Location: West Africa
Population: 13.8 million
Geography: A nation of savannah yielding to a southern coastal plain on the Atlantic
Language: French, Fon
Signature flavours: Cassava, yam, corn, rice, tomato, crab, beans, hot peppers
At first, finding Beninese recipes was challenging, until I remembered to consult the wonderful Africa Cookbook, which has provided countless recipes. The author has friends in Benin, so despite the country’s small size and limited culinary reputation, several recipes were featured. I created my menu entirely from these.
Eba: A stiff paste made from cassava meal, eaten pinch by pinch with soups and stews.
Prep and cooking time: 10 min
Crabe Beninoise: Crab meat, tomato, scallion, and spices topped with breadcrumbs and baked until golden brown.
Prep and cooking time: 45 min
Sauce Gombo: In Benin, a “sauce” is a stew. This one was very simple, made with tomato, okra, and a single hot pepper.
Prep and cooking time: 15 min
West African Hot Sauce: Hot peppers, onion, and tomato paste — simple and delicious, with a kick.
Prep and cooking time: 20 min
Corossol: A refreshing drink made with soursop, milk, and sugar.
Prep and cooking time: 5 min (plus recommended overnight chilling)
The Shopping List
I worried about being able to find soursop in our very tiny village, and indeed, I ended up getting it at an African/Caribbean grocery in a slightly larger town well over an hour away. It was frozen soursop nectar, not the fresh fruit, but I made it work. Cassava meal, another ingredient I thought would be trouble to find, surprisingly turned up in my local supermarket, as did the rest of my ingredients. The palm oil, used for the eba, I already had on hand from a past assignment from the same part of the world.
I whipped up my Beninese feast in under an hour and a half, which has got to be a new record. None of the recipes gave me too much trouble, and I even had time to clean as I cooked, which is always a nice change to the explosion-in-the-kitchen scene that acts as the backdrop for many of our other assignments.
Eric and I sat down at the table to a simple meal quite typical of the region. We started by sipping our corossol, which got us off on a good note. If you haven’t had soursop, you should try it as soon as possible. It is uniquely creamy with a tart, sweet berry-ness. With the milky base, the beverage was even more creamy and decadent.
The crabe Beninoise is an example of a colonial legacy that combines Beninese ingredients with French cooking techniques. The dish included parsley picked from my herb garden during a snowstorm — probably the last harvest of the year. It was a tasty dish, made even tastier by the West African hot sauce, which I put on everything.
The eba, like its sticky cousins, pap, ugali, and nshima, was the perfect vehicle for scooping hot sauce and stew. It was stickier and starchier than other versions of the dish that we’ve made, perhaps owing to the cassava itself.
The gombo was extremely simple, just water, tomato, and okra, with a single hot pepper pierced with a fork. The result was a very basic stew with just the flavours of the vegetables coming through. (I ate it with copious amounts of hot sauce.)
Disclaimer: I’m not a professional chef. I’m just a passionate cook with a curiosity for flavours I’ve never tried. For great recipes from gifted local cooks, follow the links above.