The back story: Last December one guest gifted me with a set of African spice mixtures and another guest left a set of napkin holders with African animals.
Coincidence? Indeed. Both friends knew that I had traveled to Africa for safaris many times. Here’s why. The sights are wondrous, safari companions are kindred souls and there are many opportunities for R&R. Mostly, one simply enjoys the peaceful sights - herds of antelope, zebras and elephants; a lion pride sheltering in shade from the hot sun; gloriously colored birds; scenic vistas and, generally, good food (sometimes marvelous - see my blog for April 10, 2022 on Memorable Meals), thanks to very fresh ingredients, skilled cooking and attractive presentations. Still, each trip yields the kind of dynamite experiences that generate intense emotion and force one to deeply examine life and living. Imagine if you witnessed the events below. Would these dramas not move you nor make you deeply reflective of the nature of life? An example: Would your heart not break to see a wildebeest, leg broken by a crocodile bite, drag itself onto a rock and wait in the scorching sun for death? Wouldn’t you reflect on the cruelty of nature, especially because the crocodile had, undoubtedly, previously gorged on the many wildebeest already killed in their attempt to cross the Mara river? But here’s a paradox. Perhaps you, as I, would have cheered every moment of a different kill. The cheetah stalked, raced, leaped and brought down a Thompson’s gazelle. She had six cubs to feed and brought them to the kill for a much needed meal for this endangered species. So where is the line between good and evil?
Another example: Imagine enjoying the scenic bush when, turning a blind corner, a massive bull elephant, in must with hormones raging, charges your land rover, bellowing with ears outspread, trunk up, mammoth tusks raised and ready to gore. True terror. So close to death - it forces evaluation of your life and all life. (We got away, barely. The guide threw the car into reverse and sped back along the track.) But wait; here’s another paradox. On a different safari, we encountered another male elephant. It, too, repeatedly charged our car, backing off a bit and then charging again, ears out to form a larger image, trunk up to display its tusks, bellowing all the while. Hilarious! Absolutely adorable was this little guy, 2-3 years old, practicing to be the big guy. Yep, practice is everything and play is preparation. So what is “fun”? Is play, in fact, work, - life’s work? These experiences are, understandably, not to everyone’s taste. But some of us find in them deep meaning as well as intense emotion. Such experiences, while rare, leave a powerful impression. Back to the back story. The gifts given, spices and napkin holders, called for a dinner of African food. I welcomed the opportunity to explore cooking African food. The menu, of course, employed the four spice mixtures, called curries, in dishes from different areas of Africa. Napkins, naturally, went into the African animal napkin holders. Unfortunately, the spice mixtures were on the stale side, having been ground and packaged well before use this summer. Spices make for vibrant preparations when, just before use, they are toasted and then ground. Nevertheless, the preparations were certainly tasty and interesting departures from familiar dishes. Note: Most recipes are amalgams of recipes from the Internet. All recipes serve 8. Decor: To set the stage, the front door displayed a poster of an iconic African image, elephants at sunset.
African souvenirs were on display in the living room: a baby leopard perched on logs by the fireplace, a drum from Tanzania and a rainstick from South Africa. The stick is filled with sand; turn it upside down and the sand flows to the bottom with a zen-like sound.
The dining room table displayed placemats and napkins in the colors of Africa - red, green and gold. African animals and rocks of fool’s gold from the Masai Mara made up the centerpiece.
THE MENU Cocktail Sundowner Appetizers Hummus with Baharat Spice, Pita Chips Shrimp Ceviche with East African Curry Crostini: Caramelized Onions with Cape Malay Curry & Cheddar Cheese North African Olives Peanuts Main Mrouzia (Lamb Stew) with Ras El Hanout Curry Coconut Fish with Cape Malay Curry Algerian Carrots with Ras El Hanout Curry Jolof Rice - West Africa Salad Kachumbari with East African Curry Dessert West African Lime Cake, Lime Glaze Orange Sherbet Fruit Salad Pistachio Baklava
The menu looks daunting with lots of ingredients, lots of chopping and a good bit of cooking. However, complex dishes with curry are usually best when prepared a day or more ahead. So, except for the vegetable and fruit salads and final presentations, I made everything 1-2 days ahead and the day of the dinner was pleasantly placid.
We started with a Sundowner cocktail. As the sun sets after a long afternoon, the custom on safaris is to stop at a scenic spot to enjoy a drink and snacks. On our trips the sundowner was rarely a prepared mixture of the common recipe for a sundowner found on the Internet that mixes brandy, orange liqueur and citrus juice. Rather, the usual offerings were a selection of wines, liquors and mixes along with light snacks. For this dinner I used a mix of gin, mango juice and orange juice (1:3:2) for a drink that would evoke the tropics, be refreshing and could be prepared ahead and refrigerated.
Appetizers Hummus with baharat, pita chips
Hummus is found on tables throughout Africa and the Middle East. Adding a bit of spice and heat for zip and zing seemed appropriate. Baharat (means spice in Arabic) did the deed. Purchasing delicious hummus made by Sabra simplified the preparation. Ingredients 1 8-ounce container Sabra hummus 1/2 - 1 teaspoon baharat curry, to your taste 1 package pita chips Preparation Mix the baharat with the hummus. Serve with pita chips
Shrimp Ceviche with East African Curry Spice
Shellfish ceviche always pleases on summer days. It’s light and lively and cooling. With a touch of curry, it gains balance with depth and complexity. Ingredients 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, about two lemons 1/4 cup fresh lime juice, about 3 limes 1 -2 teaspoons East African curry spice 1 pound cooked shrimp, peeled and deveined Preparation In a glass or ceramic bowl combine the lemon and lime juices with the curry spice. Add the shrimp, stir and marinate 30 minutes, but no more than 2 hours (or the shrimp will get mushy).
Crostini: Caramelized Onions with Cape Malay Curry and Cheddar Cheese
Glossy caramelized onions are pretty and pretty tasty. Give them a kick with aromatic Cape Malay curry and then boost up the savory character of the dish with cheddar cheese. Ingredients 2 pounds yellow onions 2 tablespoons peanut oil 1 teaspoon sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar 5 tablespoons Cape Malay 4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese 1 loaf crusty Italian bread, sliced Preparation
Cut onions. It is easiest to cut in half vertically through the root. Laying the cut side down, make vertical slices down to the root but not through the root, each about 1/8-inch thick. Then cut out the root from each half. If the onions are very large, cut the slices in half.
Heat oil over medium heat in large saucepan. Put onions in pan and stir until well coated with oil. Add in sugar and salt. Stir well. Cook, stirring often until they are reduced by about 1/2 (about 10 minutes).
Add vinegar, reduce heat to medium low and cook until onions are nicely browned. Stir often, scraping up brown bits on bottom of pan. Make sure onions do not scorch, adding a bit of water if necessary. Remove from heat.
The yield should be about 2 cups. Chop onions fine. Add Cape Malay curry and stir well.
Process cheese into bits. Add to the onions and stir.
Brush with olive oil and lightly toast one side of each crostini slice. Top the other side with the onion mixture and broil until cheese melts.
North African Olives
You will find these in Middle Eastern or gourmet groceries or on line.
It’s always good to serve nuts in the appetizer course. A type of ground nut, the Bambara, is native to West Africa. However, peanuts, also a ground nut, while native to the Americas, are commonly used in cooking throughout Africa.
Main Mrouzia, a Moroccan Lamb Dish with Ras El Hanout
Lamb is a favorite of North African cuisine, although goat is equally prized. If you are inclined, use kid rather than lamb. Both meats take well to curries. I used a recipe from thespruceeats.com titled “Moroccan Lamb Tagine With Raisins, Almonds, and Honey” with two substitutions: lamb leg rather than lamb shoulder, neck or shank and a Dutch oven rather than a tagine. Ras el Hanout is an aromatic spice blend associated with Moroccan cuisine. Ingredients 3 pounds boneless leg of lamb 2 teaspoons Ras el Hanout 2 teaspoons ground ginger 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads 2 medium onions, grated or finely chopped 3 cloves garlic, grated or finely chopped 1/2 cup unsalted butter 2 small cinnamon sticks 3 cups water 1 1/2 cups sultana raisins 1/2 cup honey, or to taste 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/2 cup blanched almonds Preparation
The night before, cut the lamb into 3-inch pieces. Combine all the spices (Ras el Hanout, ginger, salt, pepper, turmeric, saffron) and rub over the lamb pieces. Cover tightly and refrigerate. Bring to room temperature before cooking.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, melt the butter. Add the onions, garlic and cinnamon sticks. Stir together for 1-2 minutes. Add the meat, stirring occasionally until the cubes are brown.
Add the water. Bring to a simmer and cook over very low heat for about 2 hours or more, until the meat is tender.
Add the raisins, honey, cinnamon and almonds. Cover the pot and simmer for 20—30 minutes more, until the sauce is reduced and syrupy.
Coconut Fish with Cape Malay Curry
Coconut curries are cool and cooling and found in many parts of Africa. The fish are usually fresh caught, either from the ocean or streams. Capetown is famous for its fish restaurants and I remember several great dinners there. Those marvelous memories pointed to a coconut curry with South Africa’s Cape Malay curry. Ingredients 4 tablespoons coconut or peanut oil 1 large white onion, chopped 2 garlic cloves, crushed 1 tablespoon Cape Malay curry spice 3 tablespoons tomato paste 2 jalapeño or other mild green chilis, seeded and finely chopped Juice of ½ lemon 2 cups coconut milk 2 pounds firm white-fleshed fish such as wild cod Preparation
Make the sauce. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium heat and sauté the onion until turning brown at the edges. Add garlic, curry spice, tomato paste, chilis and lemon juice. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Take off heat and remove garlic cloves.
Cut fish into serving size portions. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil and cook for a few minutes, depending on thickness, on each side, turning once. Add the coconut sauce, bring to a boil and then simmer for about ten minutes. The fish should be done and the sauce somewhat thickened.
Algerian Carrots with Ras El Hanout
Browsing the Internet for African veggie dishes, this one struck me as likely to be tasty and a good match for the other dishes in the main course. The recipe used spices common to that part of the world. I simply substituted Ras el Hanout because Algeria is in North Africa, Luckily, I found organic multi-colored carrots, making for a visually attractive dish as well as a delicious one. Ingredients 2 pounds mini carrots 5 tablespoons olive oil 1 teaspoon salt 2 tablespoons Ras el hanout 1 bay leaf Directions
Steam or boil the carrots until just short of tender. Reserve 1/2 cup cooking liquid.
Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat. Stir in the salt and Ras el Hanout. Cook over low heat, stirring, until Ras el Hangout is fragrant, about 5 minutes.
Add the reserved cooking liquid, bay leaf and carrots. Cover and simmer for about 10 minutes, until carrots are tender.
Jolof Rice - West Africa
Jolof rice is a typical West African dish with many variations. Ingredients 4 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil 1 cup chopped yellow onion 1 cup chopped green bell pepper 2 tablespoons tomato paste 2 cups basmati rice 1 cup grape tomatoes, halved 3 cups vegetable stock or water 1 bay leaf 2 teaspoons fine sea salt 1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper 1 jalapeño chili pepper, seeded and diced Preparation
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat Add the onion, bell pepper, and tomato paste. Cook, stirring, for a few minutes until vegetables just begin to soften.
Add the remaining ingredients. Stir. Turn heat to low, cover the pot and cook for 15-20 minutes, until rice is tender.
Salad Kachumbari - East Africa
Light and fresh, just what a salad should be. Ingredients 1 medium red onion, chopped 2 cups grape tomatoes, halved 2 small cucumbers, cut into 1/4 inch rounds 1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed and chopped fine Salt and pepper to taste Juice from 1 lemon Chopped fresh cilantro to taste Preparation
Put in a bowl the onion, tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapeño, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Let sit for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add the cilantro and stir.
Desserts West African Lime Cake, Lime Glaze
A lime cake, common in West African cuisine, intrigued as I can’t remember ever eating a lime cake. A key lime pie - yes, but a lime cake - nope. The cake was a breeze to make and quite delicious but a little on the dry side and not very high. If I did it again I would try adding some baking soda, making two layers and checking frequently for doneness after 20 minutes. Cake ingredients 1 cup sugar 2 1⁄2 tablespoons butter 2 eggs, well beaten 4 tablespoons lime juice 1 1⁄2 cups flour 2 1⁄4 teaspoons baking powder Glaze ingredients 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar 5 tablespoons fresh lime juice 1 teaspoon lime zest Preparation for cake
Preheat oven to 350F. Butter and flour an 8-inch square cake pan.
In a large mixing bowl cream the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Beat in the eggs and lime juice.
Mix together the flour and baking powder. Gently combine with the liquid ingredients. Pour into the prepared cake pan.
Bake in center of oven for 20-25 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.
Preparation for glaze Combine all ingredients. Spread over cake.
The fruits are sweet; their colors are those associated with Africa, their taste a congenial companion to that of the cake. Fruit ingredients Use a mix of red watermelon, orange canary melon, green honeydew and black berries. Cut into bite-size pieces, Dressing ingredients 1/3 cup fresh orange juice 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice ¼ teaspoon honey 1 teaspoon lime zest 1 tablespoon sour cream Preparation for fruit Mix fruits together in a bowl. Pour dressing over and stir. Chill for 1 hour or more. Preparation for dressing Mix all ingredients together. Pour over fruit. Chill.
Ice cream and cake - a classic combo. In this case, sherbet was the choice as it originated in the Middle East. Orange and lime go well together. They are both citrus fruits, different but complimentary. Buy it.
Why not a sticky, crunchy, honeyed iconic dessert of the Middle East and North Africa? Buy it.