Our dodo dinner: Mauritian cari gros pois, dholl puri and gato carre rouge

As is typical for a toddler, Baby Mash can be very suspicious about unfamiliar foods. He’ll eat yoghurt by the gallon and can put away more corn on the cob than is probably good for him, but if he hasn’t seen a food before, he will usually prod it once, say, ‘Don’t like it,’ and look around the plate for something more acceptable to him. We have realised, however, that one way to get him a bit more interested in new dishes is to look at photos of the country and its wildlife before we eat it, so while Ash was cooking our dinner, Miranda and Baby Mash were scrolling through photos of Mauritian animals on the laptop, which is how we discovered that the famous extinct flightless bird was native to Mauritius.

What we didn’t realise at that point was that the eventual fate of the dodo was nearly replicated in our dinner, as one thing after another went wrong in the cooking of it. The national dish of Mauritius is cari gros pois (bean curry), served with dholl puri (split pea pancakes). Neither of these two things seemed particularly complicated, and Baby Mash actually likes beans, so we chose some recipes (linked above) and got to it – but both the cooking and the eating of it turned out to be more problematic than we’d anticipated:

– Ash dropped the lid of a Le Creuset saucepan and chipped one of our relatively new kitchen tiles.
– The split peas boiled dry and nearly destroyed the pan they were in (thankfully, boiling dishwashing liquid in the pan a few times was able to rescue it).
– We’d stacked the cooked pancakes on top of each other and they irreversibly stuck together so we had to start the whole thing again (which didn’t work as well as it had the first time around).
– Baby Mash dropped a water bottle and got water everywhere when we were trying to dish everything up.
– While we were eating, Baby Mash dropped his spoon on the floor and then had a tantrum because he’d dropped his spoon on the floor.
– The recipe called for 3 tbsp of curry powder and two green chillies. With Baby Mash in mind, we’d decreased the 3 tbsp to 3 tsp and only used half a chilli, but apparently it was still too spicy for him. He did actually try it, which was something, but then declared that his ‘mouth was horrid’ and wouldn’t eat any more.
– Baby Mash loved the pancakes when he was hovering around the kitchen and we gave him a taste to keep him occupied, but when he was actually sitting at the table he gave them a wide berth.

So all in all, not quite the straightforward meal we were hoping for.

Cari gros pois

Ingredients
2 tins of butter (lima) beans
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 big onion, thinly sliced
3 tbsp curry powder
1 tbsp turmeric
1 big tomato, roughly chopped
2 green chillies, roughly chopped
1 1/4 cups water
5 tbsp cooking oil
1/3 cup finely chopped coriander, to serve

Method
1. Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat.
2. Add half of the sliced onion and cook for 3-4 minutes.
3. While the onion is cooking, prepare your curry paste by mixing together the tomato, chillies, 2 tbsp curry powder, turmeric, ginger, garlic, remaining onion and 1/4 cup water.
4. Once the onion is cooked, stir in the curry paste and cook for 2-3 minutes over medium heat.
5. Reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 10 minutes, stirring from time to time so it doesn’t burn.
6. Gently stir in the butter beans with a cup of water.
7. Increase the heat to medium and cook for a further 5 minutes or until the sauce has thickened.
8. Serve sprinkled with the coriander.
Serves 2-3

Dholl puri

Ingredients
500g channa dal (yellow split peas)
3 1/2 cups plain flour
2 tbsp roasted cumin seeds
1/4 tsp turmeric
Water
Salt
Oil

For the dough:
1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, a pinch of salt and 2 tbsp oil.
2. Gradually add the reserved water from the dal and knead to a soft dough.
3. Divide the dough into roughly golf ball-sized balls.
4. Press a hole into the centre of each ball and add 1 tbsp of the dal mixture. Close the hole so that it forms a ball again.
5. Dip the ball in flour and carefully roll it out into a thin circle.
6. Heat a flat pan and brush with a little oil.
7. Place the puri on the pan and cook for 1 minute or until it starts to puff.
8. Brush with a little more oil, flip and cook for another minute. Remove from the pan when it starts to puff.

Despite Baby Mash’s misgivings, Miranda and Ash didn’t mind the curry, but it wasn’t special enough for us to think we’d make it again. The pancakes were nice – especially the ones that didn’t have to be remade – and also nutritious, so they might be ones to have another go at (not least because we now have a supply of split peas that we need to do something with.

When we first started looking for Mauritian recipes, we consulted a friend whose husband is Mauritian and she reminded us about Shelina Permaloo. Shelina won Masterchef a few years back and her website offers a number of traditional recipes. We didn’t end up using any of them for our main course, because we wanted to make the bean curry (because we thought Baby Mash might actually eat it – ha), but when we found gato carre rouge (literally ‘cake square red’), Miranda couldn’t resist. The Mauritian version of a lamington? Yes please!

Gato carre rouge

Ingredients
1 packet of strawberry jelly
4 eggs (weigh your eggs and the weight of the eggs in their shells will determine the weight of all the other ingredients – our eggs weighed 220g)
220g self-raising flour
220g caster sugar
220g butter (room temperature)
3 tbsp whole milk
Desiccated coconut

Method
1. Preheat oven to 180C and line a tin with baking parchment (we used a 23cm square tin).
2. Mix together the sugar, butter and flour until you get a crumbly breadcrumb-like mixture.
3. Slowly mix in the eggs one by one until you get a cake batter.
4. Loosen the mixture with the milk.
5. Put the mixture into the tin and bake for 20 minutes until the cake is cooked.
6. Once the cake is cool, cut it into 5cm cubes.
7. Prepare the jelly according to packet instructions and tip some desiccated coconut onto a plate.
8. Dip each sponge square into the liquid jelly and then gently roll it in the coconut.
9. Allow the cakes to cool completely before serving.

Technically these were also supposed to be decorated with a swirl of buttercream and half a strawberry, but when we made these we were dealing with a toddler who had broken out in a mysterious rash and, frankly, it was a miracle they got finished at all – so a decoration-less version had to do! This is also the explanation for the fact that we didn’t manage to take a decent photo of them…

Anyway, as with any coconut dish, opinions were divided here. Miranda thought they were delicious, as did Baby Mash, who helped make the sponge and then caught sight of the finished product so there was no keeping it away from him. Other fans were Miranda’s colleagues, one of whom had six! Ash didn’t even try them, because of the whole coconut-hating thing – but everyone else agreed that he was seriously missing out!

Another toddler triumph: Reunionese rougail saucisses

A couple of admissions: the first is that we hadn’t actually heard of Reunion Island until very recently. This blog helped save Miranda’s intellectual credibility, though: a student mentioned it shortly after we started researching recipes, so she was able to nod along knowledgably rather than looking ignorant.

The other is that Reunion Island isn’t actually a country. We’re not actually sure how it made it onto our list. It’s actually an ‘overseas department and region of the French Republic’; in other words, it’s actually part of France. There was therefore no real reason for us to make a dish from Reunion Island. However, when we found out that the national dish was a simple sausage concoction (and thus different from a lot of the other African dishes we’ve made so far), we thought we might as well make it because we thought we’d enjoy it.

There are lots of different versions of this recipe, the biggest variation being the level of chilli. We chose one from Les Journal des Femmes because it was written in French, wasn’t too spicy and was actually comprehensible.

Rougail saucisses

Ingredients
1 kg sausages, cut into pieces (we like The Jolly Hog, although they’re not very Reunionese)
2 large onions, sliced
3 tbsp oil
2 garlic cloves
1 inch knob of ginger, finely chopped
5 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 sprig of thyme
2 pinches of turmeric
1 pinch of cayenne pepper

Method
1. In a casserole dish, brown the onions with the oil.
2. Add the sausage pieces.
3. Add the garlic, ginger and tomatoes and mix well.
4. Add the thyme, turmeric, cayenne pepper and a little water.
5. Cover and cook over low heat for about half an hour.
6. Serve with rice.
Serves 4-6

Well, either we did something wrong here or the recipe was wrong. The recipe stated that the sauce would be very red and thick by the end of cooking. Given that there was no thickening agent in the sauce, this was always going to be a little tricky. But we found that no matter how long we cooked it (certainly a lot longer than the half hour stated in the recipe), not only was it not thickening, it wasn’t even really reducing. At that point, we transferred everything to a wider frying pan and turned up the heat, and finally the liquid reduced. In the end, we actually reduced it too far, to the point that there wasn’t much sauce to speak of at all – so not really a rougail (sauce) at all.

Anyway, in spite of all those shenanigans, we really enjoyed this! There wasn’t much not to like, really: it’s sausages with some simple flavours added. The other benefit is that Baby Mash, who refuses most kinds of meat, is more than happy to eat unhealthy processed things like burgers and sausages, so he was all over this – he’d have had double if we’d let him!

So, the conclusion: we don’t tend to eat sausages very often, but we also wouldn’t rule out making this again, because it doesn’t get much easier, and we all enjoyed it.

Meat medley: Malagasy romazava

Our last dish, Mozambican matapa, first became known to us thanks to one of Baby Mash’s books. Moving on to Madagascar, we thought there might be potential for another literature-inspired dish. There is a scene in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good in which the convicts in Australia’s first penal colony reminisce about the foods from home that they can no longer eat now that they have been transported. One of these characters is Black Caesar, from Madagascar – but he only mentions hearts of palm, which is more of an ingredient than a dish, so we didn’t feel like it counted. So, as usual, we found ourselves Googling ‘Madagascar national dish’, which is how we discovered romazava.

Romazava can be described as lots of meat cooked with lots of green leafy vegetables. Meat is easy to come by but unfortunately we weren’t able to get hold of the precise greens that would be used in Madagascar: anamalao, anantsonga and anamany. We did, however, find a blog about this exact conundrum (World Cup of Food), which is how we came up with our substitutes. Anamalao has a peppery flavour, so we used rocket; anantsonga is another word for mustard greens, a reasonable substitute for which is kale; anamany is also known as ‘Malabar spinach’ so baby leaf spinach seemed close enough.

Romazava

Ingredients
2 tbsp canola oil
1 kg chuck steak, cut into 2 inch pieces
1 pork loin chop, cut into 1.5 inch pieces
2 small chicken breasts, cut into 1.5 inch pieces
1 tin of tomatoes
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 large yellow onion, sliced
5 cloves garlic, sliced
2.5 inch piece of ginger, sliced
3 serrano chillies, diced (we only used 1 for the sake of the toddler)
100g kale
100g rocket
150g spinach

Method
1. Brown the steak in batches.
2. Put the browned steak, tomatoes, stock, chillies, ginger, onion and garlic in a large pot and bring to a simmer.
3. Cover the pot, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about half an hour.
4. Add the pork pieces, put the lid back on and simmer for another 15 minutes (until the pork is cooked through).
5. Add the chicken pieces, put the lid back on and simmer for another 10 minutes (until chicken is white and opaque).
6. Add the greens and stir them into the simmering liquid until they have wilted.
7. Stew for another 10 minutes until the greens are fully cooked but not mushy.
8. Serve with rice.
Serves 6-8

This dish was nice, but unexciting. The ratio of meat to veg was actually about right, despite the near-overflowing pot when we first added the veg! However, only the beef was really palatable, as both the pork and chicken had dried out through being simmered for so long. We probably should have predicted the fact that Baby Mash wouldn’t touch it and just put the three chillies in, as that would have given it a zing that it needed – but oh well. One day he might surprise us and eat meat and/or a leafy vegetable.

What we do know, not so much as a result of eating this but rather because of all the pictures of Malagasy animals we were looking at in an effort to get Baby Mash interested in eating the food, is that we really want to go to Madagascar! Frankly, after not leaving the country for the past year and a half, we really want to go anywhere at this point, but the wildlife of Madagascar really is extraordinary. Baby Mash is still talking about the tomato frog two weeks later, and giraffe weevils, tenrecs, satanic leaf-tailed geckos and more species of monkey than we can keep track of would all be amazing to see in real life. It’s on the bucket list!

While we’re talking about Madagascar, we want to give a quick plug to Arena Flowers: we’re not sponsored or anything, but have recently discovered them and the fact that they’re the UK’s #1 rated ethical florist – and that their flowers are beautiful! And for every bouquet purchased they plant two trees in countries experiencing deforestation, one of which is Madagascar. So it’s win-win – check them out!

Nothing short of a miracle: Mozambican matapa

We’ve mentioned before that Baby Mash has a book called Come and Eat with Us, which takes children through a lift-the-flap journey of a range of countries and their cuisines. We made Bolivian pisara, which was not a hit with Baby Mash, but we decided to let the book choose the dish for us again when we got up to Mozambique. The book tells us about mutapa, or fish stew, made with fish and crabs and thickened with pounded cassava root.

When we started looking for recipes, though, we found that the book is more than a little misleading. All of the recipes we found used prawns rather than fish or crab (with some not including the prawns at all), and there was no mention of cassava root anywhere: rather, the key ingredient of matapa (which, by the way, seems to be the correct spelling) is actually cassava leaves.

Cassava leaves aren’t something you see every day in the supermarket, and a lot of the recipes we read suggested substituting with collard greens. (We don’t see collard greens in England either, but the closest substitute would be spring greens or kale.) Living where we do, though, with a proliferation of multicultural mini-supermarkets, we thought we should at least try to track down the real thing. It took a couple of attempts but we eventually found some frozen pounded cassava leaves in one African food store. They came in a 500g pack, and we couldn’t find a recipe that actually gave a precise weight of how many we should use, so we just decided to use the whole lot, and our best guess is that it seemed about the right amount. After a trip to the fishmonger for some decent prawns, we were ready to go. We consulted a few recipes but mostly followed one from Farmers, Food and Vegetables.

Matapa

Ingredients
500g pounded cassava leaves
2 tins of coconut milk
450g raw peanuts
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
500g small(ish) prawns, shelled and deveined (reserve shells)
Salt, to taste

Method
1. Place the prawn shells in a pot of cold water and boil for 5 minutes. Strain and save the liquid.
2. Cook the cassava leaves in 2 cups of shrimp water with 1 tin of coconut milk over medium heat for about 30 minutes.
3. Cook the prawns for 5 minutes in boiling water. Strain and save the liquid.
4. Grind the peanuts in a food processor until they resemble powder (being careful not to overdo it, or they’ll turn to peanut butter!).
5. Put the peanuts in a saucepan with 2 cups of shrimp water and the other tin of coconut milk over medium heat. When it begins to boil, pour the mixture over the cassava leaves.
6. Add the garlic, salt and prawns. Stir, reduce the heat and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
7. Serve over rice.
Serves 6-8

Matapa looks like green sludge, and when we sampled it while it was cooking, we thought it tasted like pond water. Add that to the fact that it’s full of coconut milk, which Ash doesn’t like, we didn’t hold high hopes for ourselves liking it, and we’d pretty much given up on Baby Mash altogether, given that lately he’s been reaching unprecedented levels of fussiness where food is concerned.

Well, we’ve been proven wrong again. We actually quite liked it – the flavours are very cleverly balanced so that no one ingredient stands out (which also meant that the coconut wasn’t too pronouced, which pleased Ash). You can’t avoid the fact that the texture is pretty homogeneous, but not offputtingly so. It’s hard to describe the taste of cassava leaves, but they’re along the same sort of lines as silverbeet or chard, so they gave the dish a bitterness that was countered by the sweetness of the coconut milk, prawns and peanuts. The only disappointment was that the prawns all but disappeared through having been cooked for so long. If we made this again, we’d probably add them later.

The biggest surprise of all was Baby Mash. Not only did he willingly try the dish, he then willingly finished it! We did have to pick out any recognisable bits of prawn (he doesn’t like meat in most forms), but otherwise he scoffed it. We couldn’t believe it and didn’t dare look at him while he was eating, for fear of putting him off.

So, will we make this again? Quite possibly: although it took a while to make (and deveining all those prawns was a pain), it wasn’t in any way difficult, and apparently it’s a way of sneaking an enormous amount of good nutrients into our typically vegetable-rejecting son!

Swapping beef for chicken: Zimbabwean huku ne dovi

Miranda consulted her Zimbabwean colleague when we were choosing this recipe. He admitted to not being much of a cook himself, but suggested that a typical recipe would be a beef (or oxtail) stew with squash and peanuts. ‘Oh good,’ we thought. ‘Another beef stew.’ However, then we came across a recipe for huku ne dovi, a ceremonial vegetable and peanut stew which, although based on chicken rather than beef, fulfilled the peanut requirement and came close enough to including squash (with sweet potato and turnip). The chicken was apparently optional, because it is only brought out for feasts in Zimbabwe (due to it being expensive), but having learnt from Miranda’s colleague that meat is plentiful and therefore commonly eaten in Zimbabwe, we thought we should include it.

In preparation, we dutifully added the ingredients to our online grocery order, only to find on delivery that the 2 turnips listed in the recipe weren’t available (no substitutions). Miranda mentioned this to her Zimbabwean friend, who said that although there can be a lot of vegetables in Zimbabwean dishes, he ‘never came across a turnip’ when he lived there – so it was obviously meant to be!

As for the chicken, we weren’t sure how much chicken we would actually need for ‘2-3 cups of chicken’, so decided to buy a whole chicken, which we roasted and then cut up (which also gave us some leftovers). We then used the carcass to make our own chicken stock for the recipe – although this part is obviously optional.

We served this with sadza, which is Zimbabwe’s version of the stiff cornmeal we’ve come to expect with Southern African dishes, with its own particular cooking method. We read somewhere (although can’t remember where) that white cornmeal is preferable to yellow in Zimbabwe, so we tracked down some white cornmeal. There were two to choose from in the shop: a smaller (and therefore cheaper) bag that said it was fortified with vitamins, or a massive bag. The former seemed like the better choices for all three of the reasons just mentioned, until we actually read the label and saw that it contained ‘genetically modified organisms.’ Not entirely comfortable with this idea, we opted for the bigger bag – which means we now need to eat a lot of cornmeal.

Huku ne dovi

Ingredients
2 tbsp olive oil
2 onions, chopped
1 cup peanut butter
4 cups chicken stock
1 tin of chopped tomatoes
Salt and pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper (we left this out to make it toddler-friendly)
2 cups cabbage, finely chopped
3 sweet potatoes, chopped
4 carrots, chopped
(2 turnips, chopped)
12 okra, topped and tailed
2-3 cups chicken, cooked and in big chunks

Method
1. In a large pot, fry the onion in the oil until soft (about 3 minutes).
2. Reduce the heat to medium and stir in 1 cup of the stock.
3. Whisk in the peanut butter, then stir in the rest of the stock, the tomatoes, salt and pepper to taste and cayenne pepper.
4. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for 30 minutes.
5. Stir in the cabbage, sweet potatoes, carrots and turnips, bring to the boil, then reduce heat again, cover and cook for 20 more minutes.
6. Stir in the okra and chicken chunks, cover and let stew for 30 minutes.
7. Serve with sadza.
Serves 6

Sadza

Ingredients
4 cups water
2 1/2 cups white cornmeal

Method
1. Bring 3 cups of the water to the boil in a large pot.
2. Combine 1 1/2 cups of the cornmeal with the remaining 1 cup of water.
3. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the cornmeal mixture to the boiling water, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until it starts bubbling. Let it cook for 10-15 minutes.
4. Start adding the remaining cup of cornmeal, mixing well with a wooden spoon (or, like we did, draft in the Bamix because the wooden spoon isn’t going to cut it).
5. Turn the heat down as low as it will go, then cover and leave to simmer until it pulls away from the sides of the pan.

Admittedly, this looks revolting, but it’s the chicken stock in progress.
Bringing out the big guns

Well, this made a nice change from beef stew, and the different vegetables in it also made it a bit more varied than some of our other recent dishes. We did find that it’s best served fresh: the leftovers mushed together somewhat when we reheated them, and although that didn’t affect the taste, it did make the texture less interesting. The peanut butter gave a distinctive taste and creaminess, and the cabbage actually served to thicken it as well, as it was so finely chopped it effectively dissolved into the sauce.

Another triumph: Baby Mash actually ate some of it. He’s becoming fussier by the day with food, which apparently is a phase he’ll grow out of, but he’s certainly taking his time. Having been exposed to more flavours in his two years than we probably had in our first ten, he doesn’t know how lucky he is – but we digress. We’d spent some time before the meal showing him pictures of Zimbabwe and showing him where it is on the world map we have on our wall (not that he has any comprehension of what that means), and during the meal we played some Zimbabwean music. Well, either that piqued his interest or he thought he should show some appreciation for his parents’ cooking for once, but he nibbled on a bit of sadza and tried one piece of sweet potato – so we counted that as a win.

Surprisingly different: Botswanan seswaa, stewed spinach greens and cornmeal pap

We’ve said many times that if we were to do this challenge again, the one change we’d make would be to work our way through the countries alphabetically, rather than geographically. The reason for this first became apparent when we were moving through the Pacific Island nations and kept eating, as Ash dubbed it, ‘coconut fish’. Clusters of small countries in close proximity to each other, unsurprisingly, have very similar traditional dishes, and we’ve ended up eating the same sorts of things for weeks on end. An alphabetical list of countries would have mixed it up a bit.

We predicted that we might face a similar issue when we reached Africa, and this certainly seemed to be the case with the beef stews of Namibia and Botswana. Both consisted of little more than beef and water, and were served with a side of cornmeal, so we resigned ourselves to eating the same thing from one week to the next. We were pleasantly surprised, however, when the finished products actually ended up being quite different from one another.

For our Botswanan stew, or seswaa, we chose to follow the recipe from Global Table Adventure, because it had already been adapted to be more toddler-friendly (in other words, it was lower in salt than a strictly traditional version). This also pointed us towards the side dish of stewed spinach greens (as well as the cornmeal pap), and taught us that watermelon is though to have originated in Botswana (in the Kalahari Desert), so we had some of that too!

Seswaa

Ingredients
700g diced chuck steak
1 large onion, chopped
Water
2-4 tbsp flour
Salt and pepper

Method
1. Place all of the ingredients except the flour in a pot. The water should just cover the top of the beef. Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered for 2 hours. You can skim the fat every 20 minutes or so for a lighter flavour (we only did this once).
2. Using a stick blender, break up some of the meat into smaller pieces.
3. Mix a little water with the flour until it forms a glue-like consistency and add it to the stew. Cook for a few more minutes, until the flour thickens the stew.

Stewed spinach greens

Ingredients
450g baby spinach
1 large onion, sliced thinly
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 green pepper, sliced thinly
Oil
Salt and pepper

Method
1. Add all the ingredients to a large frying pan or wok. Cover and heat over medium-low, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes, or until all vegetables are soft.

Where did all the spinach go?!

Cornmeal pap

Ingredients
1 cup cornmeal
2 pints stock (we used vegetable)
Salt and pepper

Method
1. In a medium pot, bring the stock to the boil.
2. Pour in the cornmeal slowly. Whisk continually to keep the mixture from lumping (as it thickens, you may need to switch to a wooden spoon).
3. Allow to simmer gently until cooked to desired consistency (about 20 minutes).
4. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

The peas were for Baby Mash’s benefit – something we knew he’d eat!

Considering that there were hardly any ingredients in the seswaa, we were surprised at how enjoyable it was (and totally different in both flavour and consistency from its Namibian stew predecessor). The other beauty of it was that it’s totally versatile – we actually doubled this recipe and it ended up making enough for about six dinners. So far we’ve mixed some leftovers with tomatoes and other veggies and used it as a pasta sauce, but we also commented that it would work as a pie filling.

We didn’t enjoy the cornmeal pap as much as versions we’ve made before though, and that’s due to the fact that it was made with stock instead of water: whilst this obviously gave it more flavour, we thought it was too overpowering and actually ended up clashing with the beef stew.

As for the stewed spinach, opinions were mixed: Ash really liked it, but Miranda thought it was too bitter, and wasn’t a fan. Baby Mash, therefore, would have been the deciding vote, but other than deigning to touch a bit of cornmeal to his tongue for all of half a second, he didn’t eat any part of this meal, so his vote doesn’t really count. It’s a good thing we bought the watermelon, because he was all over that – so he didn’t go hungry!

A hunt for tradition: Namibian potjiekos and oshifima

WordPress has just notified us that it’s seven years since we first started this project. I don’t think we ever envisioned that cooking 196 dishes would take us 364 weeks! It’s been fun though, and we’re definitely on the home stretch now.

As we’ve been eating our way around the world, we’ve found it difficult to pin down a really traditional dish in certain regions where the so-called national dish of one country actually originated in another one. This has been particularly common in newer countries, or regions where borders have been moved over time.

From our research into Namibia’s national dish, it looks like southern Africa might be another such region. Even on websites ostensibly dedicated to Namibian food, ‘traditional’ recipes were often attributed to South Africa rather than Namibia. The dish we kept coming across that seemed truly Namibian was potjiekos, which is a beef stew, but at first we opted against it because it is supposed to be cooked over a fire in a particular three-legged pot, and we didn’t have access to either of those things. In the end, though, we went with it, because we couldn’t find anything else unquestionably Namibian! We used a recipe from Ester Kocht, a Namibian lady, and we also used her recipe for oshifima, or mielie pap (stiff cornmeal porridge).

Potjiekos

Ingredients
1kg beef chucks/shanks, ideally with bone in (but we unfortunately couldn’t get that so had to make do with boneless), diced
4 tbsp tomato puree
2 large onions, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
300g carrots, cut into chunks
1 litre hot water
Cooking oil
Chilli flakes
Salt and pepper

Method
1. Heat some oil in a large pot over a medium-high heat and brown the meat.
2. Deglaze the pan with some water, which you can keep and use later.
3. Add the onions and garlic and saute for 5 minutes, stirring continuously.
4. Add the carrots and tomato puree and stir well. Cook for another minute.
5. Add about half the water and stir to combine.
6. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer for 60 minutes. Keep stirring and adding water while it cooks so that the bottom of the pot doesn’t burn.
7. Season with chilli flakes, salt and pepper and add the remaining water.
8. Simmer for another 25 minutes or until the meat is tender and sauce is nicely thick.
Serves 4-6

Oshifima
Oshifima is traditionally made with pearl millet flour, or a combination of pearl millet flour and cornmeal. We couldn’t find pearl millet flour anywhere so made ours entirely with cornmeal. This version is also known as mielie pap. The original recipe is here if you want to see the pearl millet flour version. There’s also a useful video if you follow the link.

Ingredients
400ml water
95g cornmeal
Pinch of salt, to taste

Method
1. Heat the water in a pot over medium heat until lukewarm.
2. Add about half of the cornmeal and salt and stir well.
3. Stir occasionally until the mixture starts to boil and bubble. Let cook for about 2 minutes.
4. Slowly add the remaining cornmeal with one hand whilst stirring with the other hand.
5. Stir very fast until your arm nearly falls off until you have a smooth consistency.
6. Reduce the heat and let cook for another 1-2 minutes. Stir well once more.
7. Once you’ve taken the oshifima out of the pan, soak it (and the spoon you used to stir it) before it dries because it will set like concrete!

The verdict on this meal was split between the people in the household who actually like food (Miranda and Ash) and the fusspot toddler (Baby Mash). Miranda and Ash enjoyed the potjiekos – you can’t argue with a solid beef stew – although we did wish we’d been able to get beef on the bone, as the marrow would have made the stew even richer. Baby Mash, on the other hand, is very anti-meat so wouldn’t even try the beef, despite it being very tender.

Baby Mash also wouldn’t touch the oshifima, which we’d fortunately predicted so made him some mashed potato as well. Miranda and Ash didn’t mind it, and had a go at eating it the traditional way (with the hands), although we did mostly revert to cutlery. We will admit that we joined Baby Mash with mashed potato when we ate the leftovers, though (partly because we had to make it for him anyway, but also because we thought we’d prefer it).

We’ve looked ahead to some of the upcoming countries and it looks like there could be a few more beef stews in our future! Watch this space…

A bit more exotic: Swazi Karoo roast ostrich steak

Swaziland is another country that is landlocked within South Africa. It also isn’t called Swaziland anymore, as King Mswati III renamed it the Kingdom of eSwatini in 2018. eSwatini means ‘land of the Swazis’ and apparently a driving force behind the change was the fact that, incredibly, the country was being mistaken for Switzerland under its former name.

The national dish of eSwatini is Karoo roast ostrich steak. The Karoo is a semi-desert region of southern Africa and, judging by what we saw when we were in South Africa, seems to be where a lot of the game meat seems to come from. We spent one night in Oudtshoorn, which is in the Klein Karoo and famous for its ostrich farms, and when we were there we went to a restaurant called Bello Cibo and ate rather a lot of ostrich: the ‘Ostrich Trio’ starter (ostrich carpaccio, ostrich fillet pasta and ostrich liver pate) and then ostrich fillet for main. So whilst we’re not exactly strangers to eating ostrich, we don’t think we’ve ever cooked it before, so when we learnt that it is eSwatini’s national dish, we had to give it a go. It’s obviously not the most common of meats, so we ordered ours online from Oslinc, and followed a recipe from National Foods of the World, which serves the ostrich with pumpkin mash and a cream sauce.

Karoo roast ostrich steak

Ingredients
2 ostrich steaks, thinly sliced
1 onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup double cream
1 cup white wine
6 green peppercorns, lightly crushed
5 juniper berries, lightly crushed
1 pumpkin (we used butternut squash), peeled and cubed
3/4 cup red wine
1/2 ground maize
Butter for frying
Salt and pepper

Method
1. Put the ostrich, red wine and juniper berries in a bowl with some salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
2. The next day, put the pumpkin and ground maize in a pot with enough water to cover the pumpkin. Boil for 30 minutes, adding more water if necessary.
3. When the pumpkin softens, drain off any excess liquid (see note below about this).
4. Mash the cooked pumpkin and ground maize together and set aside.
5. For the sauce, melt some butter in a clean pan and saute the onions in the butter until brown.
6. Add the peppercorns, white wine and cream and bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer gently for a while to cook out some of the wine. Season with salt and pepper if desired, and set aside.
7. For the ostrich, discard the marinade, heat some butter in a separate pan and flash fry the ostrich strips.
8. Serve the ostrich alongside the pumpkin mash with the cream sauce drizzled over the top
Serves 2

There are a couple of things we need to mention before we get onto our verdict:
1. Step 3 of the recipe says to drain the excess water from the pumpkin/ground maize mixture. We have no idea how we could have done this. By the time it had cooked for a while, the water was very much combined with the ground maize, and draining the water would have drained the ground maize as well. So no draining took place, and as a result, this substance was more of a slop than a mash (Baby Mash still had fun splattering it everywhere with the masher though).
2. The recipe we followed said that Swazi cooking is heavily influenced by French cooking techniques. We’ve eaten a reasonable amount of French food in our time and never have we come across a cream sauce that is one part cream to two parts wine. The direction to ‘simmer gently for a while to cook out some of the wine’ is our addition.
3. This steak was very much fried, not roasted in any way.
4. Although there is nothing particularly difficult about this dish from a technique point of view, it does get a bit hectic towards the end when you’re trying to flash fry ostrich whilst also finishing a cream sauce. To be fair, we did make this even harder for ourselves by doing two separate lots of ostrich (one wine-free for the toddler), two separate sauces (one wine-free for the toddler), adding some greens, and making some separate mashed potato for the toddler because we didn’t think he’d eat much else.

And we were right. Baby Mash is in a particularly fussy phase with food at the moment and didn’t touch the ostrich, sauce or pumpkin, so all that effort was entirely worth it. *eye roll* Fortunately, Ash and Miranda did both like it! There was far too much pumpkin for one meal, and it wasn’t all that exciting anyway, but it did provide a sweet contrast to the sharpness of the cream sauce. We’re not sure how much impact the marinade had on the ostrich, as you couldn’t really taste it, but you can’t go wrong with a good steak!

Winter warmer: Lesothan red rooibos latte

Lesotho is a small country completely contained within South Africa. If we’d had time during our South African adventure, we’d definitely have paid it a visit, partly to tick off another country and partly because of the stunning scenery.

Image result for lesotho

If we’d made it across the border, we might have discovered a drink that is apparently ubiquitous in big-city Lesothan coffee shops: the red rooibos latte. We came across rooibos (or redbush) everywhere during our travels around South Africa – we mostly stayed in Airbnb accommodation and most hosts had provided rooibos in the rooms – but we just drank it the traditional way, without milk. Our research taught us that there’s a new tradition, which is to brew it really strongly and add milk, honey and cinnamon to create a latte. You might be thinking that strongly brewed tea isn’t nice no matter what you add to it, but rooibos is different as it doesn’t take on the bitter flavour that other types of tea do.

There are a number of different recipes for red rooibos latte out there on the web, some using teabags and some using loose-leaf, and all with slight variations of the tea-to-milk ratio. We combined the ideas from Global Table Adventure and Food.com to create our version. This can be made vegan if you leave out the honey and use an alternative milk.

Red rooibos latte

Ingredients
2 rooibos teabags
1 cup boiling water
1 cup milk
Cinnamon
Honey (optional, to taste)

Method
1. Brew the teabags in the water for at least 10 minutes, in a teapot or on the stove. When it’s ready it will be almost black.
2. Gently heat and steam or whisk the milk (we used our Aerolatte milk frother).
3. Make the lattes by putting one part tea in a cup, followed by two parts milk.
4. Add honey to taste if you want to (we didn’t).
5. Dust with as much cinnamon as you want (quite a lot, in our case, although this was partly because of how quickly it came out of the jar).
Serves 2

Baby Mash’s contribution

Ash and Miranda both took a mouthful and shrugged, saying, ‘It’s all right, but nothing special.’ We thought we probably wouldn’t bother with it again, as we like rooibos without milk (which is a lot less faff), but enjoyed the warming nature of it, particularly as we were in the midst of a cold spell. We will certainly try one made properly in a coffee shop if we ever make it to southern Africa again though.

Baby Mash’s verdict is even less certain. He made a face, tried some more, made a face again, ate all the cinnamon out of his own cup and ours but didn’t drink much more of the tea. Then, a week later, he asked for tea again, so we made a simpler version of this and he didn’t want it. To be fair, this total unpredictability is par for the course with him at the moment, so we probably should have seen it coming!

We made it to Africa: South African bobotie, yellow rice and apricot blatjang

Having now cooked our way through South America, we’re about to embark on a culinary journey through Africa, a continent that we’ve visited a couple of times but would love to see more of. Ash once dreamed up an intrepid roadtrip across much of the continent but it was one of those things where real life got in the way and it never happened. (Little did he know that his free and easy days of singledom were nearly over and his future wife was about to walk into his life.)

Although much of Africa is, therefore, uncharted territory for us, we did go to South Africa a few years back as a delayed ‘honeymoon’. Because we got married in Australia (which was a big enough trip on its own) and then had a mini-moon in Dubai on our way back to the UK, we decided we’d splash out on a big holiday at a later date and call it our honeymoon. We’d originally planned on India but that didn’t work out, but we can’t complain about our ‘second best’ of South Africa, which we both agree was one of the best holidays we’ve ever been on.

With the exception of the safaris we did, which are enough on their own to make any holiday a highlight, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why our two weeks in South Africa was so wonderful. We can only conclude that it was a combination of everything. The people were some of the friendliest and happiest we’ve ever come across, despite the fact that many of them were living in poverty and/or dangerous conditions. There was the stunning landscapes that we hiked and drove through, from beaches to mountains to caves to forests to rivers to jacaranda trees to sunsets and sunrises over the savanna.

There was the sobering experience of visiting Robben Island and being shown around by an ex-political prisoner, and the adventure of climbing Table Mountain.

There was the abundance of wildlife: seals, dolphins, whales, penguins, ostriches, baboons, birds, monkeys, dassies, elephants, meerkats, zebras, warthogs, buffalo, steenbok, lions, rhinos, impalas, giraffes, wildebeests, klipspringers, cheetahs, hissing ants, mongoose, jackals, kudu, lizards… and more. And on the topic of wildlife, we do need to mention our stay at Buffalo Ridge Safari Lodge again – one of the best things we’ve ever done.

But the focus of this blog is always on the food and oh, how we feasted: generous home-cooking at the amazing Mzansi in the oldest township in Cape Town, a tasting menu in Franschhoek, a picnic at Richard Branson’s vineyard, massive (and cheap) steaks, ostrich in many guises, bunny chow, breakfasts of rusks and rooibos, braai, G&Ts and biltong on safari, and many other delights that we don’t have time to list here.

One dish that eluded us, though, was South Africa’s national dish: bobotie (pronounced ba-boor-tea). A sort of curry-flavoured shepherd’s pie, but with an eggy topping instead of potato, we have actually made bobotie before but were keen to find an authentic South African recipe in order to make it for this blog – but then Ash’s South African colleague said we couldn’t go wrong with the BBC Good Food recipe, with a few changes that he suggested. He also said that we had to serve it with yellow rice, so we used the BBC Good Food recipe for that too, and when we were looking at it we realised we had all the ingredients for the recommended chutney accompaniment, apricot blatjang (pronounced blud-young), so we made that too.

Bobotie

Ingredients
2 slices white bread
2 onions, chopped
25g butter
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1kg minced beef
2 tbsp curry paste (recipe said madras, but we used balti to make it more toddler-friendly)
1 tsp dried mixed herbs
3 cloves
5 allspice berries (also known as pimento)
2 tbsp Mrs Ball’s Original Chutney (can be substituted with peach or mango but Mrs Ball’s is the most authentic)
3 tbsp sultanas
6 bay leaves
Sliced almonds
300ml full cream milk, plus some extra for soaking
2 large eggs

Method
1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Pour some milk over the bread and set aside to soak.
3. Fry the onions in the butter, stirring regularly for 10 minutes until they are soft and starting to colour.
4. Add the garlic and beef and stir well, crushing the mince into fine grains until it changes colour.
5. Stir in the curry paste, herbs, spices, chutney, sultanas and 2 of the bay leaves and season well.
6. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes.
7. Squeeze the milk from the bread, then beat into the meat mixture until well blended.
8. Tip into an ovenproof dish, press down well and smooth the top.
9. Beat the milk and eggs with seasoning, then pour over the meat.
10. Top with the remaining bay leaves (whole, unless you’re Ash and decide to chop them up for some unknown reason) and some sliced almonds (although we forgot about the almonds) and bake for 35-40 minutes until the topping is set and starting to turn golden.
Serves 4-6

Yellow rice

Ingredients
350g basmati rice
50g butter
1 heaped tbsp caster sugar
1/2 cinnamon stick
6 cardamom pods, shelled and seeds crushed
Just under 1 tsp ground turmeric
5 tbsp raisins

Method
1. Put all the ingredients in a large pan with 500ml water, then heat until boiling and the butter has melted.
2. Stir, cover and leave to simmer for 6 minutes.
3. Take off the heat and leave, still covered, for 5 minutes.
4. Fluff up and tip into a warm bowl to serve.

Apricot blatjang

Ingredients
250g dried apricots
1 red onion, quartered
1/2 tsp dried crushed chilli
2 garlic cloves
50ml white vinegar
1 heaped tbsp light muscovado sugar

Method
1. Put the apricots in a bowl and pour over 600ml boiling water.
2. Leave for 30 minutes to soak and cool.
3. Tip the apricots and the soaking liquid into a food processor with all the remaining ingredients, then blitz until smooth.
4. Tip into a saucepan, then cover and simmer for 20-25 minutes until thick and pulpy.

It’s many years since we last made bobotie but we don’t think it will be as long before the next time. All three of us enjoyed this, although our egg-hating toddler probably would have preferred a potato topping like he gets on cottage pie! The yellow rice was delicious as well, and so simple, even for people like us who only ever cook rice in a foolproof steamer in the microwave. Baby Mash was such a fan of the rice that he grabbed the serving spoon from the bowl and started feeding himself with it. The blatjang was a good discovery too and was a logical accompaniment to the fruity bobotie and rice, although we won’t necessarily make it again next time we have bobotie.

Another achievement of note from this meal was that we’ve added yet another jar to our already heavily-laden spice shelves: pimento, or allspice berries. We had the ground version but not the whole ones. We’re now hoping that we discover some more African recipes that use them! (We’re also still hoping for a use for the massive jar of black cardamom we bought back when we were cooking Indian food…)