Congo, Republic of

Joe & Sophie’s house.

11 February 2016

The second Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville. The first Congo was pretty good, so we were trepidatious about cooking this time. Luckily Steve has a friend who is an academic who did fieldwork research living in Congo-Brazzaville with pygmies. He told us to get some forest leaf (gnetum Africanus also known by multiple names such as Eru, Ukasa or Afang and Fumbua) and mix it with some peanut butter, river fish or deer for an authentic Congolese experience.

So I set off for Deptford High Street to track down some forest leaf. After several failed attempts I found a shop with multiple wicker baskets full of leaves out the front. After being commended for eating African food by a fellow shopper I gathered up the courage to ask for forest leaf (trying a number of alternative names). ‘Ah’ said the shopkeeper ‘yes, we have that, I’ll get it’. From the back of the shop appeared a cardboard box full of a pre-chopped leaf. It looked not unlike those balls of finely shredded cardboard you get in delivery boxes to protect your purchase. I was then asked how much I needed ‘enough for 3 people’ I quavered. ‘Nigerians?’ she countered. ‘No,’ I said, ‘English people’. ‘Mmm’ she said, ‘how you gonna cook it?’ ‘With some spices maybe?’. ‘Mmm’ she said.

I left the shop with £3 worth (about 2 large handfuls) of the stuff, none the wiser as to whether it was enough or how it should be cooked.

To book end our forest leaf extravaganza Joe started with ‘Fresh meat of Pork with sauce’ sourced form the Star Du Congo, the newspaper of Congo Brazzaville. It was passable and quite pleasant. A sort of soupy pork stew which was oddly buttery given there’s no butter included in it. We agreed it was pretty good, particularly as it might be the only good thing we’d eat that evening.

Steve’s main was to be accompanied by ‘powdered bitter manioc’ which we were momentarily excited about until we looked up manioc and realised it was fufu again. It’s been a while since we’ve cooked fufu and I had forgotten how awful it smells (like a mixture of cheesy wotsits and wallpaper paste.) And it just won’t get any less dense. It sort of sticks to the spoon like a rubbery gelatinous brain. Steve fashioned it into gnocchi style balls which he planned to fry in the hope that it might improve what we know to be bland and rubbery gunk. In reality they were like small rubber bullets with a weird gritty crunch to each mouthful. “You know how they cut cocaine with washing powder, I reckon they’ve cut this with sand” was Joe’s summary.

Delicious ... if you're a pygmy maybe

Delicious! … maybe if you’re a pygmy

This fufu disappointment sat alongside a peanut fish stew, the boiled forest leaf and a baked yam. Baked yam, we thought, that’s got to be good, surely it will be like sweet potato? How wrong we were. The first mouthful told a story of disintegrating dehydrated starch. It stuck to the roof of your mouth like a claggy mouthful of powder. The forest leaf started badly. We made the mistake of smelling it whilst it was still boiling in the pan in a pool of seeping black water. I gagged. When eaten it was unclear whether the waxy leaf would ever break down to anything other than its original shape despite endless chewing. We later learned gnatum Africanus is a member of the fir family which explains a lot. We decided it was just about edible when combined with the peanutty fish but that in itself was not good. It started with overwhelming peanut, followed closely with the cloying taste of palm oil and finishing with bitter grassy taste of forest leaf.

Dessert had the potential to lift up what has to be the worst food we’d ever eaten. Congolese doughnuts – surely they couldn’t go wrong. Sadly they could. It’s unclear whether it was the recipe or my attempt at deep-frying but the ‘dough’ was oddly liquidy and seemed to be a sponge to the oil, no matter what temperature it was at.

It was a bad end to a bad meal.

Food score: 0.5 / 5

Recipes: 

Fresh meat of pork with sauce

– 500g of pork;
– 1 ripe fresh tomatoes ;
– 1 onion, sliced in rounds;
– 1 garlic clove;
– 1/3 nutmeg, grated;
– A handful of chives;
– 1 red peppers;
– vegetable oil;
– salt.
Clean the meat and put it into a bowl. Rub in the crushed garlic and nutmeg. Put the meat into a pan with a little hot oil, the sliced onions, pepper and all the spices. Stir briefly and add about 250 ml of water. Simmer for 30 minutes and serve.

Note: the website we sourced this recipe from added the following advice:
You can eat this tasty dish with plantains as present here and add the safu. Hmmmm! ‘What delights !!!!!’

Mbendjele Pygmy Dinner

– 250g smoked pangasius*
– 2 tbsp peanut butter
– palm oil
– gnetum africanus (a.k.a. eru) leaf, sliced thinly
– 1 small white yam
– 200g cassava flour
– water, boiling
– vegetable oil

Bake the yam at 220°C for 45 minutes. Mix the water into the flour, stirring so it forms a dough. Break off gnocchi-sized lumps of the dough, roll in cassava flour and fry in the vegetable oil. Boil the gnetum in water for 20 mins. Cook the fish in a small pan with the palm oil and peanut butter, then add the boiled leaf to it.

* Pangasius is not to be found anywhere near Congo. However, it is a river fish, and the Congolese definitely eat smoked river fish. I couldn’t find smoked tilapia, so this had to do.

Congolese doughnuts

250g flour
100g sugar
2 sachets of yeast
1/2 tsp salt
3 packets of vanilla sugar (or some extra caster sugar with vanilla essence if you can’t get it)

– Put the flour in a large bowl with the sugar and salt. Add the yeast to 250 ml water of warm water gradually mixing. Add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture and stir until it is elastic.
– Add the vanilla sugar and a little warm water to get a consistency a little limp but not liquid.
– Leave to prove for 1-2 hours
– Cooking: Heat the oil to 170 ° C. Scoop small balls of the dough and plop into the oil. If the oil is hot enough, the donut will rise to the surface quickly.
– Let the doughnuts cook until brown. This will take about 5 minutes.

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