This one is more than comfort food–it is a nearly perfect representation of all the twists, and turns that made me who I am today. When I first started cooking, there were certain flavors that I had been chasing–or rather trying to recreate from distant memories. Now, I can finally do one of them justice.
I am a very proud Yorùbá-American; my father is from Nigeria, and my mom and I are both from New York. My parents separated when I was really young, so I spent portions of my early childhood with only one side of the family at a time. Through it all though, I learned to be fiercely protective of both halves of my identity; I learned to love both American, and Nigerian clothes, music, the Yorùbá language (although I am still frustratingly far away from fluency), and of course, a huge assortment of food. The latter was a particularly important link to my Nigerian side; I was proud to eat iyàn (pounded yam) and ebà (made from dried cassava) with my (right) hand, and I could have convinced anyone that Nigerian food was, in fact, ambrosia.
So how did I end up eating, and reminiscing about a Gambian stew? Well, in the midst of the chaos that comes with parents separating, I found a second father-figure in my “Uncle” Lamin. He taught me, among other things, how to play soccer, how to embrace my West African heritage, and reportedly even had me speaking Wollof (though I’ve since forgotten how). He was such a positive influence growing up, that I made it a point to learn how to cook this dish as a sort of tribute to those crazy times. I’m older now, with better perspective on everything that happened, and I can look back on those days, and see how they led me here.
This stew is usually eaten with rice, but I decided to serve it with ebà because, as my grandma says, stew tastes better when you eat with your hand. She sent a huge bag of garri (dried cassava flour) with us when we flew back from Nigeria after our Yorùbá engagement ceremony in August, and I finally got around to using it.
Although I’m proud to have some directly from Nigeria, you can find garri pretty easily in African- and International markets in the US. It is a coarse, off-white flour that gets mixed and pounded with water to make a starchy “dough” that is used to eat certain stews. It tastes slightly sour, but you technically don’t chew it–simply scoop up your stew, and swallow. If you really want to look like a pro, make sure you don’t get any stew on your palms when you’re eating. It takes some practice, but believe me–it becomes second nature after a few bites.
The key to any good stew is the base–in the the case of many West-African cuisines, that’s a mix of onions, peppers, and tomatoes stir fried in oil–think of it like a West-African Mirepoix, or trinity. Once you have this, you can go in several different directions…
I made this stew with a mix of natural peanut butter (no sugar) and a few freshly ground roasted peanuts to maximize the flavor.
I’ve made it with regular peanut butter before, but I ended up needing a lot more fresh pepper to mask the sweetness. I made it with chicken this time, since it was already defrosted, but you can use fish, or even pumpkin or squash to keep it vegetarian.
Just add spinach, a few spices, and lemon juice– it all comes together pretty quickly.
1 Chicken Breast, cubed
2 Cups Spinach, chopped
1 Onion, diced
1 Lemon, juiced and zested
4 Roma Tomatoes, diced
1 Red Bell Pepper, diced
1 Habanero Pepper, diced
1 1/2 Cup Natural Peanut Butter
1 Cup Roasted peanuts
1 Tbs Dried Shrimp
1 Tbs Coriander Powder
1 Tbs Turmeric
1 Tbs Garlic Powder
4 Cups Garri
4 Cups Boiling Water
1/2 Cup Palm Oil
Salt and Pepper to Taste
- Season the chicken cubes, sear on all sides, then transfer to a heat-safe container.
- Add diced onions, tomatoes and peppers to the same pan, and use a wooden spoon to scrape up the fond from the chicken. Stir until the onions begin to brown, then add palm oil, and spices.
- Crush roasted peanuts in a mortar/blender, then stir them into the stew to build flavor. Add peanut butter, and boiling water. Stir until the peanut butter dissolves, then allow the stew to boil. Add chopped spinach, and lower the heat to simmer until the stew thickens, about twenty-five minutes.
- Pour garri into a tall pot, and use a wooden spoon to stir vigorously while pouring in boiling water. Carefully mix to be sure no lumps, or dry flour remain. Transfer a small amount to a clean plate, and use wet hands to form a ball.
- Plate, and serve.