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, was...er... 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)
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)
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.)
- In the food processor, mince cilantro, scallions, 4 garlic cloves, and 1 stemmed Serrano chili.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- On a wide communal platter, spoon a portion of rice, mounding it in the center. Add veggies and fish around the sides. Serve Immediately.