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Prawn Palaver

Binyavanga Wainaina

G21 AFRICA Correspondent

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Binyavanga Wainaina
Photo of Binyavanga Wainaina.
We're at the Coast of Sierra Leone. The weather is like steam rising from a boiling kettle. Pores are open, and sweat is welcome. Unlike cooler places where sweat has the flavor of something fermented, here, it is the sheen of every limb. Sweat is only a perfume when fresh, free-flowing. It is the only air-conditioner that works.

Cold things, iced things are silly here. They just give you the false illusion that you are chilled, before heat overwhelms you with a venegence.

Pots stir in the midday heat. The kitchen is in the courtyard, kids are playing. Somebody is grinding chili. I have often wondered why chilis get hotter the hotter a place is. To get you to sweat, I guess.

From the Congo River to Nigeria, palates embrace musk and any other flavors that mimic the most sensual smells of the body. Yams. If potatos ever were in heat, this is what they would taste like.

This is not vanilla turf. Mangos rule, as well as bananas of varieties that would astound anybody from the temperates. The confrominty of plantation control restricts itself to cash crops for export. A fruit and vegetable market has a lushness that is almost obscene to the uninitiated. I have frequent visions of lemon-faced missionaries sticking to apple preserves. I am sure most would find market day as alien as an orgasm.

Fruit and vegetables are grown by small scale farmers. Markets are controlled by women, and it is they who organise the movement of produce from far-flung areas to small villages that turn into mini-cities on market-day. Fruit is never saleable by the way it looks when waxed, but by flavor. Most people who are used to supermarket fruit will be nauseous when they see how splotchy most varieties of banana look. Although in the tropics bananas are not one flavor, but many, no banana tastes quite so devoid as that flawless, even-ripening one available in Western supermarkets.

Smoked Fish, dried prawns, shrimp and fresh water crayfish season -- all kinds of sauces. Fresh seafood are equally popular. Over 200 types of fish are eaten in Nigeria. The less bland the fish the better.

Prawn Palaver is one of the most decadent dishes I have ever tasted. This dish that is common in Nigeria and Sierra Leone, for me typifies the decadence of classical West African cuisine.

The sun rises to haggling, knee-deep in water. Mama versus the fisherman. The Fisherman is in knee-length shorts, his muscles tanned deep copper by salt, sun and fresh fish. Mama has bulk , great hips, and the determination of children on her side. They are neighbours and friends, but this is business.

She has spotted the fish she wants. She grabs it, examines it, and tosses it back to the boat, making sure it slaps his shin. She turns away as if to seek better shoals. He is irate. How dare you disrespect me, a man, like this? Me, whose wife took care of your kids when you were away at your parents. Check this fish out. Can anybody smell where the fattest ones run better than I can? Me, whose father showed him how to charm fish into jumping into my boat?

Ha, you, a man! Who saw you asleep outside you homestead, drunk with palm-wine last week? Who saw you running out of your house while your wife chased you with your gutting knife!

"But you heard us that night, didn't you?" he says, his voice is now gravel and okra. "You heard a real man satisfy the wife? Did you see her smile the next day? Did she whisper to you how fishermen do it?"

She hesitates now. The sun is getting hotter, and sweat is starting to run down her breasts. Her husband is usually snoring loudly when the fisherman arrives home, ripe and lusty, veins tumescent and washed with sweat.

The fish suddenly looks very appealing in those hands that surely would never shy at the most potent womanly flavors ---

Then she spots the prawns. He has obviously traded them with another fisherman and plans them for home use.

Her power kicks in. He hasn't sold much today. He is late home. Her cleavage is now gleaming with sweat. She looks him straight in the eye, while she fishes for her purse in her bra.

Ten minutes later, the prawns are soaking in brine. The fish will be had for breakfast by her husband. Prawn palaver for supper will guarantee a night even the fisherman will envy.

The morning household spot the prawns, and will salivate the whole day in anticipation of supper. Dad has other ideas.

When making prawn palaver, or any other sauce in West Africa, onions are a much appreciated ingredient, but must remain an invisible texture. They have been ground soft and salted lightly. The chilis have been slow burning in oil and tomato puree for a few days.

And that's not all.

The peanuts have been pounded into a paste, resembling commercial peanut butter. Not the same, though. No additives.

Anybody who has eaten peanuts from an African market, can never get the plastic taste of supermarket peanuts from their mouths. There is the flavor of the soil in these nuts, and the smoky aftertaste of good charcoal.

The smoked fish is gnarled, pared down to just flavor. The wispy, weightless nature of smoke has been sealed, ready for release in the stew.

Smoke becomes a spice.

Photo of a plate of jollof rice and plantains.Jollof rice, boiled yams, fried plantains and bitterleaf greens are also being prepared. Jollof Rice is a savory dish-on-its-own like paella. It comes in about as many variations as there are people in West Africa. It is always red though, from tomatoes.


It is early evening, and at the shebeen across the road, the men are drinking Palm Wine, that incomparable drink that is tapped from a tree-trunk, and is resistant to any attempts to bottle.

All are nibbling kola nuts, breadfruit seeds and alligator pepper seeds.

There is no real attention paid to the cooking until the onions across the neighbourhood begin to sizzle. There is a brief silence, then animated conversation begins. Last rounds are ordered.

The anticipation is the beginning of the celebration.

The other condiment is music. They say music is what mathematics dreams of being.

Cooking is communal. There are no recipe books, or precise mathematic measurements dictated by old time monks trying to control a market. Women sing songs as they work. The rhythm of the song, its structure is older than elders know. Its lyrics change with seasons, fashions and generations. The sole purpose of this music is to turn the work and the food into a harmony. The leader sings, the rest respond. Grinding motions, stirring motions, all join the movement of the song.

The background instruments are drums or a small FM radio, cracking and hissing with the rap-like speed of a soccer comentator.

The children relieve the tensions. The younger ones have complete freedom. They are many threats that children have to face, but never that their existence in anyway threatens adults.

Always on the fringes, and dark corners, the teenagers flirt, sulk, preen and strut-full of hormone-ridden murmurs and giggles.

Her husband worked for many years for a Lebanese man, and acquired the taste for garlic and ginger. The two join the onions and are soon joined by the crayfish powder. Then the tomato and chili mixture followed by peanut paste. Kids are ushered away as the creamy sauce begins to splatter. The heat is reduced, and the smoked fish goes in. A little water is added as the sauce begins to thicken. The spinach, finely chopped, is stirred in. Then some thyme, and salt is added. The prawns are added last. Everybody has been watching the prawns in the basin from the corner of their eyes. They go silent for a second when the prawns are in the pot.

It is ten minutes to supper.


Prawn Palaver

Ingredients

2 tbsps oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 medim sized root ginger, grated
1 tablespoon dried crayfish of prawn powder (if available)
7 oz can tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons organic peanut butter (with no added sugar!)
1 pt water
Sprig of thyme
Chilli pepper and salt
1 lb spinach, fresh or frozen
1 small piece smoked fish (for flavour)
1 lb fresh or frozen prawns

Instructions

Put oil in a heavy bottomed saucepan. When hot add the onions, garlic and ginger. Wait for the onions to go translucent. Then add the tomatoes. Cook on a high heat stirring for 5 mins. Reduce heat to moderate and add peanut butter, creaming well into the sauce with half of the water. Stir well and allow to cook, bubbling gently, for 8 - 10 mins, stirring.

Add remaining water, thyme, pepper and salt. Wash and finely chop the fresh spinach, stir into sauce and allow to cook on a moderate heat until sauce is thick, (20 mins).

Add the smoked fish and drained prawns. Stir and cook for 10 mins more.

Serve with boiled yams and steamd rice. For a salad, have grated carrot with a lemon juice, brown sugar and olive oil dressing.



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