#156 Rwanda: isombe and supermodel ugali

 

As the country numbers get higher, people just keep getting awesomer. (That was grammatically correct, right? No? Whatever.)

Our Rwandan chef-for-a-night, Placide Magambo, is a fellow that I’d never met in my life before he fed me. Sure, we had a friend in common – a fantastic guy named Aaron, who you really should follow on Twitter. And Aaron had arranged to have Placide prepare a home-cooked meal for us, based on his mother’s recipes.

But still: the guy had never actually met me. And he made dinner for 20 of our friends, even though we were complete strangers. Amazing.

Placide is one of those guys who immediately feels like a brother. He’s an accomplished journalist who knows a thing or two about media oppression, and he had seen his share of unpleasantness before coming to the United States. He’s a vibrant, insightful guy who builds deep, warm friendships – just seeing him hang out with a few of his American “sisters” was a beautiful thing to watch.

And on a higher-calorie note: the man can cook.

Placide treated us to an amazing tour of Rwanda’s best dishes, with some long-distance assistance from his mother (thank you, Mom!). Placide prepared a magnificent Rwandan rendition of pork stewed in tomatoes, onions, and green beans:

apparently, Rwandans do tasty things to pigs

 

Placide also prepared a nice, fresh salad, featuring lettuce, tomato, boiled egg, onions, and sliced avocado (avocado!!!), tossed in a nice vinaigrette:

a nice, healthy salad…

 

But that’s too healthy. Let’s get to the exciting part: carbs.

You know that I love ugali — wondrously dense balls of white cornmeal, known as sadza or nsima or nshima in southern Africa — but Placide’s Rwandan version was just a little bit different, made from a delicious but not-super-photogenic blend of white cornmeal and cassava:

but by ugali standards, this is basically a supermodel

 

And then there were more carbs. Here are some phenomenal fried potatoes, which are always a work of art when they’re fresh:

 

And then there was pelau, the Rwandan version of rice pilaf, featuring bits of… whoa, there’s some serious ginger in there. You can’t really see it, even when Placide is pointing right at it. But holy frijoles, this stuff had a delicious, ferocious, ginger-y kick to it:

 

And the real star of the show was the isombe, arguably Rwanda’s national dish, featuring stockfish, peanut sauce, and potato leaves — which, if I remember correctly, Placide’s mother sent straight from Rwanda:

even better than a supermodel

 

If you’ve never tried the stuff, isombe is another variation of those intensely flavorful stewed-greens dishes that you can find throughout Africa — it brought back fond memories of Cameroonian ndole and Namibian omboga and Central African yabanda, just to name a few of my favorites.

And as usual, the meal was another wonderful excuse to bring 20 amazing people together for an evening of feasting — including at least one amazing musician who had his serious, isombe-eating face on:

 

Rwandan combo platter, gone amazingly right

 

Huge thanks to Chef Placide Magambo for the amazing meal, the legendary Aaron Leaf for making this happen, and the even more legendary duo behind Todd Reynolds Music for hosting us all. Isombe!!!

 

#155 Uganda: partying with priests and plantains

 

Let’s get right to it:

 

Yep, that’s a picture of two priests and a school principal. And yes, the gentlemen are drinking home-brewed millet beer from a communal clay pot, using long, homemade straws. But you probably figured that out already.

Here’s how all of this happened: I somehow met a Ugandan guy named Brian (from We Dream Africa), and he introduced me via email to a Ugandan named James, who happened to be the organizer of a Ugandan independence day celebration. He graciously invited me to tag along for the celebration, held in the gymnasium of the Saints Philip and James School in the Bronx.

Sadly, Brian couldn’t make it that night, and neither could the cameraman who had planned to accompany me. So I walked into the school gymnasium alone, without knowing anybody at the event. And here’s when you know that you’re in the presence of a wonderfully welcoming culture: from the moment I walked in, friendly Ugandans kept approaching me to strike up conversations, answer my questions, and make sure that I felt comfortable.

It was incredible – I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learned about the country that night, and I lost track of the number of fascinating, friendly people I met, including a visiting priest named Father Charles who was enjoying his first-ever trip to the United States, several entrepreneurs and teachers, a social work professor, a few graduate students, and some United Nations staff members.

But you’re probably not here to hear about the amazing Ugandans I met. This is a food blog, so you’re probably here for food:

amazing food, surrounded by amazing Ugandans

 

So yes, that’s an epic buffet, prepared by a fleet of friendly Ugandan women. The meal highlighted the wondrous diversity of Ugandan cuisine, which is intensely regional. Some African cuisines center around a single, starchy staple, like Malawian nsima. But depending on where you are in Uganda, you’ll see completely different staple starches, including rice, cassava, yams, matooke (mashed green plantains, often cooked in a banana leaf), taro, posho (a corn-based relative of ugali), millet, and chapati, among others.

a small sampling of Uganda’s carbo-licious splendor

 

The plethora of starches (yup, I was just looking for an excuse to use the word “plethora”… you’re welcome) was accompanied by a herd of excellent protein dishes, including a fantastic roasted chicken, some stewed pork, and two different versions of peanut sauce. Interestingly, one of them had been slow-cooked inside a banana leaf – I was told that this particular version was reserved for special occasions, since it takes literally a full day to prepare:

epic Ugandan combo platter; yes, you can taste the difference between the slow-cooked peanut sauce and the not-as-slowly-cooked peanut sauce

 

This meal, of course, was prepared to celebrate a special occasion: Ugandan Independence Day. And in keeping with Ugandan cultural traditions, all special occasions are followed by music and dancing. “It’s part of our culture,” one of my new Ugandan friends explained, “You have to dance at these events!”

But right before the dancing began, the school’s principal, a deeply charming Irish-American named Cathy, came over to introduce herself. (Apparently, I looked a little bit out of place in a sea of Ugandans, even if the sea of Ugandans had ensured that I felt perfectly at home.) When I explained my food quest to her, she exclaimed, “Oh, you need to come with me!”

Then she gently grabbed me by the arm and pulled me across the school courtyard, into the adjacent church, and upstairs into the priest’s apartment. That’s where millet beer happens.

millet beer… happening in a not-terribly-traditional glass pitcher for now

 

Cathy’s nephew, Michael, turns out to be one of America’s foremost experts on Ugandan millet beer, and he told me exactly how the stuff is made. The only trouble is, I’m a little bit worried that my memory of the millet beer recipe has already been clouded by… well, lots of millet beer.

But here’s what I understood about it: basically, you take a pile of millet, and leave half of it outside for a week or two to collect natural yeasts to start the fermentation process. The other half of the millet is then pan-toasted. Then, all of the millet is ground into a powder and fermented in water. After a few days – presto! – millet beer. The “raw” millet beer is then mixed with hot water immediately before it’s consumed.

I absolutely loved the stuff. It reminded me a little bit of an unfiltered, unsweetened sake – it didn’t have even the slightest hint of sugar, but had a nice, toasted flavor, and plenty of sediment to give the beer some texture. Actually, it has so much sediment that you have to drink it through a long straw with a metal screen on one end.

tool of the millet beer-drinking trade

 

And since we were in Father Steven’s apartment, the next thing I knew, I was drinking with a couple of priests, passing the long straws back and forth so we could guzzle our respective shares of the beer. We chatted about Uganda, and Tanzania, the priests’ lives in America, and the various parishes they’d led over the years. Principal Cathy started talking about some of the antisocial behavior by her students at the school, and she and the priests started brainstorming ways to improve the moral strength of the children in their schools and their parish.

I wobbled in my chair a little, admiring my companions: even on a Saturday night, they were plotting ways to make their community a better place.

and I was plotting a very mild hangover — with a proper Ugandan clay pot this time

 

And at some point, I excused myself – after all, it was late on a Saturday night, and I had a funny feeling that the priests had some work to do the next morning.

 

Endless thanks to all of the amazing Ugandans (and honorary Ugandans — you know who you are!) who made this an incredibly memorable evening: James, Brian, Proscovia, Father Steven, Father Charles, Cathy, and Michael, among countless others. You all know how to make an American boy fall in love with your country — even if he’s never set foot there.

 

#154 Turkmenistan: melons!

 

I can’t claim to know much about Turkmenistan, but here’s one thing that makes me love the country immediately: Turkmenistan officially celebrates National Melon Day on the second Sunday of August. It’s actually a major national holiday, sanctioned by the government.

You might think that this is some sort of political slogan, but in Turkmenistan, it’s actually somewhat true: there’s a melon on every table. At every meal. Including this one:

Yeah, I think I’m about to love Ashgabat, too

 

I’m a little bit obsessed with melons, apparently — even when I’m asleep. After gaining 20 pounds (I’ve eaten food from more than 150 countries, cut me some slack!), I briefly went on a low-carb diet – and dreamed of melons several nights in a row. I am not making this up. (And no, it’s not a metaphor, either.)

But as much as I love melons, I get even more excited about a fantastic conversation with a warm Turkmen family – especially if it involves a home-cooked meal.

Can you spot the non-Turkmen in this picture? (photo by Andrew Guidone)

 

When I arrived at the home of the Notomelette family on a beautiful Saturday afternoon – accompanied by a wonderful filmmaker from NYC Media – our hosts were ready for us: the dining room table was already covered with homemade dough, the precursors to some homemade beef and pumpkin manti:

manti in the making

 

Our gracious Turkmen hosts — Tylla, Serdar, and their son, Dovlet — then demonstrated the entire process of making the manti. A video version is hopefully on its way to a television near you, but here’s the pictorial version:

photo by Andrew Guidone

 

And yes, the manti were every bit as amazing as they look. You really can’t beat fresh, hand-sized beef-and-pumpkin dumplings, straight out of the steamer — especially when they’re topped with a little bit of melted sour cream, and served with a pair of traditional Turkmen salads. Our meal featured a classic shepherd’s salad, and a garlicky beet salad with sour cream:

photo by Andrew Guidone

 

And the Notomelettes were just getting warmed up. They also prepared plov, another thoroughly lovable Turkmen staple, featuring blissfully chewy steamed rice, cooked with beef, carrots, onions, and a whole bulb of garlic to give the dish some extra flavor:

photo by Andrew Guidone

 

The Notomelettes also explained that no Turkmen meal is complete without a nice loaf of chorek — a round bread made in a clay oven, called a tamder. You might notice the resemblance to a few other Central Asian breads: lepeshka, widely featured in Bukharian Jewish restaurants in NYC, or Armenian choreg – which is shaped similarly, but tastes more like a lightly sweetened coffee cake.

Anyway, this chorek came straight from the motherland itself, brought back from Tylla’s recent trip home to Turkmenistan. The Notomelettes insisted that the chorek is better when it’s fresh, but it was still awfully tasty, with a distinctively crispy exterior and a nice, soft interior.

 

And of course, a plate of fresh melon was lurking during the entire meal, patiently waiting its turn behind the plov:

photo by Andrew Guidone

 

By the time we munched our way through the melon and snapped a few more photos, we’d been in the Notomelettes’ home for about five hours — which gave us time to learn TONS about Turkmenistan and the nation’s culinary culture. A quick sampling of my favorite tidbits:

  • According to legend, Turkmens kept their boots shiny by eating roasted lamb with their hands – and then wiping their fat-smeared fingers on their leather boots to give them a nice, supple sheen.
  • Testosterone poisoning is a real thing. Manti and plov are often made with lamb in Turkmenistan, but when the Notomelettes arrived in the U.S., they felt that the lamb tasted worse than back home – but inconsistently so, maybe half of the time. Apparently, the bad-tasting meat comes from un-castrated male lambs. So this is no surprise to any woman who’s ever dated me, but testosterone can apparently be a very, very bad thing.
  • In their years in the U.S., the Notomelettes have tried literally dozens of varieties of rice, but none of them have the same chewy, sticky consistency of the rice back home in Turkmenistan. Interestingly, the same is true of carrots: the American varieties taste more or less the same as the ones back home, but the Notomelettes noticed that cooked American carrots fall apart much faster than their Turkmen counterparts — and they’ve tried dozens of varieties in their plov since arriving in NYC.

And in case you’re wondering how, exactly, I weaseled my way into a meal at the Notomelettes’ home, here’s the story: through the internet grapevine, I heard about a Baruch graduate student named Dovlet who had produced video of people saying “Happy New Year from New York!” in 100 different languages. His follow-ups have included videos of 100 people saying “I love you” and explaining what they’re thankful for in 100 different languages. And, well, New York dudes with quixotic international quests need to stick together.

So if you see this guy, talk to him in whatever language you speak – and good things will probably happen.

Well, my language is food — thank you for asking!

 

Huge thanks to Dovlet Notomelette and his parents, Tylla and Serdar, for graciously inviting us into their home and allowing us to film them until they wanted to toss us out the window. Huge thanks also to the always-wonderful Andrew Guidone for providing much better camera work than I could ever dream of. 

Join us for Four Corners of Africa Lunch, March 11

Want to munch dishes from five African countries, while helping a mother who just lost her only child? Then come join us for an epic African lunch on March 11!

Here’s the story: I met Aline, an immigrant from the Central African Republic, when she took an entire day off from work to prepare a home-cooked meal for an American food blogger she’d never met (me) and 20 of our friends. It was an unbelievably kind thing for her to do — especially since I’m not sure that she could easily afford to take a day off from her job as a home health aide.

A week or so later, Aline’s only daughter died back in CAR. Obviously, we can’t do much to ease that sort of pain, but I know that paying for the last-second plane ticket and funeral really stung. (Unfortunately, home health aides aren’t terribly well-paid.)

To make things worse, Aline lost her job soon after returning from the trip. So she’s in rough shape, both financially and emotionally.

Aline, graciously feeding a group of strangers; photo by Andrew Guidone

 

So were trying to raise $2000 to help cover her travel expenses back to CAR for the funeral. It’s the least we can do to repay her generosity toward us, and let her know that she has some love and support here in NYC. Our plan is to surprise her with the funds — and a long list of the donors — at the lunch on March 11.

We’ll happily accept donations to the memorial fund here, or come join us for an informal African buffet lunch — prepared by Chef Grace Acheampong — featuring dishes from five countries, including…

South African peri peri chicken:

Kenyan sukuma wiki (stewed greens; we’ll offer one vegetarian version, and one with chicken):

Tanzanian beef pilau:

Ghanaian kelewele (spicy plantains with roasted peanuts):

Nigerian moi-moi (spiced black-eyed pea cakes):

 

And here are the details:

 

Four Corners of Africa Fundraiser for Aline
Featuring Chef Grace Acheampong
Saturday, March 11
12:00-3:00
Trinity Lutheran Church
164 W. 100th Street, Manhattan
Purchase tickets here
or donate here

 

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me personally: Charles Bibilos, unitednationsoffood@gmail.com.

 

#153 Central African Republic: bring on the home-cooked grub(s)

 

Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, I ate four plates of caterpillars. Yes, I very much enjoyed them. And caterpillars contain four times as much protein per ounce as unadorned chicken breasts, so I could even make horrible puns about eating healthy grub(s).

Hey, stop squirming! I mean you — not the caterpillars.

 

Now you might be wondering: how, exactly, does an American end up eating home-cooked caterpillars, imported from the Central African Republic?

Well… I was at a Super Bowl party a year ago, watching my beloved Denver Broncos kick some butt, and I started talking about food. (Surprise!) Suddenly, some American guy I had never met stood up, and said that he knows some guy, and that guy knows a guy from Central African Republic (CAR).

A few months later, I finally managed to meet that guy from CAR – a fascinating fellow named Erick.

Erick has done all sorts of incredible things in his life. He works as a Sangho-French-English translator, runs a small import-export business, and did some incredible charitable work back in CAR. He has lived and traveled all over his home country, and knows more about CAR’s regional languages, cultures, and culinary traditions than anybody you could possibly meet.

Erick graciously arranged a one-night culinary tour of CAR, prepared by a wonderful woman named Aline. Aline is Erick’s cousin, but they met only after Erick arrived in the U.S. six years ago. Nevertheless, Aline agreed to prepare food for 20 non-Central African strangers in Queens, including my favorite TV producer, the creator of an African educational platform called WeDream Africa, a classical violinist gone wrong, and an outstanding Croatian vocalist.

from left: Brian from We Dream Africa, Aline, and Erick

 

This struck me as an unbelievably generous thing for Aline to do. She’d never met any of us, and she took an entire day off from her job as a home health aide in New Jersey, just to cook for us in Queens. Amazing.

Aline’s cooking, of course, was just as amazing. Even if the picture of this one might make you squirm: yabanda, made from caterpillars, stewed in finely diced vine leaves (called koko in Sangho, gnetum in French), onions, and a scotch bonnet pepper…

 

If you’re thinking “ewwwwwww!”… well, you might be wrong. If I blindfolded you, fed you a spoonful of yabanda, and told you that you were eating some sort of delicious fried mushroom cooked in tasty greens, you’d probably believe me. The texture reminds me a bit of fried tofu – reasonably firm, and somewhat chewy – but with a slightly nutty flavor.

Incidentally, the CAR government conducted a marketing campaign to encourage residents to grind up the caterpillars and add them to baby food, since they’re such a great source of protein and other nutrients. Seriously: as far as I can tell, these little buggers are better for you than anything you can buy at Whole Foods.

Plus, what’s more fun than watching an American dude eat a bug?

 

Aline also brought a second type of caterpillar from CAR, but this batch had been smoked and stewed in onions, giving it a richer flavor. Again, if I told you that you were eating some sort of smoked mushroom – or a mushroom cooked with a tiny bit of smoked fish – you probably would have believed me. Well, with your eyes closed, anyway.

 

And just so you stop squirming: Aline’s cooking prowess went far beyond caterpillars. She also prepared a wonderful dish called kpokpongo, featuring gboudou leaves — which grow only in Central Africa — stewed with stockfish, onion, vegetable oil, and yellow peppers:

 

And since Central African Republic is located in the heart of Africa, our culinary tour also featured a full variety of starchy staples that you might see elsewhere on the continent, including rice, white cornmeal porridge (similar to Malawian nsima or Zimbabwean sadza), fried plantains, and steamed yucca:

photos by Andrew Guidone

 

But Aline wasn’t done. She also made an absolutely outstanding platter of broiled chicken, marinated in parsley, garlic, ginger, white and black pepper, and mustard. And there was a fantastic Yakoma dish called ngunza na gnama, featuring beef and cassava leaves, stewed in a peanut sauce.

So yes, Aline prepared five main dishes and four side dishes — for a group of complete strangers. She even made some amazing homemade hot sauce, featuring scotch bonnet peppers. Epic.

 

I could go on and on about everything we learned about CAR culture and cuisine from Erick and Aline. Erick regaled us with stories of his travels through the nation, and tales of legendary Central African hospitality. Your car breaks down on the roadside? Don’t worry, help is coming — probably along with an invitation to dinner.

So I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that Erick and Aline went so far out of their way for a herd of strangers, but it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the world when you spend a day with these two.

Aline, making us all feel optimistic about the world; photo by Andrew Guidone

 

This story has an unfortunate epilogue, though. Just a week after our meal, Aline’s only daughter – age 11 – passed away in the Central African Republic. Like many immigrants, Aline was scraping by in a low-paid job as a home health aide, and she sent what she could home to support her daughter. But she hadn’t actually seen her daughter in a few years. I can’t even imagine how awful that is.

Aline, of course, was generous enough to take a day off from work to cook for us, and as a tiny gesture, I’d love to return the favor and help her. After all, she had to buy a plane ticket to CAR on super-short notice, and take a couple of weeks off from work.

And to make things worse, she lost her job soon after returning from the trip — so she’s in rough shape, emotionally and financially.

So we’re hoping to raise $2000 to cover her travel costs for the funeral. I know that it won’t do much to ease the pain of losing her only child, but I just want to be able to say that we’re here for her. If you’d like to contribute, please visit the gofundme page we’ve set up in her honor.

Or… would you prefer to munch an African lunch in exchange for your donation? Maybe, like, an African lunch featuring dishes from four different countries? Then please join us at…

 

Four Corners of Africa Fundraiser for Aline
Featuring Chef Grace Acheampong
Saturday, March 11
12:00-3:00
Trinity Lutheran Church
164 W. 100th Street, Manhattan
Purchase tickets here
or donate here

 

And if a Saturday African lunch isn’t your cup of tea either, see if you can track down some caterpillars. Trust me, they’re tastier than you think.

Click here to donate, or click here to join us for an African lunch on March 11