"When you grow up with 34 people in your family you always do things for your mother," Ibrahima Diaite said as he explained how he had learned to cook at home in Senegal. Not that family cooking is men's work in that West African country, but according to Diaite (pronounced Dee-ay-tay), who is Ibu to his American friends, it isn't frowned as it is some other places.
"Boys shop and cut wood and my sisters did the cooking over the fire. When you make the fire you see what they do. You learned instinctively. Sometimes I used to cook, too," the 23-year-old trilingual native of Dakar said.
Diaite whose family includes aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc., has been using his cooking ability to pay his travels and has earned enough to tour all through West and North Africa and to the United States. Until recently he worked in a Washington restaurant and now is trying his hand at catering. There are encouraging signs: the interest in Africa food is increasing and for the moment he has little competition. West Africa food in particular, while not the same as American "soul" food, is the "roots" of Southern black cooking - yams, okra, hot pepper, corn, greens.
The mainstay of the West African diet is starch-rice, millet, cornmeal-served with a stew. Because it's apt to be important to make a little go a long way, the stew contains very little meat or fish. But there's always plenty of the hot red pepper and palm or peanut oil. So much oil, in fact; that one criterion for judging the proper quantity, according to a friend of Diaite's, is whether or not "it drips down your elbow when you eat." Eating is usually done with the first three fingers of the hand.
While Diaite has cut down on the amount of oil he uses, Americans may want to cut down even more. He also has reduced the amount of hot pepper he uses, but some Americans finds even that amount too spicy. West Africans are extremely fond of highly seasoned food, often using one tablespoon of red pepper in a dish of six servings. Peppers are also used as a cold remedy, eaten whole and uncooked.
Peanuts, one of Africa's largest export crops, contribute to one of the continent's best-known dishes, groundnut stew. In Senegal, however, cooks do not start with a jar of peanut butter: They start with the whole nuts and grind them to a paste. In America an alternative is "natural" peanut butter, without sweetener or other additives. Diaite buys his in natural food stores. In his groundnut stew he also uses Brussels sprouts in place of the very small green and white cabbages grown in Senegal.
Most West African women do not have cook-books. They learn by watching their mothers as Diaite did. As a result, when he came to this country and began to cook, he had to choose his spices by smell. He did not know their names in English. Here his recipes contain ingredients such as poultry seasoning and herb seasoning. Both are mixtures of various spices and herb seasoning. Both are mixtures of various spices and herbs; neither is available in Senegal. Diaite chose them, he said, because "they smell like those I use at home."
He judges the temperature of his oven by holding his hand inside, much as he would determine the temperature of an open fire in Dakar. His work-toughened hands make it possible for him to keep his hand in the oven longer than his tender-skinned peers, and he can pick up pieces of food so hot, most people would never dream of lifting them without a utensil.
Diaite has never measured an ingredient except by looking. He has never timed his cooking except by the appearance of the ingredients. He is used to cooking the various components of the stews for long periods of time, a common African custom. But his intuitive sense about cooking helped him rise from dishwasher to cook in a local restaurant with a year.
He would like to go back to Dakar one day and open a restaurant there. And if he does he hopes to lure tourists with his cooking, an opportunity not often available in a part of the world where the so-called "safe" food served in the restaurant usually follows the colonial tradition - either British or French.
Diaite's recipes have been adapted to American cooking methods. CHICKEN STEW (8 to 10 servings) 8 pieces chicken 1/2 pound stew beef, cut in chunks Salt and white pepper to taste 1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning 1/4 teaspoon herb seasoning 3 small bay leaves 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1/4 cup peanut oil 1 clove garlic, crushed 18 ounces tomato paste Salt to taste 1/2 cup peanut oil 2 larger onions, sliced lengthwise 8 large potatoes, peeled and cut in large chunks 6 tomatoes, seeded and juice squeezed out 2 large carrots, pared and thickly sliced 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 cup water 2 green onions 2 cloves garlic, slice
Combine salt, white pepper, 1/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning, herb seasoning, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, 1/4 cup peanut oil and bay leaves and rub over chicken and beef pieces. Allow to sit at 1 hour, but overnight is preferable. Bake in shallow dish at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile heat 1/2 cup oil until very, very hots. Add the onions and cook over high heat until onions are softened. Add the potatoes, tomatoes, tomato paste, garlic, remaining poultry seasoning and cayenne pepper and salt to taste, carrots and water. Cover and cook 45 minutes.
Add the green onions and garlic and cook 20 minutes longer. Add the chicken and meat and cook for 30 minutes untit all vegetables are tender. Adjust seasoning and serve with rice. GROUNDNUT STEW (6 to 8 servings) 1 sea trout (about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds), head and tail removed, slit, cleaned and cut into 3 pieces 1/2 pound shrimp 1 clove garlic, cut up 1 tablespoon chopped onion Oil Salt and white pepper to taste 3 bay leaves 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1/2 cup peanut oil 2 large onions, coarsely diced 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper 7 tomatoes, seeded and juice squeezed out 1 can (12 ounces) tomato paste Salt and white pepper to taste 5 cups water 2 green onions 1 1/2 pints Brussels sprouts 1 1/2 pounds fresh or frozen okra, sliced 1 pound mushrooms, cut in quarters 1 to 2 cup pure peanut butter
Place out up garlic and the tablespoon of onion inside the three pieces of fish. Sprinkle with salt, white pepper, cayenne. Rub with oil and place in dish with bay leaves and allow to sit for one hour. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes.
Heat 1/2 cup oil in pot until oil is very, very hot. Add onions with 1/2 teaspoon cayenne. When onions have softened, add tomatoes, tomato paste, salt and white pepper to taste and 5 cups water plus juice squeezed from tomatoes. Cover, boil for 15 minutes, reduce heat and add green onions, Brussels sprouts and fresh okra.
Meanwhile saute mushrooms in just enough hot oil to cover bottom to pan. When mushrooms are done, remove green onion from pot and add mushrooms. Stir in peanut butter and fish and cook 15 minutes longer. If frozen okra is used, add for last 10 minutes of cooking. Serve with rice. RICE (6 servings) 1 onion, coarsely chopped 4 tablespoons butter 3 cups water 2 small bay leaves 4 sprigs parsley, tied together 2 cups long grain rice Salt to taste
Saute onion in hot butter until soft. Add water and bay leaves. Bring to boil. Add parsley, rice and salt and cover. Cook over low heat until rice tender and water is absorbed. Remove parsley and serve.