My first exposure to African food was Ethiopian cuisine, and I was hooked from the first bite. This was many years ago, at the now-defunct Blue Nile Restaurant in Baltimore. At the time, I could barely boil spaghetti and had certainly never heard of anything as "exotic" as ghee or injera. The rich heady flavors and brand new smells, spices, and textures were entirely mysterious and magical to me.Since then, I've had the opportunity to sample Cameroonian, Gambian, Senegalese, Nigerian, and Ghanaian food. And while food preparation in general may have lost some of its mystery for me, African food has lost none of the magic, particularly the hot and spicy layers of flavor found in so many of the dishes of West Africa.
Until recently, I was happy to eat African food sporadically, whenever I happened to be in a neighborhood or city with a restaurant I wanted to try, like Bennachin in New Orleans or Ghana Cafe (now closed) in DC. But it wasn't until I had the pepper soup and fish with peanut butter sauce at Sumah's Carry Out, a tiny hole-in-wall just off of the Howard St. Metro stop in DC, that I knew I needed to figure out how to make this stuff - or some version of it - at home.
We were warned before ordering the pepper soup: "It's hot. It's really really hot. You sure you want it? It's really, really hot." And hot it was. The hottest food I have ever eaten in my life, but the funny thing is, that heat didn't obliterate the flavor; if anything, it enhanced it. Sweating, red-faced, lips burning, I devoured my entire serving. At that moment, I became an incurable pepper head, and I began to crave heat in my food like nobody's business. The peanut butter sauce (peanuts are called groundnuts in African recipes and menus) with fish was only slightly less of a revelation. Not too sweet at all, but layered with flavor and a subtle, lingering heat perfectly offset by the strong homemade ginger drink.
I am not going to pretend that my own version of peanut butter stew can compare to Sumah's, and I still haven't worked up the nerve to try to make that fiery pepper soup. But my dish is, if I do say so myself, damn tasty. Rather than use fish or stew meat, as so many West African dishes do, I've used seitan. You could certainly opt to omit it, or use another protein. And rather than the ubiquitous Maggi cube in the broth (as a pescetarian, when I eat at an African restaurant I adopt a "don't ask don't tell" policy when it comes to this meaty bouillon cube) I use a veggie cube. But I hope that what my stew may lack in authenticity it more than makes up for in flavor.
Keep in mind that this is one of those dishes that doesn't require you to be exact. Have fun with it!
West African Style Greens and Peanut Butter Stew
3 bunches of greens - any will do - chopped and rinsed. No need to dry them. This time, I used sweet potato leaves (at left) because we got some from our CSA, beet greens, and chard. You could use spinach, collards, kale, bitterleaf - whatever you like. I do think that the sweet potato leaves gave the stew a nice, nutty kind of sweet aftertaste it doesn't usually have.
2 large or 3 small habanero or Scotch bonnet peppers, minced, stems and seeds removed.
6-7 canned plum tomatoes, chopped, plus about a cup of the tomato juice.
1 very large or 2 medium white or yellow onions, chopped
1 vegetable bouillon cube
1/2 cup creamy peanut (groundnut) butter - no salt or sugar added!
1 package unseasoned seitan, chopped into shredded "stew meat" sized pieces.
3-4 tbsp peanut oil
salt, pepper, and ground hot red pepper to taste
In a large stockpot, saute the onions over medium heat in the peanut oil until they're just starting to brown; about 15-20 minutes.
Add the habanero peppers and saute for another 5 minutes.
Add the wet greens and stir well; put the lid on the pot for about 5 minutes to allow the greens to wilt in the steam.
Next add the chopped tomatoes, tomato juice, and vegetable bouillon cube. If necessary, add a little water until the greens are just covered in liquid - but not too much. You're making stew, not soup.
Add a few pinches of salt and pepper. Taste the broth - if it's not hot enough for you, add a pinch or two of powdered hot pepper. If it's too hot at this point, don't worry - the peanut butter will offset the heat somewhat.
Bring the heat down to a simmer and cook until the greens are tender.
Meanwhile, mix the peanut butter with a couple of tablespoons of hot water. Once the greens are tender, add this mixture, along with the seitan, to the stew. Simmer gently for another 15-20 minutes; taste and adjust the salt, pepper, and hot pepper to your taste.
You'll be amazed at how so relatively few ingredients combine to make such huge flavor!
Of course, no West African stew should be served without fufu.
Fufu is basically a big ball of starch, usually made from yam flour, plantain, cocoyam, or cassava. You use it like a utensil - you take a bit of it, make an indentation with your thumb, and scoop up bit of succulent stew. It's traditionally a labor intensive process to make, but luckily you can get instant fufu, and the proprietress of my local African store told me it's not even considered cheating!
I like the pounded yam flour from Mimi foods (left), but I cannot stand the Tropiway fufu - it tastes like instant mashed potatoes. If you don't have access to an African food store, try a Caribbean market, where you can often find various African items. Barring that, you may want to try J & B African Market, an online vendor, though I can't vouch for them personally.