Been intrigued by that $10 box of hibiscus tea that seems to be popping up everywhere lately? Just keep walking, to the nearest African or Latin market, and buy the real stuff. Known by many different names (sorrel, flor de Jamaica, roselle, arhul ka phool, and on and on), this little red flower is beloved just about everywhere.
In Niger, it’s called bissap, and is the basis of this super pleasing drink. You should make it. Right now.
2 cups dark red, dried hibiscus flowers
2 cups sugar*
2 teaspoons of vanilla
2 cups pineapple juice
In a large saucepan or dutch oven, bring 2 quarts of water to boiling.
Remove from heat and add the hibiscus.
Steep for at least 10 minutes.
Separate the flowers and leaves from the water with a strainer.
Add the sugar, vanilla, and pineapple juice. Let cool.
Transfer to a pitcher, and serve over ice with few fresh mints leaves as a garnish.
This also makes GREAT ice pops. I plan on having some bissap pops in my freezer at all times. I’m eating one right now, as a matter of fact.
Just pour into ice pop molds, or ice cube trays, freeze, and enjoy.
*Hibiscus is tart, which I really like. I personally found the above amount of sugar to be overly sweet. The next time I make this for drinking, I’ll use less. For the ice pops however, the sweetness level works really well as-is.
At least on-line, Niger seems to get a bit overshadowed, culinary-speaking, by a few of its neighbors (looking at you, Nigeria and Mali), but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. The book I read about Niger focused primarily on the Songhay in the northwestern part of the country, so I narrowed my recipe search to the same.
It does make me realize that as much as I’m learning from all of my reading and cooking, there’s still a whole world out there I’m passing by. Focusing on one group in one corner of a nation doesn’t give me the big picture, and I hope my very kind readers know that I know that. I’m limited by time; if I had the space, I would want to meet everyone and learn everything.
Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and peanuts. Cook for about 3 minutes, stirring constantly, until onion is soft.
Stir in peanut butter, tomato, tomato paste, spinach, red pepper, salt, and pepper. Reduce heat.
Cover and simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve over millet*** or rice.
* I really deep-roasted the peanuts. I got raw peanuts in the shell, shelled and then roasted them in a 350F oven for about 20 minutes. They were dark brown, but not burnt, and they added a super rich, deep flavor that I highly recommend.
Sort of cheating with this one, since Niger is not technically North African, but hey – grilled corn is popular here, there, and everywhere, and I thought the spices would go well with the stew…
2 teaspoons (or really as much as you want) butter or olive oil**
Combine first 8 ingredients in a small bowl or jar; set aside.
Melt butter in small saucepan on stove or grill, add as much of the spice mix as you want, stir until blended.
Pull husks back from corn, and scrub silks. Brush spiced butter over corn, sprinkle with spice mixture. Place corn on grill rack; grill 12 minutes or until done, turning corn occasionally. You will have some charred spots – you want those!
* *This recipe could easily be made vegan by using olive oil instead of butter.
***How to Cook Millet
Millet is a drought-tolerant crop, and therefore a super important food in arid places where growing conditions can be challenging. It was mentioned quite often in reading about Niger, so it was for sure going to be on the menu for Niger.
First time cooking it, but it won’t be the last. Really good flavor and texture; you should check it out if you aren’t familiar. It’s a popular grain in many parts of the world; I found mine at a Polish grocery store. There are many ways to cook it; I went with the couscous-like style.
1 cup raw millet
2 cups water (or broth, if you’d prefer)
¼ teaspoon salt, optional
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, optional
1. In a large, dry saucepan or Dutch oven, over medium heat, toast the raw millet for 4-5 minutes. I stirred the whole time: the important thing is not let the grains burn.
2. Add the water and salt to the pan, being aware that the water will sputter and maybe splash since the pan is hot. Stir the millet well, increase the heat, and bring to a boil.
3. Once it boils, decrease the heat to low, drop in the butter (if using) and cover the pot. Simmer until the grains absorb most, but not all, of the water (the millet will continue soaking it up as it sits), about 15 minutes. Don’t lift the lid or stir too often. Too much fussing will cause the grains to break up and change texture.
4. Take the millet off the heat, and let sit, covered, for about 10 minutes. Then fluff with a fork and add more salt, if needed.
5. Millet needs to be served warm, and don’t shoot for leftovers. This grain does not seem to reheat well, and really dries out.
A big goal of mine with this blog has been to seek out local writers; to learn about voices that my own culture might not easily introduce me to. With that in mind, I try to steer clear of anthropological studies. How odd would it be to have a total stranger drop in to your life, study you, and then publish papers about your world in order to be viewed as an authority on it? It seems so…strange.
But, for the second country in a row, that’s where I found myself. This time around, it turned into a very good lesson of “never say never” because I truly enjoyed the book. The author takes a deep plunge into the culture that he was studying, the Songhay of the Niger River in northwestern Niger. He’s invited into a world that not many people have the privilege of traveling through, after an auspicious omen takes place in front of a practicing sorcerer. It’s a fascinating journey, and a book that will stay with me for a long time.
The Sahara is a big deal. Geographically, environmentally, psychically; it’s a pivot point that life on this planet revolves around. Huge in scale, it’s the largest hot desert in the world (Antarctica wins the big prize, but that’s all cold, all of the time). If it were its own country, it would be between Brazil and China in size. People have lived there for millennia, but have never conquered it; it’s almost always the other way around. It will absorb you, cover you up, obliterating your presence. Lovely at times, but truly deadly.
I think I’ve daydreamed about it my whole life. It’s also been a persistent character in my literary travels. So, with Mali a few stops back, and Niger and Djibouti on the horizon, I figured it was a good time to try to get a sense of place. I couldn’t have picked a better book: Sahara Unveiled by William Langewiesche. Satisfyingly spare prose, and even more sparse emotions. He doesn’t view the desert or the people that live there as enemies, through a prism of exoticism, or as some sort of harsh mystery to figure out; he states what he finds, and is very succinct in expressing his sometimes mixed emotions. I came away still wanting to see it with my own eyes, but with a better sense of what is really there.