “pile” them in the pilon until they become a dough. You add the meat of your preference cooked in the sauce of your preference and voila. It will have the sweetness of the banana, which balances very well the spice of your sauce.
In Benin its cousin is the Igname Pile. The Igname is a root, and it is also “piled” in the pilon, but it is much harder and it usually takes at least 2 women to do the job. In some places or for party days, you will see 5 or 6 (babies included on the back as the picture shows) in duty. It is very hard! My hands were full of blizters after just trying once.
Here is some fancy igname pile with peanut sauce. I love peanut sauce.
People in the Ivory Coast eat a lot of snails. They fry them and add them to the sauce. Or in brochettes. Crabs are not difficult to find either and they are a staple in the region.
Snails at the market
Cute little crabs
This is a pretty bad-ass looking crab don’t you think? I am not even sure it is a crab, the madame insisted it was… me, I just took the picture and left as soon as possible.
Food is very easy to find. It either comes from either the head of somebody no matter where you turn…
(One night we asked our gardener for ONE avocado for the next morning… and when we open the door the next day this is what we found by it)
Here by the coast fish is everywhere: in lakes, rivers, and the sea. The fishing industry is underdeveloped so it is mostly done in the traditional way. Here Monica tried once but after entangling herself in the net three times in row, she left Salif do it on his own
It is better to leave it to the experts
Here the people pulling the net from the sea. They sing a very particular song that tells them how and when to pull. Sometimes there is a kid next to them with the drum keeping the beat.
Fish is mostly eaten grilled or fried (with sauce and your carbs)
This is Pirron, made of manioc flour, with fish and tomato sauce
This is fish with legume sauce, fried plantain and a ball of akassa: a fermented corn dough steamed.
Pause in the local foods for a moment and we move on for a moment to the breads. As I said there is an extensive heritage of French, if not cuisine, bakery for sure.
Baguettes, you can find anywhere and they are 30 cents of Cdn dollar. The sisters provide professional training in bakery of baguettes and sweet bread (boulangerie and pattisserie) given their demand.
A few of my colleagues and I took a french bakery course last year in the school where I teach with Madame Blanche: she is the queen of bakery. It was fun! and I learned to make brioches, croissantes, puff pastry, five different kind of cakes and crepes, it was fun.
Here is Mme Blanche explaining the technique. but even more fun is when the school students have their practical exams and I am invited to “judge” when Mme Blance has already eaten too many samples… (here in the picture she is saying: they are all horrible! and writing very low notes)
Even though myself, I would give them 20/20!
And then we also have the street version of Donkin Donuts:
A quarter of Cdn dollar will buy you 6, they are so good!
Kitchens are very different here. What amazes me the most is that, most of them don’t have running water or electricity. This is a regular kitchen:
We cook on gas little tanks what can be done quickly:
But most is done on charcoal:
And the resourcefulness of the people here is incredible. So one morning I went 6am to the house of the Mme Yvonne, the lady who runs the school cafeteria. She prepares everything at her home and brings it everyday in coolers to the school. No running water, no electricity and no refrigerators either. And the school has 1000 students and 100 profs/admin staff. Same if not everybody eats cafeteria food, a very good chunk do. And why wouldn’t they? The food is so good and so well prepared! I do. For 75 cents of Canadian dollar I have my very good lunch everyday. Make it 85 cents to include pineapple or lemon juice.
So here behind the scenes of preparing a Tuesday meal for the school cafeteria:
The kitchen. Outdoors.
Many pots cooking good stuff: rice, beans, sauces… all on charcoal
Mme Yvonne preparing the Kom to steam. The Kom is typical from Togo, it is a dough made of fermented corn. Since there are no steamers here, you fill half of the pot with corn husks , add water, a layer of plastic cloth. Close the pot and voila your african steamer that works to perfection. On charcoal.
Here is a picture of kom:
And one of my girls eating it at the school…. with the hand:
Back to Mme Yvonne’s kitchen, here is her assistant rinsing the rice. These women do everything bended on the floor, as if there were no tables in this world, they are incredible: cooking, washing clothes, dishes…
And when everything is finished, it goes to the coolers to be taken to the school and served to the hungry students:
Now to finish this deliciuos entry on delicious food, I leave you with the how-to of one of my favorites: ABLO. The ablo are little “cakes” made of rice and wheat flour, sugar, yeast and water. You eat them with fried mini-fish and chili paste. Again the combination of the slightly sweet ablo balances perfectly the very spicy chili paste.
So we start where we should, in the kingdom of Ablo: Come.
Come is a small city between Cotonou and the Togolaise border. It is famous for the ablo. Almost everybody traveling on that highway stops to buy Ablo. Many women with the ablo baskets and fish come running to the cars to offer their products. It reminds me so much of Mexico…
So first you mix the ingredients in a bowl. If you are doing a large production like the women in Come, you migh need instead a basin
The secret of the ablo apparently is in the mixing. My friend says her mom will oblige to their family’s cravings for ablo with the condition that they do the mixing. Wooden spoon is optional.
Since pampered chef hasn’t arrived yet to Cotonou, they use soda cans as molds. Cut in two with a linen of plastic at the bottom.
You fill the molds
While you are filling, you get “the oven” started. Here is another way of steaming if you are doing massive productions. So this oven is a sheet of aluminium bended in a circle with an aluminium bucket inside full of water and a metal grid on top. The wood heats the water, the water evaporates and the steam goes up.
So you place your sheet of ablos, and then 3 cans of tomato sauce to make a second floor
You cover and in 15 minutes your ablo is ready to enjoy!
When you are in Come, you go to a restaurant where you buy your drinks and the women who walk around the streets with the ablo on their heads come to offer you some, followed by a younger girl who has the selection of fish/shrimps to choose from:
And then they go to look for new clients, leaving you to enjoy a wonderful meal, while their husbands are probably fishing or harvesting the ingredients to making it happen.
In this area of the world, food is a social affair in all the senses: everybody eats from the same plate, a whole family works to make your meal happen… food at the end of the day, in all the corners of the world, brings people together.