Thursday, April 11, 2013

Recipes from Equatorial Guinea

I usually cook these meals about a week and a half ahead of posting them. Occasionally, by the time I get to the writing part of the process, I've completely forgotten what I cooked a week and a half ago.

So that's partially a comment about the state of my brain and partially a comment about the food. Some of it just isn't that memorable, and I guess I kind of thought this week's menu fell into that category. Because I've just been sitting here for the last five minutes trying to remember what I cooked for Equatorial Guinea. I finally had to look it up in my recipe software.

Equatorial Guinea is tiny, one of the smallest nations in Africa. At 10,830 square miles, it is just a little bit smaller than Hawaii. Like Hawaii, much of its land area consists of islands. Unlike Hawaii, it also has mainland territory.

Equatorial Guinea is near the equator, but not on it. Most of its territory is in the northern hemisphere, with just one of its islands situated in the southern hemisphere. On paper Equatorial Guinea looks pretty good—as one of Sub-Saharan Africa's largest producers of oil, it is the wealthiest country per-capita in Africa. Of course it won't surprise you to hear that that wealth is very unevenly distributed, and on the United Nation's Human Development Index it ranks 136th, which puts it almost at the bottom of what is considered "medium human development." Less than half of the 650,000+ people living in this country have access to clean water, and the UN estimates that about 20% of the kids born there will die before reaching the age of five. And I'm going to stop before I get to the part about human trafficking because I don't want to completely ruin your day.

Port of Malabo, Equatorial Guinea

So yes, this is another one of those African nations you've probably never heard of where the people suffer in virtual anonymity, because the rest of us are too busy talking about Iraq and North Korea. Now on to the food!

If you've been following this blog for any length of time you probably already suspect what the primary staple foods are in Equatorial Guinea. They are pretty much the same as in other nations in this region: tropical stuff like plantains, bananas, mangoes and coconuts and starchy root vegetables like cassava (known in the US as yucca) and yams. Because so much of the country is coastline, there is a lot of fish in the diet, and in wealthier households common western-variety meats are also eaten (beef, chicken, duck etc.) Because Equatorial Guinea was once settled by the Spanish, there is also a definite Spanish influence on many of the traditional dishes.

Like other nations where most of the people are poor, the Internet isn't really a good place to find recipes from Equatorial Guinea. So I am very sorry to say that my sources are questionable. I couldn't find any blogs or nationally-run websites or any of my usual go-to sources for recipes. Here are the recipes I did manage to find:

Pick a Pepper Soup
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 1 lb red snapper fillets*
  • 3 medium onions, peeled and sliced
  • 2 tomatoes chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, de-seeded and chopped
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 habanero chilli, de-seeded and pounded to a paste
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 tsp dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1/2 tsp ground Guinea pepper (also called grains of paradise), optional
  • Pinch of dried rosemary
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp vegetable oil
* Red snapper has been flagged by the Blue Ocean Institute as an overfished species. A more sustainable choice would be pollock or striped bass.

(From the World Cookbook for Students)
  • 5 tbsp red palm oil
  • 3 ripe plantains or 4 very green bananas, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 Maggi stock cube, crumbled*
*A Maggi stock cube is basically just a bouillon cube, so I very much doubt that brand is important. The original recipe also said you could use chicken OR beef (I used chicken).

I also had a dessert recipe called "Millet Porridge," which also came from the World Cookbook for Students. I forget what was going on that day but by the time I got to the part where I was going to cook the porridge I just couldn't be bothered. So this time we skipped the dessert.

Thankfully, at least as far as the bad-day-I-can't-really-remember was concerned, this was not a difficult meal to prepare. In fact the entirety of the instructions for the pick-a-pepper soup goes like this:

Boil the water and add all the ingredients, except for the oil. Return to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for approximately one hour or until the vegetables are tender. There isn't a ton of liquid in this recipe, so you'll have to check periodically to make sure the mixture doesn't get too dry. If it does, just add a little bit of water.

Now add the oil and cook for another five minutes. Remove the bay leaf and serve over rice (I actually just served mine without rice).

So as I was putting all the ingredients into the pot, I realized I had no idea what I did with my Guinea pepper, which I'd ordered from about two weeks earlier. So I spent literally the whole hour that the soup was simmering trying to find it. I checked every likely and unlikely place I could think of, and then finally finished the search by blaming my kids and fuming about it for the rest of the evening. So I did this recipe without any Guinea pepper. I did find several other versions that did not call  for Guinea pepper, so I consider it optional anyway.

The next day, of course, I found the Guinea pepper. It turns out it was on a FedEx truck en route to my house. I still swear I can remember getting it in the mail, and I have Amazon Prime so really it should have arrived days earlier than it did. But yes, I was super annoyed that I didn't have it for the recipe, extra annoyed that I spent an hour searching for something that wasn't even in my house and ultra annoyed because I don't know what the hell I'm going to do with all that Guinea pepper now that blog night has come and gone.

OK with that entertaining little story out of the way, let's move on to the loco, which was my favorite part of the meal. "But wait!" you say. "Don't you hate plantains?" Why yes, I do. Which is why I used green bananas.

Here's how you do it: melt the palm oil over a medium flame and saute the onions until golden, which will be tricky to see because the palm oil will make them bright yellow. Remove and set aside.

Now melt the rest of the oil in the pan and add the plantains or green bananas. Saute on both sides until they are also golden, or goldeny-yellowy depending on how you look at it. Now return the onions to the pan and sprinkle the crumbled Maggi cube over the top.

So yes, super easy. And it was good, too, it really was. And healthy—so healthy that my annoyingly dieting husband who is losing weight so effortlessly that it's almost like a little fat-stealing fairy has come down from heaven to magically zap it out of him (and into me) actually took the leftovers with him to work (sorry, bitter). But not terribly memorable. I've made other fish soups that were equally good or better, so this one wasn't really exceptional enough to land in the family recipe book.

I did like the loco though. In fact I think I'm going to make it next week to go with the leftover Sancoche from Dominica that I still have in my freezer. It was easy and tasty and would make a great side dish for any tropical sort of recipe.

So I do kind of feel like I got off easy this week. But that's OK because I've got a few marathon meals coming up, and I just cooked an Easter feast too so I'm beat. There, my excuses.

Next week: Eritrea

For printable versions of this week's recipes:


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