Congolese dining

9 Feb Friday we made good on our promise to treat the WACONGO Dance Co. to a traditional Congolese dinner, and on this week's podcast, Jeff said that I'd share the recipes I prepared.  If you haven't listened to the podcast yet, click here and bend an ear!  You'll hear some good conversation with guests Elie Kihonia and Anicet Mundundu.  Below you'll find not only the recipes you can use to make a Congolese feast of your own, but get a peek into our post-fundraising-event celebration.

If your mind is on how you can  learn something about this regional cooking, click on The Congo Cookbook to browse an online storehouse of recipes from all over Africa.  Some may be easy to pull together with a few substitutes, but others require ingredients that you might not find in your corner market--especially if you live in rural areas; however, if you live in a place like Pittsburgh, there are some world food markets around that stock things like palm oil (standard cooking oil for most traditional dishes I know), gari (cassava powder), plantains (cooking bananas), cassava leaves (greens), and maggi cubes (a type of flavoring/vegetarian boullion).

In particular, gari (or, what we called bugali) might strike the American palate as unusual.  I know the kids dining at the table who'd grown up here in the US were unfamiliar with it, and went for the rice instead  (a popular plan B that goes with all the sauces).  Bugali a dough-like starch made with precooked cassava powder.  You have to mix the powder vigorously and long with boiling water until it's the proper consistency--not too soft (otherwise it gets sticky); it needs to be just firm enough that you can  easily tear off small pieces and press a thumb dent in the middle; while dining, it works almost like a small, edible spoon.  This is what you dip in various sauces.  It's hard work to make bugali right.  In Swahili the verb you use  is  "kusonga" which means "to press" or "put pressure on" the bugali.  It's more of a kneading action than anything else.   I miss having the proper tools--what I really need is a big, sturdy wooden spoon, but I  made do with a metal one--which I bent rather badly by the end.  Here is a glimpse of the process and the final product (part of it, anyway).

In addition to the base starches bugali (gari), and rice, here are the main dishes I prepared:

  • A meat sauce which most closely resembles the recipe for Moambe stew in the cookbook; I did not add the optional greens, so, as you can see in the photo, it was a rich red color from tomato paste and palm oil.  I prepared the food in the order the recipe suggests, but I added a bit of garlic, and used Maggi cubes for flavoring (to taste).  Since my brother has an allergy to peanuts, we substituted cashew butter, which worked like a charm.  We got lots of compliments on this dish, and most of it was gone by the end of the meal (though, when 17 people come to dinner, admittedly, that helps put a dent in leftovers, too).  Elie announced toward the end of dinner that he would have one more serving of the goat sauce: "for dessert."  Now that's what I call appreciation!

  • A cassava greens sauce we used to call "sombe"; it's a combination between recipes for feuilles de manioc and mfumbwa.  I fried up onion, leeks, garlic, and then added the cassava leaves, maggi flavoring, smoked fish, and tomato paste.  To my mother's health-conscious dismay, my dad used to throw a pound of peanut butter in every African dish we made, indiscrimintately.  I reserved my homage to Dad's liberal use of nut butter entirely for the goat sauce, and left the greens to have its own separate flavor this time.

  • Plantains in palm oil is a pretty simple and straightforward dish.  I didn't cook it with any chile peppers; we put the hot stuff on the table and let diners decide whether or not to give the foods an extra kick according to individual taste.  These disappeared very quickly;  in fact, when they began to grow scarce and one of the ladies asked for a serving, Elie gave her one, runty, piece, teasing her that he was keep the rest for himself.  She then--in Elie's words--"kidnapped" the plantains, and served herself a more satisfying portion.

Eating together is more than eating together--particularly in Congolese culture; when you feed someone or eat someone's food, you have an opportunity to show  trust, appreciation, and care, and to really enjoy each other's company during moments of nourishment and satisfaction.  Also, to my particular taste, this kind of eating is not pinkies-up, but rowdy and full of fun, laughing, and talking.  Teasing each other and trying to make each other fat is a constant source of amusement.  At the beginning of the meal, when I welcomed everyone to the table, I dictated that no one would be allowed to rise again unless they had gained at least five pounds.  The response suggested our guests happily accepted the gustatory challenge.  Last time Jeff and I were in Congo, force-feeding was a source of 60% of the humor at the dinner table.   After we were completely full, Bizi would trick us into eating a little more by sneaking a portion of something onto our plates using clever variations of the  tried-and-true "look over there!" technique.   After a bout of retaliation, during which Clementine (Bizi's wife), Jeff and I collaborated to saddle Bizi with an extra potato on a night he was particularly full,  I remember him crying out, in defeat, "Who did this?!" When we all grinningly pretended ignorance, he waved a finger at all of us and said "tomorrow I will be more vigilant... unfortunately, I will also not be here" (he had a dinner engagement elsewhere the following night). Then he forced down his potato before collapsing in a heap on the couch.

It was our great pleasure to personally thank the WACONGO Dance Company for their brilliant performance at our event (the video of which we will make available  on the site soon) and to enjoy their excellent company.  As we work to partner with Congolese who are making good changes in the Congo, it's also important to us that we make connections and network with Congolese who are doing the same here in Pittsburgh.  The WACONGO Dance Company and Afrika Yetu clearly enrich this city with their services and their talent.  Now that we know them a bit better, we are pleased to call them not only partners in our efforts, but friends.


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