Breakfast from Benin

September 26, 2011 § 1 Comment

The latest in our Breakfasts of the World Project series.

This post could more properly be titled “Petit dejeuner Béninois” as this relatively small West African country is a former French colony. Its national tagline is not the highminded Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité of the mother country but the rather more down-to-earth “Fraternité, Justice, Travail”. Perhaps this is a nod to the country’s history of slavery as the former Kingdom of Dahomey used to be known as the Slave Coast from the king’s unedifying habit of selling his war captives into slavery.

Benin lies adjacent to its larger and better known neighbour Nigeria and most of its population lives close to the coast on the Gulf of Benin. Within this coastal strip lies the country’s capital, Porto Novo and its largest city, Cotonou.

Perhaps because of its ability to trade from coastal ports, and perhaps because of the historical importance of the former Kingdom of Dahomey, or maybe it’s the French legacy, the country’s cuisine is known for its exotic ingredients and well-flavoured dishes.

I began with a little research and found Kathy Curnow’s 5 page summary of the food of Benin succinctly useful http://www.conceptvessel.net/iyare/downloads/Iyare_Food_and_Cooking_in_Benin.pdf
along with an authentic and comprehensive recipe for the classic West African dish akara (black-eyed bean fritters) from http://www.congocookbook.com/snack_recipes/akara.html

I decided that akara would be the star of our breakfast show but also included baked yams as I felt something plain and starchy was required which could be smothered with the tomato and peanut sauces I planned to make. Another breakfast speciality was to be an omelette stuffed with plantain, and finally, sliced tropical fruit (mango and papaya) enlivened with a squeeze of lime.

Here’s how it all looked:

The akara were crisply moreish but took an absolute age to prepare. You need to get going 48 hours before you plan to eat them. After soaking the beans overnight in cold water, the next labour-intensive step is to rub-off the skins from the beans with your bare hands.

I sat outside in the sunshine to do this trying to get into the West African mood. This is one of those slow, gentle chores which might be soothing or even fun if there were a whole bunch of you rubbing away at your beans but as I was toute seule it soon became rather tedious.

The next step was to pulverise the soaked raw beans and combine them with flavouring ingredients. I’m sure that traditionally this would be done in a pestle and mortar but in my case this was a job for my trusty Magimix. I soon had the beans pulverised into submission.

The bean paste rests overnight to develop the flavour fully before frying off for breakfast the following morning.

I love this intense description of frying akara from Nigerian author Wolé Soyinka’s memoir “Aké: the years of childhood”

“In the market we stood and gazed on the deftly cupped fingers of the old women and their trainee wards scooping out the white bean-paste from a mortar in carefully gauged quantities, into the wide-rimmed, shallow pots of frying oil. The lump sank immediately in the oil but no deeper than an inch or two, bobbed instantly to the surface and turned pinkish in the oil. It spurted fat globules upwards and sometimes beyond the rim of the pot if the mix had too much water. Then, slowly forming, the outer crust of crisp, gritty light brownness which masked the inner core of baked bean paste, filled with green and red peppers, ground crayfish or chopped.”

Pretty accurate I would say though I used my thermostat controlled deep-fat fryer which made the process a doddle. I kept the fat temperature at a medium heat – 150 degrees C which meant that the akara were ready in about 8 to 10 minutes and were thoroughly cooked in the middle. The resulting crispy fritter was similar to falafel and was just perfect smothered with sauce – my preference was for the densely calorific peanut sauce though the fresh tomato sauce was pretty good too.

The other dishes (baked yam, plantain omelette and sliced tropical fruit) were straightforward in terms of preparation. The only potential difficulty was in sourcing the raw ingredients. My regular supplier for tropical fruit and veg is the Strawberry Garden stall, a little gem in Manchester’s claustrophobic and unappealing indoor Arndale market. Here are my prized purchases ready to be prepped:

All in all, a cheerful-looking and flavoursome breakfast on the strength of which I’d definitely put Benin on any West African trip itinerary.

Recipe for akara – black-eyed bean fritters

Adapted from a recipe on the http://www.congocookbook.com site.

Ingredients

250g dried black-eyed beans
one small onion, finely chopped
pinch of salt
one finely chopped deseeded fresh chilli pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated peeled ginger root
vegetable oil for deep frying (ideally peanut oil)

Soak the black eyed beans in cold water in the fridge overnight. The next day, rub them together between your hands to remove the skins. This is a time consuming process and you will need to rinse the beans frequently to wash away the skins.

Drain the water off the beans then whizz them in a food processor to form a thick, coarse paste. Add the onion, ginger and salt and sufficient water to form a thick paste of a batter that will drop stiffly from a spoon.

Allow the batter to stand for a few hours or even overnight in the fridge. When you’re ready to cook, heat the oil in your pan or deep fat fryer. While the oil is heating, beat the batter with a wire whisk or wooden spoon for a few minutes.

Drop big spoonfuls of batter formed into a rough quenelle shape into the hot oil and deep fry the until they are golden brown. Turn them frequently while frying.

Mine took 10-12 minutes at 160-170 degrees C to cook.

Serve with a sauce (such as spicy tomato or peanut) or simply sprinkled with salt, as a snack, starter or accompaniment.

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§ One Response to Breakfast from Benin

  • Lorilee says:

    Wow, talk about tenacious… One thing to soak them (I’m up for that) but another to do the rubbing off! Looks like at least you had fair weather outside when you did this? Is there an adaptation using cooked beans, or would it result in a mess, I wonder? Also, how did your hands fare after the experience? Looks amazing, and so beautifully described, I could almost smell, and taste, the results! Well done!

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