Well, if you were on a CultureQuest team a couple of months ago, you
were faced with the task of identifying the countries along the
southern coast of West Africa. There are lots of little countries, many
of which have changed names in recent years. One of those countries is
Benin, formerly known as Dahomey. I know we named Benin, but I'm pretty
sure we put it in the wrong place.
(By the way, if you've never been on a CultureQuest team, it's great
fun. Even if you don't get a lot of questions right, it's almost worth
it just for the rush for reference materials after it's over and the
test is sealed. For hours, and sometimes days, afterwards, you and your
teammates thumb through books, surf the net, and try to name the arms
of the Milky Way or remember the ending of a line of Browning verse.)
Back to Benin. Officially the République du Bénin, this
small wedge of West Africa has had many names and lots of governments.
Some of Africa's greatest empires grew up in, or washed over, this
region, including the kingdoms of Allada, Whydah, Abomey, Bariba,
Porto-Novo (for whom the capital city is named), and Dahomey (from whom
the country got its previous name). It was the Dahomeyan kingdom that
was renowned for its Amazon warriors, an elite corps of women soldiers
who served as royal bodyguards when not actually in combat.
The great Benin kingdom, famous for its bronzes, was earlier than the
Dahomeyans, and though it probably controlled this area at one point,
the country actually gets its name only indirectly from the kingdom.
The Benin dynasty, whose descendants still occupy the throne in
Nigeria's Benin City, gave their name to the Bight of Benin, and the
Republic of Benin takes its name from the bight, the waters of which
lap the country's short southern coast/border.
Fairly obviously, both from the country's official name and from the
name of the recipe below, when it came time to colonize this area, the
French moved in. But the French weren't the first Europeans in the
area, just the first who wanted to settle down. The first European
arrivals were the Portuguese, and they came for slaves.
People from nearly every tribe in West Africa passed through the
coastal town of Ouidah. However, this entire coast was the scene of
such trading and most of the wealth of the Dahomey empire was built on
the slave trade. The Dahomey empire was organized for war and capturing
slaves, and any slaves they didn't need they sold to Europeans. One
Dahomeyan king even decided that they should reduce the number of human
sacrifices because it cut into the slave trade.
The Portuguese were buying long after most other European countries
had banned slavery, and it was British interference and French
settlement that finally put an end to the slaving days of the
Dahomeyans. (Though not to the end of slaving in Africa,
alas—northern Arabs still make frequent runs to the south to
Other than slaves, the most significant early export of this country
was something that is still very much a part of life there—the
animist practices known as vodu in Benin, but more familiar to
us as voodoo. (However, though travel pages on Benin are quick to cash
in on the cachet of slaves and voodoo, they also underscore the fact
that they have a lot more to offer.)
After gaining independence from France in 1960, Benin went through a
Marxist phase, then decided a constitution would work better. In 1990,
they held a national convention, drafted a new constitution, and became
a republic. Today, Benin is considered one of the most progressive of
the sub-Saharan nations, promoting education and aiming for greater
equality of the sexes, though the country is not without its problems
(high unemployment, bloated bureaucracy, poverty, tribal rivalries).
One way Benin hopes to increase its job base is through tourism.
Visitors are urged to visit sites of the ancient kingdoms, such as the
ruins of the Dahomey royal palace at Abomey, or to enjoy the charm of
fishing villages on stilts or the pleasures of its French-influenced
restaurants in Cotonou. French is the official language, so you'll want
to brush up on your français si vous voudriez visiter cette
république. Most of the locals, however, speak Fon, Mina,
Yoruba, or Dendi, if that helps you.
Agriculture, cattle-raising, and fishing are important sources of
income for Benin, and all are reflected in this dish.
Boeuf et Crevettes avec des Epinards
(Beef and Shrimp with Spinach)
1 lb. lean, boneless stew beef, cut in 1-inch cubes
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 10-oz. packages frozen, chopped spinach
3 Tbs. olive oil
6 average-size plum tomatoes
½ pound uncooked shrimp, shelled and deveined
½ tsp. dried thyme
Place meat, salt, garlic, and half of the chopped
onion in a 3-quart saucepan. Cover with water (about 3½ to 4
cups), bring to a boil. Skim if scummy. Add pepper, reduce heat, cover
and simmer for two hours.
Cook frozen spinach according to package directions, then drain very
well. Heat oil in a 12-inch skillet and cook remaining half of the
chopped onion plus the tomatoes until the onions are transparent. Add
shrimp and thyme to the onion/tomato mixture and simmer for 10 minutes,
Add the cooked beef with its liquid and the drained spinach to the
shrimp mixture. Simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and
adjust seasoning. Serve with cooked rice.
If you have regular tomatoes, use 4, but seed them to
keep this from getting soupy. (Plum tomatoes contain less liquid.) One
variation of this dish adds a dash or two of crushed, red pepper when
cooking the tomatoes and onions—adds a little zip. Also, I've
made it with 1½ pounds of beef and skipped the shrimp—not
as authentic, but it is cheaper. Finally, if you really like the taste
of spinach and/or simply hate to throw out phytonutrients, when you
drain the spinach, do it into a container, then enjoy the yummy,
nutrient-dense spinach juice while you wait for the rest of the stew to
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