If stupidity were oil I would build a time machine, like the one in the movie Primer (2004), go back in time and immediately begin drilling on the head of 22 year old me. It was at this age that I decided to join the Peace Corps. As part of my year long application to the Peace Corps I recall saying to a recruiter something along lines of, “Send me to Africa. Send me somewhere I don’t speak the language. Someplace with lots of infectious diseases.” In retrospect, the decision wasn’t that stupid. Je peux me faire comprendre en Français AND I survived malaria twice. What’s even more, to this day, I blame any caught-in-the-act instances of flatulence on a bug I picked up in Africa. Going further, the best memories I take from that time in my life always come back to the rich food and my willingness to clean any plate anyone put in front of me. From my first day in Cameroon to my last day I tried everything. From baton de maniac (cassava stick) to breakfast cow tongue soup, if someone would serve it to me I would eat it and love it. Really, is there anything more refreshing and special than a forty of Beaufort and some freshly fried crickets? When Justin kicked off Nomadic Foods, it was the memory of this impulsiveness that brought me back the most comforting of foods from my time in Cameroon, okra stew.
Baskoje is how the locals refer to it. I felt like I had fallen off the internet when I couldn’t find a single reference to that word in my searches. I checked to see I was using Google, not Bing. Yup. Fortunately, there were a ton of references for Gombo and west African okra stew. I was first introduced to Okra stew waiting for bush taxi’s. In northern Cameroon and some parts of Nigeria almost every city of any note will have a neighborhood called Sabon Gari. Roughly translated as the foreigners’ neighborhood it’s often the hub for any transportation. In these neighborhoods you find a wonderful mix of the foods foreigners bring from other countries (Nigeria, Chad, France, Congo, Central African Republic) made with fresh ingredients from the local countryside. Northern Cameroon is filled with Fulani cattle farmers called the Fulbe delivering fresh, if very lean, beef to market. Another predominant tribe, the Massa, grow Okra by the ton. It’s almost as though the unification of these two great ingredients was inevitable. I could get baskoje by the bowl typically for 300 XAF (Central African CFA Franc) or about $.50. It was almost always served with some kind of fufu such as corn, rice or in the extreme north of Cameroon millet. For those who don’t know, millet is the primary ingredient in bird seed. It’s very easy to grow and when ground into a fine flour can be added to water to create a rich starchy compliment to any hearty stew. I won’t lie, my taste buds preferred the aristocratic and more expensive fufu corn.
If you’ve cooked Okra you know that it can get slimy. In fact slimy doesn’t do it justice. In reflection there was no justice served when I elected to use the word snot to answer my wife and daughter’s queries about the menu Saturday night. Fortunately, we were enthralled with the NBA’s slam dunk contest so confusion yielded to amazement as Donavan Mitchell dazzled. Now that’s truly an assist. What makes this dish so beautiful is the rich, thickness of the Okra combined with the red pepper and sweetness of the shrimp. You take a bite and your heart draws a line from West Africa, to the Caribbean and ultimately New Orleans and the American south. The consistency hearkens back to any Midwestern beef stew and that is normally the way it would be enjoyed (with beef). The connections I make between this meal born in the heart of Africa and the stews my mother made growing up are so clear to me now in a way that was never clear when I was younger. Below is my humble take on this wonderfully rich and deeply memorable dish from my travels abroad. Enjoy.
West African Okra Stew with Seafood and Fufu Corn
Total time: 45 Minutes
Ingredients – Okra Stew with Seafood
- High Heat, Flavor Neutral Oil | 2 tbsp.
- Chopped Fresh Okra | 1 lbs.
- Diced Yellow Onion | ½ cup
- Diced Celery | ½ cup
- Rough Chopped Spinach | 2 cups
- Vegetable broth | 2 cups
- Seafood – I used Shrimp (peeled and deveined), Scallops and Cod Cheeks | 1 lbs.
- Red pepper flakes | 2 tsp.
- Salt | 2 tbsp.
Ingredients – Fufu Corn
- Boiling Water | 4 cups
- Find Ground Corn Meal | 2 cups
- Salt | 2 tbsp
Okra Stew with Shrimp
- Sauté onions and celery with oil in a large skillet over medium heat until tender.
- Add vegetable broth to skillet, bring to a simmer.
- Add spinach, okra and salt. Cover and let simmer for 10 mins on medium heat until spinach is wilted, and sauce has thickened.
- Add red pepper flakes and additional salt to taste.
- Lower temperature to low and add Seafood, cover and set aside.
- In a medium sauce pan, bring four cups of water to a boil over medium high heat.
- Reserve one cup of boiling water.
- Whisk small amounts (1/4 at a time) of corn meal into boiling water ensuring smoothness consistency. Whisk vigorously. Even more vigorously. Feel free to pull the pot off the heat while whisking vigorously.
- When the consistency appears smooth, add reserved boiling water as needed to ensure soft consistency. Cooler water will stiffen the mixture, but more water makes it softer ultimately.
- Cover plan and leave over lowest heat setting for ten minutes.
- Remove lid. Using a bowl with an edge, carved out boules and serve or shape and serve.