Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Congo, Democratic Republic of the

Former names: Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo/Leopoldville, Congo/Kinshasa, Zaire
Location: Central Africa
Area: Over 2.3 million sq km; 11th largest in the world
         Slightly less than one-fourth the size of the US
Noun: Congolese
Official language: French
Population: Over 71.7 million; 19th largest in the world
Capital: Kinshasa
Literacy: 54.1% for women (2001 estimate)
Drugs: One of Africa's biggest producers of cannabis
Source: CIA Factbook

These next two countries are going to cause me some problems, I promise.  I won't get into all of it here, but basically it is hard to distinguish between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the Republic of the Congo from a cultural and cuisine perspective based on the research I was able to do.  Not saying they are the same, or even as similar as I may think.  But the internet was not very helpful when it came to differentiating recipes.

There was actually a surprising amount of recipes that were labelled as Congolese.  Certainly more than many of the other African countries I have cooked.  However, many of these were very similar to each other or others I have already done.  And, of course, a lot of them used peanuts.  Kevin, you're really cramping my style...

In the end I decided to try Mbika with Meat.  Not only was it from a site called "Congo Cookbook," but I would get to use banana leaves.  I found them in the store immediately after needing them for Cambodia, so I knew exactly where to find them.

Some of the ingredients were pretty obscure, so I decided to start with what I considered my best option.  There is a tiny international store near-ish to our place that I had never been to.  It is hard to get to and they are pretty small, but they had the one characteristic none of the others did.  Their sign said they specialized in African food.  It ended up being a great choice.  The woman behind the counter was very helpful and nice.  She was from West Africa and was enjoying the warmer weather we've been having.

Some of their merchandise was beat up, and I wouldn't buy produce from them.  Obscure packaged things though?  Awesome.  The only thing they didn't have was the banana leaves.  For that I had to head to the European/Brazilian store.  The things I do...

Luckily I didn't have to roast or grind any shells to make flour.  That was one of the things that made the African store so awesome.
Frying meat, onion, and chili peppers: that is something I can do.  Using palm oil was different, though.  I remember looking for it for previous recipes, but wasn't adventurous enough in my shopping.

They had smaller packages at the store, but they were a bit sketchy.  All of the labels were pulled off.  I went with the bigger one.  I later saw the same brand at the European/Brazilian store.  That made me feel better, because it was probably an issue with shipping, not the brand in general.

It was very separated and hard to mix together.
The lighting isn't great on the stove, but palm oil certainly has a distinct color.
Also, when I had Kevin try the chili's for spiciness, he kept coughing.  Just washing out the seeds hurt my eyes.  Woo flavor!  This was right after Kevin was done playing with magic: i.e. electricity.
And dangit if the fan for the kegerator with two pull taps won't work!
Kevin's Note:  I was trying to recreate this, to cut down on the foam from the first beer out of the kegerator. Except when I spliced the DC adapter with the fan, nothing happened.  I even checked with my favorite electrical engineer, Steve, and he said electricity shouldn't behave like that.  Maybe I discovered some new law of electricity.

The banana leaves were frozen, so I had to take them out to defrost.  They were all different sizes and a little hard to untangle.  I did put them in a warm oven as suggested.  In the end, easier to work with than grape leaves.  At least when I had Kevin helping.

Yeah, I had to cut that one up.
The rest of the directions were fairly simple.  Mix the seeds with palm oil, salt, pepper, and chicken stock seasoning.  It was supposed to get pasty.  I tend to do badly at getting things to be the right consistency, though, so I was worried.  It was needless, because this worked quite well for once.
That was all the oil needed to get it to work.

I drained some of the fat and liquids from the meat mixture before adding it in to our yellow paste.  I'm not sure if that part was necessary or not.
Finally, you make burritos.  Wrap the mixture in a banana leaf and voila.

Ideally, I would have grilled these or made them in the oven.  However, there was very little information on doing that - what temperature?  For how long?  So instead I decided to steam, because there are fewer variables.  Plus I have a steaming basket.  It also left the oven open to make broccoli.
Fast forward 30 minutes, and the insides are definitely heated through.  The packets didn't smell like much unless you were up close.
I have eaten things wrapped in banana leaves before, so I was fairly certain you weren't supposed to eat the leaves themselves.  They're more like aluminum foil in that regard.  Don't eat aluminum foil.

It kinda looks like a deformed quiche piece.  Unfortunately, it didn't taste like one.  In fact, it didn't taste like a lot at all.  There were a few flavors that I was unfamiliar with, but nothing really wowing.  It was disappointing.  In fact, I didn't even eat my whole thing.

Kevin, however, won with the description of the night.  "It tastes like how I imagine elephant to taste."  Okay?  Was it texture?  Or are there always just banana trees around when he sees elephants?  Who knows.  It is a better description than I could give it, though.

We are having some real issues with Africa.  We aren't always comfortable with the ingredients.  Sometimes it ends well, sometimes it doesn't.  I think some of it is a texture problem too.  I may have been more okay with this if it didn't have that consistency.  Which is unfair to the food, but true nonetheless.  I also wonder how I would be if a professional chef prepared these dishes.  I would trust them more to do the right thing.

But never fear, we will not give up!  In fact, we are right back at it because...

Next time: Congo, Republic of the

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