Thursday, July 19, 2012

Recipes from Burundi

When I put this week’s meal on the table, Martin took one look at it and said, “Let me guess, Africa?”

African food, as we’re discovering, has a few common elements. The first one is peanuts and peanut oil (called “ground nuts”) and the second is beans.

This week’s recipes come from Burundi, one of the smallest African nations, which has the unfortunate distinction of being the fourth poorest country in the world. And that’s not even Burundi’s greatest claim to infamy; It was also the site of two terrible acts of genocide: the first in 1972, when the Tutsi-dominated army killed somewhere between 80,000 and 210,000 Hutus, and the second in 1993 when 25,000 Hutus were killed en masse by the Tutsis.

80% of Burundi lives in poverty, and more than half of Burundian children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition. 3.3% of the adult population is infected by HIV/AIDS, and there are only three doctors for every 100,000 people. Of 178 nations surveyed, Burundi ranked dead last in terms of its citizens’ satisfaction with life. I know, you’re waiting for me to say something positive about Burundi, but there just isn’t a whole lot. Burundi is kind of a bleak place.

Burundian cuisine is, as I’ve already mentioned, very similar to the cuisine in other African nations. There isn’t a lot of meat consumed there, primarily because meat is expensive and most Burundians can’t afford it. Agriculture is spread over about 80% of the total land area, and crops grown include things like beans, sweet potatoes, corn and wheat.

So I don’t have to tell you, there aren’t a whole lot of Burundian food bloggers out there (none that I could find, anyway) and for obvious reason Burundians don’t tend to publish books about Burundian cuisine, or to spend a lot of time on the internet posting recipes. I did find a few typical Burundian dishes in the usual last-resort places (yes, Celtnet). I do have to admit to taking some liberties with one of the recipes, though (I’ll explain in a minute).

The first recipe I chose is a dish called Boko Boko Harees, which is rather astonishingly similar to a recipe I made back in Armenia called Chicken Herriseh. I chose it not because of its similarities (if you remember, I didn’t particularly enjoy the chicken herriseh) but because it was the lesser of all evils. My other options were several soups (and let’s face it in July it’s way too hot for soup), a dish made from tripe and blood (ew), and a stew made from beef and greens in peanut sauce, which seemed problematic on two levels: 1) I’ve been told they don’t really eat beef in Burundi and 2) I don’t usually like greens unless they’re in a salad. So that left Boko Boko Harees, which was at least slightly different from the Armenian version. Here’s the recipe:

  • 3 1/3 cups bulgur wheat*
  • 3 chicken breasts
  • 1 large onion, grated
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 sets chicken giblets
  • 1 small onion, sliced and separated into rings
  • 2 tbsp turmeric powder
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 5 cups water
  • 6 tsp ghee, divided
*Ingredient note: I’ve never seen bulgur wheat in a standard grocery store. I got mine at the natural foods co-op.

The second dish is, at least based on my observations, one of Burundi’s most popular. It is a simple bean dish called Ibiharage and there are quite a few variations of it, which is why I felt compelled to sort of combine two different versions. The first version I had was a little too bland, and the second included plantains, which I don’t really like. So here’s the one I came up with.

  • 12 oz white navy beans
  • Boiling water
  • 1/2 cup cooking oil
  • 3 large onions, sliced
  • 1 clove garlic, crushed
  • 1 tsp berberi powder
  • 2 tsp salt
Now the question is, how authentic can I claim this to be based on the liberties I took with it? For the sake of full disclosure, I’ll tell you what I did: I substituted a white navy bean for kidney beans. The reason I felt this was OK is because one other version of the recipe specifically called for white beans, and another was non-specific about the kind of beans that could be used, asking for “lima, pinto, kidney, black-eyed peas, etc.” The second thing I did was add berberi spice mix, as called for in the fried-plantains version. I did this because except for the salt and that one garlic clove, the recipe just seemed like it would be bland.

Finally I did a dessert, simply called Date and Banana Mix. Now dessert isn’t really a part of most African meals so again, I don’t really know how authentic this is given that the recipe came from Celtnet. It could be that the dish is mainly served as a snack or just in wealthier households, where western-style traditions are more likely to be found. Here it is:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 3/8 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/8 cup flour
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 4 bananas, sliced
  • 4 1/2 oz dates, chopped
  • 1 1/2 tsp melted butter
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp sugar
I did the boko boko harees first, because it required a lot of cooking. Here’s how it’s done:

Soak the bulgur wheat in water for 3 hours. Note: bulgur wheat absorbs a ton of water, so don’t be stingy.

Now drain the wheat and place in a pot with the chicken breasts and enough water to cover. (The recipe said to cover by 1 inch, but I thought that was too much. It took a really long time for that much water to boil off, so I think it would be better to just add water as needed, rather than starting off with too much.)

Now add 1 tsp salt, bring to a boil and reduce to simmer. Let cook for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, cut up the chicken giblets into very small pieces. (I actually put mine in the food processor, because I hate big chunks of giblets. Of course, that was quite yucky and I don’t think I’d really recommend it.)

In a small pot, mix the turmeric powder with water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until you get a thick paste. Remove from heat and set aside.

Transfer the giblets to a small pot and simmer with about a half cup of water and 3 tbsp of the turmeric paste. Add a pinch of salt and the sugar. Simmer for 10 or 15 minutes, or until the giblets are cooked.

Now fry the onions in the remaining ghee until they are crispy.

Take the chicken breasts out of the pot and shred them, then return the to the bulgur wheat. Add 3 tbsp of the ghee and stir until well-incorporated. The dish should be the consistency of a thick dough; if it’s not, keep cooking until it reduces down.

Serve with the turmeric sauce and fried onions.

Now for the beans: you can soak them overnight or you can put them in your 50-year-old exploding pressure cooker (don’t ask) and cook them under 2 inches of water for about 18 minutes. When the beans are done soaking/cooking, drain them and set aside.

In a separate pan, heat the oil and fry the onions until they are transparent. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant.

Add the beans to the pot and cook for five minutes.

Finally, stir in the salt and the berberi spice mix. Serve immediately.

Finally the dates and bananas:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. With an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the eggs, then the flour, salt and baking powder. Mix well.

Transfer half the mixture to a baking dish (it will be sticky, so you’ll have to mold it into the dish with your fingers). Then put the bananas and dates on top. Cover the mixture with the remaining dough (this will be tricky given the consistency of the dough, but just do your best).

Bake for 30 minutes or until the top turns a golden brown. Meanwhile, mix the sugar and cinnamon together.

Remove from the oven and brush with melted butter, then sprinkle with the sugar and cinnamon mixture. Serve warm.

So what can I say about Burundi? It was simple, basic food, which is what I would expect from the fourth poorest nation in the world. I did find it particularly notable that there was a whole lot of wheat (filler) in the boko boko harees, and not very much chicken, which makes sense when you think about it—people who have limited access to meat are going to use it sparingly, and combine it with something that is very filling but relatively cheap to obtain, such as a grain. It actually tasted fine—not great, but fine—though its visual appeal was, um, not so much. Martin took one look at it and said, “well, at least if it makes someone throw up you won’t be able to tell.” Thanks a lot, Martin. My kids, of course, felt pretty much the same way and it was hard to convince them to try any of it. Once they did, they were so-so about it. They ate some of it and left the rest.

I liked the fried onions on top of the boko boko but could have lived without the sauce (giblets: ew). I think actually the sauce would have been quite tasty if made with chicken thigh meat instead of giblets, but again just my opinion.

The beans were the best part of the meal, and I was glad that I’d added the berberi paste because I think I was right, it would have been bland without. The date and banana mix was also really good, and my kids happily finished off the whole dish.

The meal and my research into Burundi was actually kind of a sobering experience, especially knowing that however simple and basic the meal was, we were still eating better than most Burundians do on a daily basis. And it still isn’t a meal I would probably do again. How lucky we are to live in a land of supermarkets and abundant food.

Next week: Cambodia.

For printable versions of this week’s recipes:


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