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Cheap Eats:
Boeuf et Crevettes avec des Epinards
 (Beef and Shrimp with Spinach)

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 capture slaves.)

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

water

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, stirring occasionally.

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.

Serves 6.


Notes:

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 simmer.

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