Thursday, May 8, 2008

Chieboujen: Neen's work in progress

[I'm a day or so late in getting this post up because, much to my surprise, I found it really hard to write. I've written about my relationship with Africa so many times for scholarship/admission essays that it feels like the story and the feelings are no longer mine. Like they belong on my business card or to some University admissions office. Not that it helps that these events took place 10 years ago, and my identity has grown and been shaped by much since then. This all required some unforeseen processing. Anyways. Sorry for being late.]

When I was six, my family moved to Senegal; when I was nine, we moved to Gabon. With a little luck and a little bribery, my folks got my brother and me into excellent local public schools where we were the only Americans amidst lots of little French expats and upper-middle class Senegalese or Gabonese. Needless to say, with no English outside the home, we went from no knowledge of French to bilingual in about 5 days flat. Kids are amazing like that.

I have come to realize that the expat experience for a kid is entirely different from that of an adult. As as child, I had barely an inkling that Senegal was undergoing an important Presidential election, that Zaire was imploding right next door, or that scary-ass forms F.G.M. were taking place in the empty lot around the corner. I was completely oblivious to socio-political history: I couldn't yet differentiate between the 'normal' and the 'abnormal' because 'norms' changed every time we moved. Even poverty. My 7 year old self saw the beggars, the lepers, the villages to which we donated our old clothing... but was completely oblivious to the magnitude of the poverty or the gross inequality among classes (well, okay, when I was 11 even I was grossed out by the fact that there was a swamp shantytown directly across the street from the gleaming, mile-long Gabonese presidential compound). If anything, America was weird with its clean, empty suburban roads and its gratuitously huge cinemas. Squeaky clean. Kinda creepy.

Then my family left Africa when I was 12 and I didn't return until two summers ago, when I got funding to do my B.A. thesis research in Mali. It was a pretty intense summer. My first extended period of time away from Do, the aid project that I was studying turned out to be a glorious, expensive fiasco, and here I was, an adult, submerged in a culture that I had happily navigated with ease as a kid. Like I said, intense. In that soul-searching, God-searching, priority-rethinking kind of way. [Okay, this post now officially gets this 'Existential Ruminations' label.]

Just before I was to leave Mali, my host father (who turned out to be my father's baptismal godfather from back in their Peace Corps days...small world...) arranged to serve Chiebujen at a large party. This was a lovely, personal goodbye gesture: Chiebujen (pronounced Cheboojen) is the Senegalese national dish. It's a very hearty fish and vegetable stew served over rice or couscous. Imagine if you will, a platter the size of your coffee table, piled high with rice/couscous, with fist-size hunks of fish, cabbage, yam, carrots, okra etc, and 10 or so people squatting around eating with their hands. It was so delicious. Addictive. Particularly so because I had far away memories of these flavor combinations. Even as my adult head was feeling seriously alienated by a culture that I thought would be familiar, Chebujen felt like home to my taste buds.

So I'm going to recreate it. Given that I'm working with American ingredients and very vague childhood memories, this is probably going to take numerous permutations. Please, anyone in the blogosphere, your suggestions are more than welcome (I'm particularly looking at YOU, Mom and Dad).

For Monday night's take on Chebujen, I combined a Nytimes Thebu Djen recipe and a Thieboudienne recipe that Chicago's Field Museum distributed during an exhibit on Senegal in 2004. The process of combining two fairly complicated recipes on the fly, all the while comparing the flavors to the echoes somewhere in the recesses of my memory, hard. Especially because, when I did get the flavors right, they provoked emotional flashbacks like no other. You know how the senses provoke more emotional recollections than words do? Songs, taste, places, pictures? yeeeah.

Monday night's Chiebujen was no where near perfect, but it was definitely heading in the right direction. The recipe below is exactly what I did, errors and all, and the italics are what I'm going to change next time. In general:

- It needs to be exponentially hotter. Scotch Bonnet peppers, here we come.
- I need to use whole (cleaned) fish. And more of it. This fish cube idea is for toubabs (West African for gringo).
- I need to track down dried snail or a more authentic version of dried fish than Herring. Herring?! WTF?
- No homemade or tinned chicken broth. Bouillon cubes all the way. Wish I could find the Maggi brand.

I need to track down an African market; my folks suggest that there may be one near Adams Morgan.

Neen's first take on Chiebu Djen
(Ideas for next time in Italics)
Serves 6-8.

3/4 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves
4 scallions (white and lower green parts), trimmed
4 cloves garlic, peeled (I'd increase)
4 Serrano chilies. (Oh my gosh, this needs to be upped. Either increase by 150% for starters, or go to scotch bonnet peppers)
1 lb firm fleshed fish fillets, such as tuna, shark or swordfish, cut into 1/2" pieces (yeah, the whole cubes of fish is so toubab. And there wasn't nearly enough fish flavor. Next time: 2 whole red snappers (3-4lbs total), cleaned, scaled, and cut into thirds)
3 onions
2 garlic cloves
1 red bell pepper (Umm, check if this is a Toubab addition)
1.5 oz dried fish (I could only find dried herring, talk about not authentic! Next time, go to an African market and try to find yete (dried snail) or guedge (dried fish), or at worst dried cod. And double the quantity.)
1.5 cups peanut oil (we're deep frying? Really? Check out other recipes)
1 can (6oz) tomato paste (Halve the quantity of tomato paste and water)
4 large carrots
1 small green cabbage
1 sweet potato (standing in for yucca or yam, try to find one of those. Oh and add 0.5 lbs calabaza or butternut squash)
4 cups chicken broth (Make it using bouillon cubes, preferably Maggi)
Chicken bouillon cube (Shouldn't need this if follow above instructions)
12 Okra pods.
12 1/4" pieces of tamarind
3 cups rice (For God's Sake, try to find some long grained variety that isn't Jasmine rice.)
  1. In the food processor, mince cilantro, scallions, 4 garlic cloves, and 1 stemmed Serrano chili.
  2. Create a pocket in the fish by slicing horizontally through the center of each piece, leaving one side attached. Fill the opening with about one teaspoon of the cilantro mixture. Pack the fish in a bowl, cover with any remaining cilantro mixture, and fridge until needed.
  3. Prep work time! Assemble in one bowl 3 chilies (stemmed, split in half), 3 onions (chopped), garlic cloves (minced), bell pepper (diced), and dried fish.
  4. Pour peanut oil into 2 gallon dutch oven over high heat until a piece of onion dropped into it sizzles vigorously. Add your prepped veggies from Item 3, stir occasionally until onions begin to brown (10min). In the meantime, in a medium bowl (or your now empty veggie prep bowl!), whisk tomato paste with 1 cup water. When the onions are just beginning to brown, add diluted tomato paste. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally to keep from scorching, 15 min.
  5. In the meantime, turn oven to warm setting (200 degrees). Prep carrots (cut into six pieces) and sweet potato (peeled, cut into six pieces), set aside, and prep the cabbage (cored, cut into six pieces), set aside. When the stew is ready, add chicken broth with 3 cups of water and a Chicken bouillon cube to the stew pot. Turn heat to high and return to a simmer. Add the carrots and sweet potato and simmer for 5 min. Add the cabbage and okra, cover and simmer for 15 min. Add the stuffed fish and cook 5 minutes more or until the fish is cooked through and the vegetables are fork-tender.
  6. Using tongs, carefully transfer the vegetables and fish from the stew to a platter, cover with aluminum foil and place in warm oven. Bring the remaining stew to a boil, add tamarind. Add rice, reduce heat to low and cook until tender and all the broth has been absorbed. (10-20min). (I had to add a little extra water).
  7. On a wide communal platter, spoon a portion of rice, mounding it in the center. Add veggies and fish around the sides. Serve Immediately.


Krysta said...

What a great post! I love that you have posted something completely new to me. I love learning about different cultures and foods. I'm also jealous at the fact you have lived in Africa.

Michael said...

This takes me back, as well, daughter! A couple of notes: the Senegalese always cook with 'broken rice,' a legacy from colonial times. The French imported the lowest quality rice from their Indochinese colonies, broken grains that dissolved easily, producing a gummy mass that soaks up the flavors -- perhaps like some of the short grain Asian rices. Both the red bell pepper and the cilantro look to me like suspect 'toubab' additions. ('Toubab' probably came from French slang for 'doctor' -- 'toubib.') I don't recall cilantro/Chinese parsley in West African markets. But maybe your mom can correct me on that. And, finally, terrific picture of the happy African women!

melissa said...

definitely something totally new to me as well. what a wonderful post.

there can never be enough fish. or pepper. mmmm scotch bonnets. :P I can't say I'll try anything like this in the near future, but one day. it opens up a whole new avenue.

and neen, I relinked that sandwich post. thanks for stopping by. :)

DDFI said...

There's an Ethiopian grocery and a Sudanese grocery both on 18th St about a block away from each other. I think they're around the intersection of 18th and California. We can go together -- I live right near there. :)

- Ariana

noble pig said...

What a wonderful story this is. I hope you are able to perfect the flavor from your childhood.

That Girl said...

That is such a cool experience! I definitely want to visit all over Africa some day!

Vicarious Foodie said...

Hi there--I wanted to respond to the comment you left me about Shenandoah. We've been there before as well and have also gone to Barboursville--you're right, it's one of the best! We like Veramar, too. I hope you have a wonderful time--I'm sure you will. Let's hope that the rain lets up!

Vicarious Foodie said...

Oh my God--you have to be kidding me--the Joshua Wilton House is where I'm staying!! We have a room there for the weekend and reservations for dinner tomorrow night. I haven't been there before, but I'm very excited now after getting your positive recommendation.

giz said...

Very cool experiencing a culture and an environment both as a child with a hiatus and then again as an adult. Two different sets of eyes and sensibilities. Your interpretation of the national dish is a great tribute to your respect for the people, the culture, the country. Good on you.

Ann said...

What a wonderful story! I will be checking back often for that day when you post that you've gotten chieboujen "just right". it sounds like a fabulous dish.

Katie said...

Wow, that looks sooooo good! That's awesome you got to live in Africa and experience the culture, and YUMMY food!!

White On Rice Couple said...

What an amazing childhood you had, something I wish to experience someday as an adult. I've always felt a connection to Africa and tried desperately to join a research project to Kenya with one of my college professors. Unfortunately things happened that kept me from joining and I regret it till this very day! Still, I dream of going there one day before my teeth fall out so that I can savor some of the local foods.

Congrats on finally getting back there. What an awesome experience to return to something that you knew as child. It must have been profound for you to see it from an Adults perspective so many years later. Thanks for sharing your story and your delicious dish!

Psychgrad said...

Very interesting to read a bit about your childhood. I've been noticing/thinking lately about how our experiences during childhood lie dormant and suddenly pop up as fairly well-developed competencies when the context is right.

You said, regarding your aid project, that when you returned to Mali you were "submerged in a culture that I had happily navigated with ease as a kid". Did the ability to navigate the culture with ease come back you after a bit of time there?

I'm a bit jealous of the opportunity you had to learn French as a child. I've been trying to learn French for the past 6-7 years and will never be great at it. I feel like I'm doomed to be mediocre at anything new I try to take up "later in life". Peut-être c'est la vie.

Maybe cooking is process-oriented enough to be an skill that people can learn later in life and actually be very good at.

Chebujen sounds like quite the undertaking. Very neat to read about such an unfamiliar dish. (I can just imagine Do with the bottle of Scotch Bonnet saying, "let's add some more")

Emiline said...

Wow! You have had an interesting life. I think the dish sounds delicious. I love yams and okra.

katiez said...

What an interesting start to your life!
My neighbor, here in France, is from Gabon....
Your dish sounds lovely - but not for me... my eyes water and mouth burns just saying Scotch Bonnet!

Johanna said...

lovely evocative post - food is so bound up with so many emotions and memories isn't it! your life sounds so interesting - and I think your cooking reflects this!

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Moxie said...

Hey if you're still looking for help on this recipe, I wrote one down while I was in Senegal last year. Asked a friend to teach me how to make it, so I followed along while she made it. Some of the measurements are approximate, or strange (aka, a 25cfa bag of tomato paste) but I've got all the ingredients/processes written down if you're interested.

I've yet to have time to try and recreate it though. Someday. thie bou djen. how I miss you. and mafé.