Recipes from The Gambia


I hate to admit that I generally don't love food from Sub-Saharan Africa. I mean, it's fine. But like many Americans I've been raised on flavorful food with a lot of spices, and food from Sub-Saharan Africa tends to be a little on the bland side. I know this is because the people in that part of the world don't tend to have the kind of money you need to buy spices. Have you ever tried to buy more than one different spice at Safeway? Even in America the cost of that stuff will practically bankrupt you. So the food tends to be bland because it's just based on simple, local ingredients that can be grown or harvested.

So I was actually really pleasantly surprised by this week's main course, though I would certainly make some changes. Because it was actually too flavorful, if you can believe that.

Anyway let's talk about The Gambia, which as you already know is in Sub-Saharan Africa. On the map, it looks tiny. I couldn't even find it on my globe—I had to look it up on Wikipedia. That's because it is actually tiny--at just over 4,000 square miles it's only roughly twice the size of the city of Anchorage, Alaska. Of course, Anchorage only has a population of about 300,000 people, while The Gambia has crammed 1,800,000 people into it's tiny little self, which is basically just the two opposite banks of the Gambia river.

Historically, The Gambia was best known for its bustling slave trade. It is estimated that during the 300 years that the transatlantic slave trade was in operation, as many as 3 million slaves were exported from the Gambian region. It may surprise you to hear that most of these slaves were sold to Europeans by other Africans—they were either prisoners of war, people who could not pay their debts or were just kidnapped by slave traders. So like so many of these little places in Africa, it has a dark history.

North Bank, The Gambia. Photo Credit: Flickr User .Kikaytete.QNK

Today, The Gambia has moved past all that and has a liberal, market-based economy. Most of its income comes from the export of peanuts, re-exports, and a healthy tourism industry. The tourism industry might at least partially explain why its food has so much flavor (demanding tourists with lots of cash), but of course that is just my totally ignorant, based on nothing but a hunch guess.

Anyway here are the two recipes I chose for this week's meal:

Chicken Yassa
(from the African Culture Portal)
  • 8 to 10 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
  • 2/3 cup oil
  • 1 cup red wine vinegar
  • 1 cup freshly-squeezed lime juice
  • 6 chicken-bouillon cubes, crushed (I used Maggi cubes)
  • 24 small garlic cloves, mashed
  • 6 tsp fresh ginger, grated
  • 2 tsp salt (or to taste)
  • 12 tsp coarse black pepper
  • 3-4 tsp red pepper (ground or flakes)
  • 3 large onions, thinly sliced
And on the side:

Fish Jollof Rice
(from Access Gambia)
  • 2 lbs fresh fish
  • 2 cups vegetable oil
  • 6 cups water
  • 1 medium tomato
  • 4 tbsp tomato paste
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 small cabbage
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 4 cups rice
OK, let's make the chicken:

The day before meal day, put the chicken breasts in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients (except the onions) together.

 Now that's a whole lotta spices.
Pour about half the marinade over the chicken and refrigerate overnight, turning once. Reserve the remainder of the marinade.

Broil the chicken in your oven, turning once. When you have a nice, brown color on both sides and an internal thermometer reads 165, remove the chicken (note: I baked mine first to about 145, then I finished it under the broiler).

Now here's the part I missed, because the recipe's author didn't include onions on the ingredients list:

Saute the onions in a small amount of oil until golden. Meanwhile, heat the reserved marinade over a low flame.

Serve the chicken with the onions on top, and the marinade on the side.

This is the sans-onion version of this recipe.
Now for the rice:

Heat the oil in a large pot and fry the fish until golden on both sides. Remove the fish and set aside.

In the same pot, add the onions, tomato and tomato paste. Continue to cook until the onions start to turn brown. 

Now add the water and bring to a boil, then add the cabbage, carrots, bay leaf and salt and pepper. Reduce heat, cover and let simmer for 20 minutes.

Now strain the vegetables from the broth and set aside. Return the broth to the pan and add the rice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 20 minutes or until all the liquid has been absorbed (note: I needed to add additional water).

Meanwhile, break the fish into pieces and mix in with the vegetables. Heat over a medium flame until hot. Serve alongside the rice.

So as I already mentioned, I missed the part about the onions, so I don't know if this really counts as Yassa Chicken. There are many, many different takes on this recipe and they are all vastly different, but they all seem to include onions. So I might have to make it again at some point. But here's what we thought of it, sans-onion.

It was salty. Super, super salty. Which I kind of expected, because chicken bouillon is pretty salty all by itself, plus there was extra salt in the marinade in addition to all that bouillon. So  if I made it again, I would probably leave out the extra salt and maybe even a bouillon cube or two.

Other than that, I thought it was really tasty. It reminded me of Jamaican jerk chicken, only without the heat. Martin actually didn't think it was too salty, but he tends to be less sensitive to such things than me. My kids certainly didn't think it was too salty, but we're talking about people who will actually pour salt into their mouths right out of the shaker. So evidently, nothing is too salty for them.

I liked the Jollof rice a lot, though it wasn't nearly as flavorful as the chicken. Of course that also meant that it nicely balanced the chicken, so it was a welcome side dish.

Overall, this was nice though I would certainly make a few changes. I might actually try one of those other versions of Yassa Chicken, just to have something to compare it to.

Next week: Gascony and The Basque Country, France

For printable versions of this week's recipes:



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