In the last decade or so, Winnipeg has welcomed people from many African countries. These people bring with them exotic and delicious foods. A recent visit to Dino's international grocery store on Notre Dame turned up fascinating African products all over the store.
Manager Rajan Varma and owner Dino Tailor helped me find African favourites, like non-alcohol drink Vita Malt Classic, African Delight Shito Sauce (now made locally for the African crowd, it's a kind of fish chutney).
Then there's Nigerian Whole Ogbono, which is the dried and ground seed of the African mango tree, used as a tasty thickener for soups.
Egusi, melon seeds from Ghana, are popular and Hausa Kooko millet porridge (with ginger and African spices) also looked very intriguing.
Burundi coffee, one of the best coffees in the world, and Kenya Blend strong tea are tucked around a corner as you enter the bulk foods section.
Bins of spices, legumes, bags of flower, and other bulk foods tantalize the nose everywhere you walk in the crowded grocery mart, which serves multi-cultural Winnipeg.
Here's a hot shopping tip: Foods are grouped by type, not by country.
VERBAL AND FLEXIBLE AFRICAN RECIPES FOR A WEEKEND OF DELICIOUS EATING
So how could you do an African weekend of tasty foods for your family? There are so many countries and foods to choose from, it makes sense to try favourites from a variety of countries.
Check out these exciting dishes from Congo, Sierra Leone, Burundi, plus an easy-peasy pan-African side dish called fufu, eaten with soups and stews in many countries and a yummy cross-cultural banana dessert.
On a mission to find real African recipes and foods, I hiked off to Dino's grocery market on Notre Dame. The manager, Varma, said I'd be unlikely to get recipes with rigid measurements like we use in Canada, but he would introduce me to women in the aisles.
Before I said hello to them, he warned me not to expect a set breakfast, lunch and dinner. "Many of our customers are coming from a country where there has been war and you didn't eat three meals a day," he said kindly. "You used what you had that day to cook."
A group of women from Congo soon took me in hand, teaching me how to cook a flexible and expanding lunch and dinner for a day. First, they led me over to the produce department and showed me collard greens, dasheen, and other leafy green vegetables. "Cook one of these -- or whatever you have," smiled one woman. I was beginning to get the idea -- look at the food group, don't fixate on one particular type.
"First, you cut the leaves up -- chop, chop, chop," she showed with her hand, indicating fine bits. If you use the stems, you peel them so they're nice and green.
Next? Start a pan with chopped up tomato and onions and oil. "When that's almost ready add the greens and cook the tender leaves for only 10 minutes." Voices from the group suggested serving it "with rice," "mashed potato would be good" and "maybe black-eyed peas." That dish would make a nice lunch. But, if you had a fish, you could expand it and make a bigger meal (like dinner).
Then a lovely woman pulled a smoked catfish out of the frozen foods, saying: "You cook this with a small amount of oil and some water, the pan covered." I look at the fish doubtfully. "Add ground peanuts to the pan!" sang out a shorter woman, peeking over her shoulder. Murmurs all around. "MMmm . . . good idea!" You serve with rice, or plantain boiled for 10 minutes. Or try a big wedge of pumpkin if you have that, and boil it for 15 minutes. With the fried greens in tomato and onion, plus the nutty fish dish, we have a tasty full dinner.
"But how about dessert, something sweet?" I ask. The group looked puzzled. Sugary stuff isn't big in Congo. "Maybe some fruit," the short lady suggested, looking amused. "Like a banana."
AKARA PANCAKES AND GRAVY
The verbal recipe for this sweet and savoury dish came from Frances Fosonah from Sierra Leone over the phone, after calling her from the back room at Dino's where they do food ordering. Originally it contained no measurements but Fosonah figured some out for me, the hesitant African-food beginner chef. These are her best instructions:
"Buy eight very soft bananas to feed a family of six. Blend three cups of rice flour and mix in one cup brown sugar, 1/2 tsp baking soda, and one level tsp. baking powder, with a pinch of salt. Use some lukewarm water to get the mixture to the consistency of cake batter. Cover with cloth about one hour to rise. Then take an ice cream scoop or use your hands to make balls that size out of it, and fry to brown."
For the gravy cut up onions and peppers and carmelize them in oil, so they're sweet. Mash up one can salmon and one tsp tomato paste and salt to taste and spread on top.
"Serve hot or cold," says Fosonah. "It's good with any fruit juice drink, or ginger beer."
AFRICAN SUGAR & SPICE BANANAS
Still jonesing for a totally sweet dessert? Yours truly finally found an African banana dessert made, with variations, in different African countries.
Melt 1 tbsp. butter with 2 tbsp brown sugar and 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon, and blend well. Cut bananas in long halves and, put them cut side down (one half per person) in a pan. Cover with 1/2 cup orange juice mixed with one tbsp. lemon juice. Sprinkle the sugar and spice mixture over the bananas, and top with shredded coconut. Some people sprinkle nuts on top as well. Bake for 10 minutes at 350 F until the bananas are golden brown. Heavenly!
FUFU TO YOU!
Many African countries enjoy a version of the simple bread/dumpling type food called fufu, which looks like a ball or a big bun, and is gently ripped off, and eaten with a thick soup or stew. In some countries it is considered gauche to chew it -- the fufu should be finer than that, as it's made of fine "cream of wheat flour" often labelled fufu flour.
So get ready! Put one cup of fufu flour in a saucepan and pour boiling water into it, all the while stirring on medium heat with a wooden spoon or spatula, to get a smooth consistency -- not too hard! Cool and mould mixture into big balls, the size of an orange or grapefruit. Put the ball in a bowl with your soup or stew or on a plate besides it. Warning: If you don't get the last of it out of the pot right away, it sticks to the pot like glue and you will have a devil of a time washing it. Don't ask me how I know this.
Burundian Stew/Sauce, for fufu and sauce. Use stewing meat (beef, or whatever you have) simmered for five hours (you heard me) in a big pot. Add mushrooms, chopped tomatoes and tomato paste, onions, garlic, thyme, big green peppers (or any other colour) in a HUGE pot. Put it in the fridge and eat it, here and there, for a week. But, make the fufu fresh every day, like you'd make cereal in a ball.
Culture Tip: Africans differ on food-sharing. For instance, Ethiopians often share food with family and close friends, but people from Burundi like to have their own plates.