Thursday, January 31, 2013

Recipes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

This week I went on another exotic ingredient quest. Actually the quest took me more like a month. I really don't know why I got so worked up about it, because there were other recipes I could have cooked this week that did not call for any exotic ingredients. But for some reason, I just had to find this one. I think it might have been because of my desire to not cook an African meal containing peanuts. Because I think almost all of them contain peanuts.

The elusive ingredient: palm soup base, also known as "sauce graine," "moambe," "nyembwe," "palm butter" and "noix de palme," none of which were particularly fruitful searches on Google. I did think I would find it at Red Star International down in Sacramento, though, because they have a pretty decent selection of African ingredients. But no luck.

There are several places online that carry palm soup base, and honestly I don't know how they stay in business. The palm soup base cost $3.99 (on average), and the shipping was at least $15 (one site wanted $40 (!!!)). That's not a flat rate, either. If you start adding stuff to your basket to try to make it worth spending that much on shipping, the rate just keeps going up and up and never actually reaches the point where it is less than the cost of the actual products. I don't know about you, but I'm not spending that kind of money to ship a few cans of food. But I still wanted that palm base.

Finally I found some in what seemed like an unlikely place: an online market that carried Latino goods. Maybe it's not an unlikely place, I don't know, but up until this point I'd only seen the stuff in African markets. But anyway shipping at this place was $9, which is still high but I decided to just bite the bullet. So I got my palm base, and a few other things I thought I might need at some point.

Masisi Territory, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Photo Credit: United Nations Photo via Compfight cc
So anyway, the country I did all this for is The Democratic Republic of the Congo. It's actually quite a large country—the second largest in Africa and the 11th largest in the world, though it seems to fly under the radar for the most part, at least as far as the US news is concerned. This is actually quite shocking when you consider that there has been a war going on there since 1998, which has already killed 5.4 million people and continues even though a peace agreement was signed in 2003. The vast number of deaths means that this war is the deadliest conflict since World War II, and yet I'll bet most people have no idea it is happening, as wrapped up as we are in hearing about wars in the Middle East.

It always seems so odd to segue off from horrible violence and death to food, but this is a food blog so off we go. Congolese food is really more or less the same as what you would find in many other African nations: most meals consist of a starch such as fufu (my arch nemisis) and a stew containing vegetables and sometimes meat. Freshwater fish are plentiful in the Congo River, which means that they are also an important part of the Congolese diet. The Congolese also eat a lot of goat and edible insects such as grasshoppers and caterpillars. Now, the last time I openly said I was pretty sure I would never eat a grasshopper or caterpillar, a giant ego floated down from Foodieland with various insults about whether or not I was truly worthy of calling myself an international food blogger, so I'll just shut my mouth and tell you what I decided to cook this week (no, it does not contain grasshoppers or caterpillars).

Moambé Stew
(from The Congo Cookbook)
  • 2 to 3 lbs stew meat, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • Juice of one lemon
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 minced chile pepper (or about 1/2 tsp cayenne pepper)
  • 2 tbsp palm oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 6 to 8 ripe tomatoes, chopped
  • 3 cups water
  • About 1 cup spinach, collards or kale, or similar, washed and chopped (optional)
  • 1 cup moambé (palm soup base) or unsweetened peanut butter*
*Note: if you use peanut butter instead of palm soup base, the dish is called "Muamba Nsusu."

And on the side:

Loso na Madesu (Congolese Beans and Rice)
(from Immigrant Kitchens)
  • 1 lb dried red beans
  • 1/2 small red onion, sliced thinly
  • 1/4 green bell pepper, sliced thinly
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 1 tbsp tomato paste
  • 1 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 tsp garlic salt
  • 2 cups rice
  • 4 green bananas
 And that's all. Simple, right?

Actually, it was all quite surprisingly simple, except for forgetting to soak the beans (I bet you are so surprised). But first the stew:

Combine the lemon juice, salt and chili pepper (or cayenne) and pour over the meat. Let marinate in the fridge for at least 30 minutes (more if you like).

In a large pot, heat the oil over a medium flame and add the onions. Saute for three or four minutes, then add the meat and cook until browned all over. 

Pour in the tomatoes and the water and reduce heat. Add the palm base and greens.

Cover and simmer on low until the meat is tender (this should take about an hour). Serve over rice or with fufu.

First a note about the palm base, if you are able to find it and decide to use it. Palm base does not look right when you open the can. At least it didn't look right to me. In fact I had thoughts of botulism racing around in my head as I observed the contents of that can. My palm base was imported from Ghana, and I'm betting their food safety regulations aren't as strict as ours are. So I was afraid.

A quick Google search reassured me that "the botulinum toxin is destroyed by thorough cooking over the course of a few minutes," so since this was going to be on the stove for an hour I felt like I could be reasonably sure I wasn't going to poison my family. But still.

Not a great photo, I know, but this should give you an idea what to expect.

My palm base looked like a paste, with kind of the consistency of wet sand. There was no real liquid in the can at all, it was just all paste, dryer than peanut butter or curry paste or any of those other pasty things you're used to seeing in jars and cans. So anyway, if that's what your palm base looks like too, I guess you shouldn't worry. I guess.

Next the beans:

You are, of course, supposed to soak these overnight. But I didn't, because I forgot, which you probably already know is not the first time. So instead I cooked them in my pressure cooker until they were soft.

If you did soak your beans, you'll need to cook them over the stove for about 40 minutes after draining.

Meanwhile, heat the oil over a medium flame and cook the onions until translucent. Then add the green pepper and keep stirring for another minute or two.

Drop the tomato paste into the pot and stir until well incorporated. Now add a little bit of water until your sauce is about the consistency of a marinara. Cook for five more minutes, stirring frequently.

Add the nutmeg, salt and a little more water (if necessary to maintain consistency). Now transfer the beans to the pot and stir to mix. Add the bay leaves.

Cover the pot and continue to cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water and add the bananas, skins on. Cook until the skins start to split, then remove from the water and let cool for a few minutes. When cool enough to handle, remove the skins and slice into bite-sized pieces.

Boil the rice according to package directions, and serve the beans over the rice with the bananas on top.

You should have witnessed the drama in our house the day I served this meal. Dylan acted like I really had given him a plate of grasshoppers and caterpillars. Seasoned with a little botulism.

But really, us grownups enjoyed it. The stew was really good, and the palm base did give it a nice, unique (though mild) flavor. It would have been a totally different meal if I'd used peanut butter instead. Was it worth the headache of actually obtaining the stuff? Well, no, not really. But still, the quest itself was part of the fun. I think.

I liked the beans, too, probably more than Martin did. Actually it was because of the boiled green bananas. I adore boiled green bananas. To me, that's what a plantain should taste like but doesn't (though I've been told many times that I'm just not doing plantains right).

So there's the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I think I'll be taking a break from ingredient quests, now, at least for a few weeks.

Do you have any favorite international recipes? Please share!

Next week: Dhekelia

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


    1. I really enjoyed reading your blog! Loved learning a little history, culture, and recipe all rolled into one. I look forward to reading next week's blog. Have you considered making this into a book? I think it would be a best seller!

    2. Thank you so much this recipe, I'll definitely be halfing this recipe and using a different meat and see what my guy says. My boyfriend is from Ghana, and he has a palm nut soup (also called 'light soup' that we serve with meat and fufu)that he enjoys, but this might be a nice change.
      Another one, although the ingredients (I've been told) are difficult to obtain is called waakye (pronounced: waa-ché) is a delicious meal that you would serve with either fried fish or goat meat. It's Ghana rice and beans. Delicious!

    3. Hi Teri, I have actually thought about maybe publishing some of the recipes in a collection when I'm finished ... that's a long way down the road though! But thanks for the compliment and I hope you keep reading!

    4. Hi "mnemosyneblog," would love to know what your boyfriend thinks of the recipe. I'll look into waakye when I get to Ghana, too (I love looking for exotic ingredients!) By the way what's your take on fufu? I did it once just using some boxed fufu mix and was not a fan. I've always wondered if I was missing some secret fufu making tip ...

    5. Thank you for doing Congo. Brings back memories of what my grandfather used to cook.

    6. Hello am from the Republic Democratic of Congo am very please with your dish and I want to say thank you for sharing this with the world. you really took me back home


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