Preparing Maafé (West African Peanut Stew) Reminds Sarah Diouf Of Years Spent in Senegal
Sarah Diouf, who recently joined the Corporate Support staff here at Ozarks Public Broadcasting, shared a very special recipe with us for our "Table Traditions" series.
As a graduate student in Comparative Literature in New York City, Sarah became acquainted with West African cuisine, particularly the dishes of the nation of Senegal. Eventually she developed the idea of doing a research project on the intersection of traditional Senegalese culture and Islam. After spending two weeks in the country, she later returned to live there for a total of fourteen years, working at the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Dakar. "I got married there," she says, "and eventually ended that marriage there as well, more recently."
Sarah Diouf returned to the United States a couple of years ago, bringing not only her three children, ages 12, 13 and 16, but food recipes that she calls a "sensory souvenir for (her) children," one of the few remaining ties to their Senegalese culture and their early childhoods there. The recipe you'll hear about today is a favorite throughout West Africa: maafé, also known as "West African Peanut Stew."
"I don't know exactly where it originated," Sarah says. "But my former mother-in-law, who goes by 'Mama Khady,' I just call her 'the champion of maafé, because she used to cook it--I think Friday was just her day for it. She was from Mali originally; she came over to Senegal when she was six, as she told me the story, and was married at seventeen. Really strong person both inside and out, really just a lovely, giving person. I always think of my mother-in-law specifically when I'm making it. So there are two types of maafé, and she cooks both of them exceedingly well."
One version of maafé is from Mama Khady's native Mali and includes okra: it's called "Maafé bambara." The Senegalese version without okra is called "maafé ordinaire," of which peanut butter is a major ingredient of the stew sauce. "Besides fish, peanuts are the main crop in Senegal, and have been for a long time," says Sarah.
As we talk, Sarah takes about five garlic cloves and a bunch of fresh parsley, and puts them in a food processor along with salt and pepper. "And that's going to make what's kind of the base of the stew, like a paste of strong flavors, put together then with oil, and you put the meat in there. So that's what we'll do first."
As for other ingredients (see complete--and we do mean complete!--recipe below), she chops up half an onion and grates the other half, joking, "I hope I'm not going to slice my finger!" She also chops up some cherry tomatoes, "and I'm going to get some tomato paste out of the cabinet. Got a red (bell) pepper here, got a green pepper, a yam, I've got two regular potatoes, I've got two big carrots, I've got some parsley. I'm going to add to that--there's the peanut butter over there; there's the beef--maafé can be with beef, lamb or chicken.
"And then there are a couple of interesting ingredients," continues Sarah Jiouf, "that are really hard to find. And I found them here in Springfield. There's an African market up on Kearney Street--they had it. It's known by different names, so it took me a while even in the store. On the packet I think it says 'Dawa Dawa.' And basically, it's fermented locust beans. It has a very strong smell; it's not somehting you'd want to eat on its own, but when you add it to sauces...."
The beef in question was beef ribs and cubed stew meat. Sarah also used a turnip, and though some might feel it's cheating, several bouillon cubes; also a small amount of peanut oil, and a bit of water.
Oh, yes, there's also what's called a "yet" (pronounced "yit"). It's supposed to be a smoked, dried snail, added to the sauce. "They do a lot of adding of, lots of layering of, ingredients," explains Sarah. "You might not even know it's there!" And there's "cassava," a hard, fibrous root that is said to be the third largest source of carbohydrates in the tropics, after rice and corn). "I didn't like it for many years," Sarah admits, "and then I thought, 'Oh, I kind of like the texture.'" There's also cabbage. "We love it," indicating herself and her children. "So if I leave the cabbage out I'd be in big trouble with the children!"
Now, this is a stew, after all, so none of the flavors (however strong, aromatic or exotic) is supposed to predominate--they are all supposed to meld together. And, I can tell you from having eaten it, they do! It's delicious, served over a bed of rice. "Everybody (in Senegal) loves rice," says Sarah Jiouf. "But what they like is Vietnamese and Thai jasmine rice." So Sarah uses jasmine rice from Thailand. The traditional way to eat maafé is sitting on the floor around a low table, all taking portions from the main serving platter.
Sarah feels maafé--her version of it--and other West African dishes, are a way to help her children connect with their Senegalese roots. "And I particularly like when I do stuff that means something to them, you know? It's not like I strategically planned to do a culturation via maafé... but it is more than just the smell or the taste. It's also eating out of one platter, like certain things go along with it. It kind of creates a little bit of a passage back, I think, to that time in their childhood and that place, and the people that we left behind." Like Mama Khady.
Get ready: here's the ingredient list and cooking instructions, as best Sarah could codify and write them down, for preparing Maafé, or as Sarah jokingly calls it, "the Senegalese sleeping pill!" due to its satisfying richness and ability to fill one up.
And to help put you in the proper mood, Sarah includes some links to West African/Senegalese music:
A Maafé yapp (with meat) recipe (not the Maafé recipe):
5 oz. peanut oil
3 ¼ lbs. meat (beef or lamb) (chicken can also be used)
1 big conch or 4 small snails (no shell!)
¼ cup nyetetu (the fermented locust bean powder mentioned in the text)
9 cloves garlic, separated 6 + 3
1 yellow onion, grated
12 cherry tomatoes
3 tsp ground black pepper, separated 1 + 2
1 c. tomato paste
2-2 ½ cups water
1 ¾ c. peanut butter
1-2 cube Maggi (bouillon cube, optional)
Salt to taste
1 small cabbage/ ¼ or ½ regular sized cabbage (to taste, and depending on size of whole)
1 big carrot
1 diakhatou, aka "bitter eggplant"
1 Parsnip (or ½ American radish)
2 Green peppers (or 1 green and 1 red)
1 Scotch Bonnet pepper
1 mild-medium pepper (Serrano is good)
3 -4 scallions
½ c. flat parsley
3 cups jasmine rice
Pat dry the meat, sprinkle with some big (kosher) salt and some medium ground black pepper (1/2 t. each) and stir it around in a big bowl. Set aside. Put grated onion, cherry tomatoes, green and red peppers, scallions (cleaned and cut into 4 pieces each), parsley, Maggi cube (if using, if not: 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp ground black pepper), nyetetu, 6 garlic cloves and 1 mild-medium pepper (stemmed and seeded) into a spice mixer or blender, on chop. Pulse a few times until you have a mix of smooth and slightly chunky. This is your nokhoss, or sauce base. Heat your 6-quart marmite on medium-high, add 2 oz. peanut oil, and when hot (glistening, not smoking), add the meat, braising initially, then turning the heat down to low. Add the yeet, stirring in with the meat for about 1 minute, then add the nokhoss from the blender (all of it), and stir 1-2 minutes. You can increase the heat to medium for 3-4 minutes here, then return to a low simmer. Take a heaping spoonful of the tomato paste and drop it in, mixing slowly and making sure to scrape off anything sticking to the bottom of the marmite so it is incorporated into the developing sauce. Add a cup of water, stir until the tomato paste is dissolved and distributed, along with any remaining bits of the nokhoss. Continue adding tomato paste and water, alternating, and stirring off and on, for the next 15 minutes. Add the peanut butter very much as you did the tomato paste, though perhaps not so gradually. Stir and press the peanut butter against the sides of the marmite to get it melting and melding into the sauce (3-4 minutes). Add an additional Maggi cube if you wish. Add salt as needed, add remaining (2 t.) black pepper, stir gently for a minute or two, then taste. Add the kaani, gently, whole. Make sure it is intact. If the hot pepper is open, or begins to open as it cooks, you must not use it/remove it from the sauce immediately. Most Scotch Bonnet peppers will knock your socks off if they open in your sauce. Add the remaining 3 garlic cloves, which you have minced. Let the sauce cook another 7-8 minutes. Taste. Check your hot pepper. It should be bobbing on top of the simmering sauce. Keep it to the side, like a wary swimmer, so it doesn’t soften too quickly or open. Remove it if you are scared (or maybe it is scared!).
Check the thickness of the sauce. Vegetables are coming in next, so you may need a bit more water. If you want a thick Maafé, or a thin, adjust the water, peanut butter and tomato paste as you go. Just remember increasing water means the tomato paste and peanut butter must be increased somewhat as well, but again, the ratio is up to you, according to the thickness you want. A typical Maafé has a thick sauce, about the consistency of yogurt, but thinner is nice, too. Check the color, as you check the consistency. It should be a coppery red. (Some people like it a deeper red, with a deeper taste of slightly burned tomato, and this is delicious. Just increase the tomato paste (and salt, pepper, Maggi) and let it simmer at least an additional 15-20 minutes, maybe once the vegetables have gone in, are cooked, and are sitting on the sidelines waiting.) Check to make sure all the peanut butter has dissolved fully into the sauce.
Add the vegetables: hardest ones first. (They go in (and come out) whole, unless otherwise specified.) Niambi, cabbage and carrot first. Submerge them in the sauce as possible (they’ll float at first). Cock the lid of the marmite half on, half off, to get them going. Let them cook for about 5 minutes, then add the turnip, then the diakhatou, sweet potato, and lastly, the potato. Since a whole or large chunk of potato takes about 15 minutes to cook nicely, and it is the fastest cooking vegetable in the dish, you can gauge the time left by when you put the potato in. Push them down into the sauce from time to time, making sure everyone gets some time fully submerged if possible. Check the vegetables for cooked/firm according to your liking, along the way, and if one or more is done, but others are not, or you just want the stew to simmer a bit longer, remove them with a fork and set aside in a bowl – they can rejoin the group in the marmite at the very end, before serving. The hot pepper, if not removed yet, should be removed and set aside. It should not cook the entire time that the sauce cooks unless you are ready for a significant adventure that includes tearing up, sweating and possible tongue failure. I usually take it out before I put in the vegetables, and then return it to the marmite about 3-5 minutes before the end of cooking time, depending on how soft it has become.
Tasting the sauce from time to time is key, so get right in there!
Make the rice: Add 1 T. neutral (avocado, canola) oil to a large sauce pan, turn burner to high. When oil is glistening (about 1 minute), add any seasoning you wish to perfume the rice – or nothing. I use either mustard seeds (about 1 t.) or a crunched up dried bay leaf. The effect is very subtle, as it should be. A couple shakes of salt into the rice and oil is fine if you wish. Stir the spice into the hot oil, quickly, then add the dry rice and stir until all grains are covered in oil. Stir continuously for another 2 minutes tops, as the rice turns opaque white. At this point, your water at the ready, you add 5 c. water (it will shock the pan a bit), and stir well and quickly, making sure nothing is sticking on the bottom. Cover, and turn the heat to medium low (3 on an electric stove): 13-14 minutes usually does it. Jasmine rice is not fluffy, and this method of preparing it makes it less so, and so you should adjust your expectations. Still, it should not be mushy. You can always experiment with the rice the day before.
Traditional serving style: Serve the meal on one big platter, rice first, sauce, meat and vegetables on top, distributed to please the eye and afford each diner some meat at her/his place. The kaani should be placed on the side of the platter, and indicated to the diners so each person can, if s/he wishes, pick it up by the stem and dab it on her/his area of the Maafé to increase the heat. If you’re keen, set the floor with a table cloth and eat seated on the floor. Maafé yapp is best eaten with big spoons (or teaspoons for children). With Maafé ginaar (chicken Maafé), forks work well too.
Western serving style: Serve rice on dinner plates, then add sauce, meat and vegetables, cutting the vegetables with your serving spoon or a butter knife as you add them to each diner’s plate, so that each diner gets some of each vegetable.
Wolof (West African ethnic language spoken in Senegal) vocabulary from the recipe:
Marmite (mar-meet) – large stew pot or dutch oven
Diioolayne (dee-oo-lane) – vegetable oil
Yappu nak (yah-pu nak) – cow meat (stew beef)
Yeet – conch
Nyetetu (nee-yet-eh-too) – fermented locust beans
Sobalee - onion
Tomahtee - tomato paste
Tigg-deegee (tiga-dey-gey) – peanut butter
Choux pommé – small cabbage
Diakhatou (jah-kha-too) – bitter eggplant
Niambi (nyam-bee) – West African cassava
Pombiterre - potato
Tomahte bu ndaow – cherry tomatoes
Carrotte – carrot
Patate douce – sweet potato
Nawet (nah-way) - long radish or turnip
Kaani salade – green pepper
Kaani – Scotch Bonnet pepper (or almost the same as)
Ceeb (cheyb) - rice