Yellow Coconut Rice
Chicago has long been a great town for exploring the cuisines of a wide range of cultures. However, the rate at which potential new food adventures are being added seems to be accelerating, and the culinary options are rapidly spreading into the suburbs, with Niles recently being identified in the Chicago papers as pretty much the ethnic food shopping mecca of the universe. But until recently, there have not been a lot of options for exploring Africa’s varied cuisines.
Ethiopian restaurants were the front-runners. They’ve been here for a couple of decades, starting with Mama D’Esta’s Red Sea, which was the first place I sampled this most excellent cuisine. Numerous Ethiopian places have opened since that first foray, but Mama D’Esta’s is still around. I have also dined at Ras Dashen, and my current favorite is Queen of Sheba Café. (However, the buzz on LTHForum.com, Chicago’s fabulous foodie chat site, is that I need to check out Ethiopian Diamond. So many restaurants, so little time.)
If you want to try Ethiopian food, you can’t go wrong with any of these places. If you haven’t tried this cuisine before, you’re in for a treat. The menus in most Ethiopian restaurants will have good explanations of what dishes contain, but if you want some recommendations, go for the Doro Wat (practically the national dish: chicken slow-cooked in a red pepper sauce), Beg Wat (spicy lamb stew cooked in spiced butter and red pepper sauce), Siga Tibs (small pieces of beef cooked with garlic, onion, black pepper, and herb butter) or Zil Zil Tibs (lamb treated the same way), and Ye Abesha Gomen (collard greens simmered with ginger, garlic, onion, and cardamom). Shimbera Fitfit is also good, but very filling (chickpeas and injera cooked with palm oil, onions, and ginger). And if you’re wondering what injera is, that’s the national bread of Ethiopia, a large, sourdough pancake made from Ethiopian millet. It’s great. It’s also your plate and eating utensil. You tear off pieces of injera and use them to scoop up the food. Yum. (They will give you a fork if you really need one, but it’s fun to get into the spirit of things and dine with your hands.) If you’re at a restaurant with a liquor license, you might want to see if they have Tej, an Ethiopian honey wine. Otherwise, Ethiopian tea, a cinnamon-heavy spiced tea, is also a good choice.
After at least two decades of Ethiopian only, Chicago now has Nigerian, Senegalese, and Ghanaian restaurants. Of the three, Senegalese is probably the most “user friendly” for someone unaccustomed to pushing the envelope. For this, the best spot is Yassa, on the South Side. “Yassa” is the name of the national dish of Senegal, so your best bet is to start with yassa. Chicken yassa is the most traditional. This is a gorgeous, marinated, charcoal-grilled piece of chicken served with a bowl of yassa, a thick, flavorful lemon and onion sauce. Djollof rice, red from the palm oil and loaded with carrots, cassava, and cabbage, is another tasty option, as is the herb-stuffed snapper. But that’s for your main course. For appetizers, try the Nem, a shrimp-and-beef “egg roll” that you wrap in lettuce and dip in hot sauce. Fried plantains make a nice side. For beverages, soft drinks are available, but try the baobab juice, a delicious, rich, slightly fruity juice from the baobab tree, or the zippy, amazing ginger juice.
Nigerian and Ghanaian food have a lot in common, as the countries are close, and both are a bit more challenging, culinarily, than Ethiopian or Senegalese. There are more tastes and textures that are truly foreign. But if you’re adventurous, and you don’t mind quite spicy food (and a few surprises), I think they’re both fun to try. For Nigerian, you can try Bolat; for Ghanaian, Palace Gates. Both cultures use fufu (also spelled “foofoo”) as the basis for most meals. This is a pounded starch, generally made from African yams or cassava, or one of these mixed with plantain. Blobs of this doughy substance are pulled free, flattened between thumb and fingers, and then used to scoop up the soupy stews that are the dominant food form in both countries. This is very messy. Both countries also use a lot of goat, a lot of fish, and a lot of chilies. Roasted gourd or watermelon seeds are a common seasoning, though I don’t prefer the flavor. But there are some wonderful things to eat, even for the faint of heart, especially at Palace Gates.
Palace Gates has the added advantage of being next door to an African grocery store, so if you like the food, you can get the ingredients. Probably the easiest things for newbies to try would be groundnut (peanut) stew (very yummy), spicy kebabs (tough meat but good flavor), “red red” (bean stew with rice and plantains), fried chicken, and fried snapper. Kontomire, greens from the cocoyam (taro) cooked with tomato, onion, and gourd seeds is also quite good, despite my not being a huge fan of gourd seeds. Kenkey (pronounced “ken kay”) is an interesting item. It’s an intensely sour corn “dough” that, like fufu, is used to eat other things. It is almost too sour to eat. But then they brought out this tomato, onion, and garlic sauce, which goes with the kenkey and fried fish, and the kenkey was transformed. The acid in the sauce made kenkey suddenly everyone’s favorite food. Okra stew is also very tasty, if you can get past the texture—it is mucilaginous beyond anything you can imagine. So if you’re looking for extreme food, okra stew might be it.
There’s news on the LTHForum of at least two new East African places opening right about now: African Harambee in the city and Masal Yangu in Naperville. I can hardly wait!
I’ve had a long-standing interest in African cuisines, anchored in my dad’s tales and recipes from his time in North Africa during WWII, encouraged by college friends from Congo, Kenya, and Madagascar, and aided by the release in the early 1970s of The Cookbook of the United Nations and the Africa entry in the Time-Life “Foods of the World,” both of which I have. I’ve acquired several other African cookbooks over the years, and I’ve found, on those occasions when I’ve later gotten to sample a dish at a restaurant, lecture, or friend’s home, that the recipes are generally quite good at duplicating authentic flavors, though each new experience causes me to revisit recipes I already have.
The following recipe is from Tanzania, a country in East Africa where coconut and cloves are major sources of income and Indian influence dates back centuries. Despite containing coconut milk and some traditionally sweet spices, this is not a sweet dish. It is a rich, subtly exotic, savory starch that is good served with chicken or fish (perhaps with a little sliced mango on the side). Enjoy.
Yellow Coconut Rice
2 cups coconut milk
3 cups milk
2 cups rice
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground turmeric
¼ tsp. ground cardamom
¼ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. ground cloves
2 Tbs. butter
Combine the coconut milk and milk in a 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil. Stir in the rice, salt, and spices. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for fifteen minutes. Stir well, bringing up rice from bottom of pot, cover again, and continue to cook for another six minutes. Stir in butter until completely melted and incorporated. Cover and remove from heat. Let sit, covered, for five to ten more minutes, or until all liquid is absorbed.
Do not use “lite” coconut milk. Do not use sweetened coconut milk. Do not use coconut cream. Just get a good quality of regular, unsweetened coconut milk. One can is about ¼ cup shy of the 2 cups needed. You can either make it up with regular milk or simply look forward to having most of a second can of coconut milk available for other uses (that’s my choice, but then I love having coconut milk around—great in a fruit smoothie).