Thursday, February 14, 2013

Recipes from Djibouti

Confession: I don't know how to use Twitter. I mean, I can click the little bird icon at the top of the page and I'm pretty sure that sends out a tweet, but other than that, really, I have no idea. So a couple of days ago as I was sitting in the waiting room at the 10 minute oil change place I happened to open up my heretofore unused Twitter iPhone app and discovered that people have been tweeting me, and tweeting about me, and I never knew anything about it. I'm pretty sure that makes me Lame.

So I'd just like to apologize in blog form (because Blogger is a technology I do actually know how to use) to anyone who tweeted me and was rewarded with silence. But I still don't know how to use Twitter. Don't worry, I'm putting it on my to-do list.

Anyway this week we are in Djibouti, which is pronounced (don't laugh) "Ji-booty." OK, stop laughing. Yeah, it's kind of funny.

Djibouti is a very small country in the horn of Africa. How small? It comes in at just under 9,000 square miles, which is roughly the size of New Hampshire. Djibouti is bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, with the Red Sea to the east. As far as African nations go, it is by no means the worst off, but it does have its problems, not the least of which is a very hot, dry climate that makes agriculture challenging and leaves the country dependent on imports. Djibouti has few natural resources, but it does have a port--and therefore an important position as an international shipment and refueling center. The secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia left the latter without any link to the sea, which provided Djibouti with a much-needed economic boost. Beyond that, though, its unemployment rate hovers at 40 to 50% and the government struggles with deep external debt.

I'm sure it won't surprise you to hear that Djibouti doesn't have a gigantic online presence, and recipes from that part of the world aren't exactly flooding the world's recipe sites. In fact, as far as I could tell, there is exactly one online resource for Djibouti cuisine. And guess what? She's a good one. I feel pretty lucky to have found her.

Photo by Rachel Pieh Jones.

Rachel Pieh Jones is an expat from Minnesota who lives in Djibouti and blogs at Djibouti Jones. What's more, she's the author of a cookbook called Djiboutilicious, which let's face it is an awesome title. It has an even awesomer subtitle: celebrating culture and cooking in a country as hot as your oven. The book features a few local recipes and other recipes that use locally available ingredients. If you're interested in this country in particular or even the region in general, this is a great slice-of-life resource focusing on food and culture.

So all of my recipes this week come from Djiboutilicious, and Rachel was kind enough to give me permission to share them with you. Here they are:

Isku Dhex Karis (Meat Pilaf)
The name of this dish literally translates to "Everything Mixed Together"
  • 1 lb beef, goat or chicken, cut into bite-sized pieces (I used beef)
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 2 onions, chopped
  • 2 tsp cumin seeds
  • 5 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tomatoes, diced
  • 3 cups cooked rice
  • 1 1/2 tbsp tomato paste
and on the side:

Misir Wat (Red Lentils)
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • 4 tomatoes, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups orange lentils
  • water
and some bread, though I confess I don't really know if this is the sort of thing you would actually serve with a dinner meal (it's kind of sweet and seemed almost like it would be nice for breakfast, maybe with a little honey). I should have asked Rachel, but by the time I started wondering about it it was already blog day, and I didn't want to change my game plan on short notice.

Maandazi (Khamir)
  • 1 1/4 cup flour
  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup milk
Anyway, this was a very simple meal with simple ingredients, which was great because for once I didn't have to start cooking at noon. Starting with the stew:

Cover the meat pieces with water and boil until cooked through. Drain, then add the oil and onions.

Meanwhile, put the cumin seeds in a dry pan and toast until fragrant. Make sure to keep stirring them because they will burn quickly if you're not paying attention.

Remove from the pan and crush the seeds in a mortar and pestle (or use your repurposed coffee grinder, which is what I did). Now mix the cumin powder with the garlic.

Add the tomatoes, garlic paste and rice to the meat, then stir in the tomato paste. Cook until the onions are translucent and the tomatoes are soft.

Next, do the lentils. If you haven't made red/orange lentils before, they cook much faster than regular lentils because they are a lot finer. Here's how to make them in this recipe:

First saute the onion in the oil, then add the tomatoes.

Wow, this is a really awful picture.

When the onions are translucent and the tomatoes are soft, add the lentils and the water. Boil until the lentils are tender (this shouldn't take more than 20 minutes). That's it!

Finally, the maandazi:

Mix the dry ingredients together, then add the egg and milk. Blend into a smooth dough and then roll out on a floured surface to a thickness of about 3/4 inch. Cut into 1-inch square pieces (mine were a lot wonkier than that). 

Cut into sort of semi pseudo-squares.

Fry the pieces in hot oil on both sides. When golden brown, remove from the pan and drain on paper towels.

So here's what we thought: by now you know how bonkers my kids are for bread and biscuits of any kind. So as I served the maandazi, a black hole opened up in my dining room, there was a huge sucking sound and all the maandazi disappeared. So I guess you could say it was a hit. The kids wouldn't go anywhere near those red lentils, though, oh no. They were way too colorful and formless. As for the isku dhex karis, well, they picked the meat out and ate that. Honestly, I don't know what's wrong with those kids. It was rice, meat and tomatoes. It really doesn't get less scary than that.

Martin and I liked everything. The maandazi had a nice, soft texture and a mildly sweet flavor that would have been good as a snack or, as I mentioned, for breakfast. I thought it went well with the rest of the meal though I don't know if that's really its traditional place. We also liked the isku dhex karis and the lentils, which were simple and hearty and nice on a cold day, which is pretty ironic when you consider that Djibouti doesn't have any actual cold days (once, in December, it got down to 63 degrees. Brrr!).

Anyway, another big thanks to Rachel for this meal and we're off to country the next.

Next week: Dominica (not to be confused with The Dominican Republic)

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


  1. Becki - I had to laugh. I am one of your mystery Twitter PR team. Love how brave you are to take on this fun project. So, here is a little in-service on Twitter:

    One of my favorite quotes:
    “Facebook is where you lie to your friends. Twitter is where you’re honest with strangers.”

    On Twitter: @Dawn_Hawk

  2. Thank you Dawn! I mean for being on my Twitter PR team and also for the Twitter links. :) Where's "Twitter for the clueless and lame?" LOL

  3. Beautiful pictures of the food Becki! So glad it worked out, thanks for the link. I'll link to this post from my blog too.

  4. Thanks again Rachel! I could not have done it without you! :)

  5. Great post. However, the Maandazi is not a Djiboutian recipe. I know because I was born and raised there. It is a Kenyan recipe.

  6. Thanks. I just want to remind everyone that my goal is not to nail down the precise origins of any recipe I use but only to cook recipes that are traditional parts of the cuisine. Researching every recipe down to its origins would be impractical, so I'm afraid I have to trust outside sources to provide recipes--in this case, an American living in Djibouti gave me these recipes, so I can be fairly certain they are commonly eaten in Djibouti even if they might not have originated there.


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