Saturday, January 09, 2010

Food Ethnography on a Budget: Tanzania I: N'Dizi Ya Na Nyama & Mchicha Na Nazi

The next stop on my Food Ethnography project is the East African country of Tanzania. This country has a wealth of recipes featuring bananas, plantains... okay, bananas and plantains. Seriously though, it's a lot more than just bananas and plantains. But these fruits feature heavily in the cuisine, so it's easy to fiind uses for them.

Food Ethnography: Tanzania
Located in: Eastern Africa
Some common ingredients: bananas, bananas and more bananas, not to mention coconut milk, curry powder, beef, silver beet, plantains and, of course, bananas.
Number of Tanzanian restaurants in the Baltimore area: 0
Number of Tanzanian restaurants in the DC area: 0
Kind of like: Kenyan with a generous hint of Indian, and lots more bananas

Tanzania, just south of Kenya, north of Mozambique and east of Rwanda and Burundi, is along the Indian Ocean. There are, in fact, some notable Indian overtones in Swahili foods. introduced by Arab traders in the Indian Ocean trade in the 700's - specifically curry, coconut milk, citrus and ghee. In addition, beef and silver beet - a green similar to spinach - are not uncommon. But when you think about Tanzanian food you have to think first and foremost of the banana. They are used in just about everything. In fact, you could make an entire Tanzanian meal from bananas and plantains.

Those aren't my words, though. They are the words of Ghanaian-Australian chef Dorinda Hafner, whose cookbook A Taste of Africa is my source for all things Tanzanian. A Taste of Africa is one of the first cookbooks I had ever seen that incorporated the cuisines of Africa and the African diaspora into one handy volume. It's also one of the first African cookbooks I had ever seen at all. Just about every recipe in the "Tanzania" chapter is based on foods from the banana family: banana beef stew, banana soup, plantain chips, banana fritters, even homemade banana wine! I've never been the most enthusiastic consumer of bananas. Now is better than never.

The meal: N'Dizi Ya Na Nyama (Beef and Banana Stew with Coconut Milk)

Hafner gives a very meaty recipe for coconut milk, beef and banana stew, or n'dizi ya na nyama in Swahili. You can also use plantains in this recipe, but bananas were easier for me to find. However, you must use unripe bananas or plantains for this recipe. This I have never seen, but that's what the recipe calls for.

Shopping for this recipe required a few ingredients that I did not have. However, most of them were not terribly pricey. It also helped that I halved the ingredients, which saved even more money. Perhaps Tanzanian cuisine is one of the more economical cuisines in the world, at least for us:

  • 1 lb cubed beef (bought at Whole Foods for about $6 per lb. I very rarely buy meat, which is the only reason I could justify the expense. Surprise - this was still the cheapest beef I could find there. You can probably find it cheaper at Giant or Super Fresh)
  • 1 onion (had it)
  • 1 small tomato (one Roma tomato at $1.49 per lb - I bought two maters, hon, for about 90¢)
  • about 1 cup coconut milk (one can cost me $1.49; I used it for this and a second recipe)
  • vegetable oil (on hand)
  • salt and pepper (yep, also on hand)
  • 4 oz peas (had that, too)
  • 3 unripe bananas (for this and a few other projects, I bought about 12 bananas at 49¢ per pound. They cost me a total of about $3. I used less than $1's worth for this recipe. Bananas are cheap.
Grand total spent on this recipe: about $8.50 for enough food to feed four to six people. Almost all of that was from the cubed beef.

The recipe (posted here on RecipeHound) is relatively easy: just braise the beef in the oil and a little water. Meanwhile heat but don't brown the onion (sliced) and the tomato (chopped) in a large pan. Next, add the meat mixture (or do what I did, and add the onion and tomato to the meat, since the meat was in a bigger pot), and add the coconut milk and cook until it boils. Next, add the unripe bananas (or plantains) in large chunks, and cook until the bananas are "cooked but not mushy" (Hafner's words).

Even though I cut the recipe roughly in half, it still yielded very much food for one person (lots of leftovers - yum). It's strange that a recipe with several very strong flavors - bananas (again, unripe), coconut milk, onions, beef - ends up not tasting as strong as I was expecting. The biggest surprise was the coconut milk, which is extremely subtle in this recipe. It doesn't really cut into the flavor of the unripe bananas. Maybe I added less coconut milk than I should have. As for the bananas: I have never deliberately eaten ones that were not ripe. I can't say I enjoy their flavor. The unripe banana flavor doesn't really detract from the flavors of the beef or the coconut milk. It's not a terrible flavor. It's just not one I'd enjoy eating often. I now know why I prefer my bananas ripe. Fortunately, Hafner has lots and lots of Tanzanian recipes featuring ripe and even overripe bananas! Two are coming up in future posts.

Love it, like it, hate it or meh, the n'dizi ya na nyama is complemented well by the spinach and coconut milk recipe on the next page of the cookbook, one of the few recipes in the "Tanzania" chapter that has nothing to do with bananas or plantains.

The side dish: Mchicha Na Nazi (spinach in coconut milk)

Again, I halved this recipe, and still ended up with more food than I could finish. However, I have to say I really enjoyed this one a lot. Perhaps it was the lack of unripe bananas? The ingredients cost me a good bit less than those for the n'dizi ya na nyama.
  • 1/2 lb spinach (one frozen bag is 99¢ - or buy fresh spinach or silver beet. Really though, you could use just about any green for this)
  • 1 small onion (this time, I went ahead and used a shallot, which I also had laying around)
  • 1 small tomato (bought two, used one for each recipe)
  • about 3/4 cup coconut milk (I was able to stretch the one can of coconut milk over two recipes)
  • 1/2 teaspoon curry powder
  • ghee (no ghee? You can use unsalted butter - or do what I did, and make some in a covered dish in the microwave, a la Julie Sahni. I had a stick in the fridge and just used half of that.)
Total extra spent for this recipe: $1 - and I only used 50¢ worth of that.

Mchicha na nazi is also surprisingly simple, less so if you use fresh greens (also posted on RecipeHound). If you go the frozen spinach route, you don't even have to thaw it! Just fry the onion, tomato and curry powder in the ghee for a few minutes, then add the coconut milk and spinach and cook for 15 minutes on a low flame.

I was worried this would be too rich, but I really got a nice taste of the coconut milk. I've never had spinach and coconut milk together and they blend well. It is an incredibly rich tasting and rich feeling dish and it is a side dish that will really stand out if you use it. And it's very versatile. I ate it with some turkey and stuffing the other day.

N'dizi ya na nyama and mchicha na nazi, with some of that Romanian cornmeal mush mămăliga

The n'dizi ya na nyama and the mchicha na nazi go well with rice, couscous, mashed potatoes or taro, even cornmeal mush. I ate it with some of that leftover mămăliga from the week before. Though from Eastern Europe instead of Eastern Africa, mămăliga (minus the cheese and sour cream of course) bears a striking resemblance to yet another member of the grits/polenta/mămăliga family: ugali, a pan-East African staple that is often eaten for breakfast and with other meals. I would've made some, but with all that mămăliga left over it seemed redundant.

In the next week or so, I'll be trying out some of these other banana recipes from Tanzania. One of them is made in the most wonderful way on the planet: deep-frying.