Monday, November 26, 2007

A Spot on the Food Network?

In light of the recent Thanksgiving holiday, which we celebrated here with two huge turkeys, I thought I’d tell you about my recent weeks of intense Zambian cooking experiences. I’m not sure if you’re as much of a Food Network fan as I am (when I can get it). But I’m convinced that I’m marketable for a spot. Maybe Rachel Ray can interview me on her talk show about exotic cooking techniques. I’m not sure that power outages are a problem facing the general American public, or if cooking maize meal over the fire is considered exotic. But, hey, it’s different, right?

Last week, I decided that the time had come for me to learn how to make the traditional beverage that is very popular in the Zambian village. Chibwantu,or sweet beer to your average mzungu (white person), is a non-alcoholic maize-based beverage that is especially drunk during rainy season. The men and women carry it with them to the fields to give them a pick me up in the middle of a hot morning. It’s very different from anything that you’ve probably ever tasted. And, as far as my own limited knowledge permits me to say, it doesn’t taste anything like beer.

The pastor’s wife and I embarked on making a huge batch (I mean, if you’re gonna make sweet beer, make sweet beer, right?) We built a big fire and began to cook a porridge of “maize rice” which is just maize pounded into smaller pieces (a bit smaller than rice). The porridge cooks quickly, expands, and binds together. When it finished boiling violently and popping all over the arms of anyone who dared get too close, we removed the huge iron pot from the fire to allow the porridge to cool.

While the porridge cooled, we soaked a root called munkoyo in cool water. The root is dug from the ground and is what gives sweet beer its distinctive flavor. When the porridge cooled, we added the munkoyo water and stirred. After multiple tastings to determine whether the munkoyo had “taken”(never did figure out how you can tell), we added brown sugar for sweetness. I have to say, it was some mighty fine sweet beer. The batch made enough to fit inside an (unused) garbage can and was then distributed among all of my helpers and their families. It was a good experience. And I thought that I had effectively learned how to reproduce the recipe. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I tried to make a smaller batch just this week (without any help) just to see if I could do it. I couldn’t. It tasted terrible. Like rice soaked in fish water. Blech. Janice informed me that I had soaked the munkoyo too long. When we made the sweet beer together, the women looked like they were doing everything so haphazardly. But no, they have a precise method to their madness, one that I didn’t pick up on. So, it’s back to school for me and sweet beer making. Jacob loves sweet beer and was intensely disappointed that my 2nd batch didn’t turn out. I can’t say the same for rest of the missionary crew, who pretty much looks at us like we’re crazy when we say that we enjoy it. We can’t help it, Zambia has gotten into our blood!

Onto other Food Network worthy cooking experiences…

When we stayed in Chabboboma last weekend, I was excited to finally get some real experience cooking Zambian style food out on the fire. Well, the church women had other ideas. They considered it a full and complete insult for us to cook for ourselves, so they took my chicken and cabbages and prepared it for us while we sat waiting. I did convince them that I was capable enough to cook breakfast on my own, and they reluctantly agreed. Little did I realize why…

I should have realized why. I mean, logically, the timing just doesn’t work out. Church starts at nine. I woke up at 6:30. At home, with my running water and stove and shower, I could easily cook a big breakfast, clean up, and shower and dress for church in that amount of time. It wasn’t that I hadn’t cooked on the fire before, it was just that I was never pressed for time before. So, I started the fire at the nearest fire spot (about 30 yards from the house we stayed in) with wet firewood, blowing desperately to get it going. I hauled water to wash out the pots and start the rice. Then, I started the rice while trying to cut onions in my hand (no cutting board). When the rice was finally finished, I set it aside and started to make the tomato/onion gravy to put over it (common Zambian breakfast, and really tasty!) I had brought canned tomatoes to avoid all the chopping. Smart, right? Yep, except for I didn’t bring a can opener. So, I tracked Jake down and had him perform surgery with his knife on our tomato cans. I fried the onions while stirring constantly, praying that they wouldn’t burn on the now blazing fire. Added the tomatoes and some salt, and with a few more minutes of boiling, my gravy was ready! Now all I needed to do was carry the scalding hot pots all the way back to the house. Shoot! I forgot to make tea! Okay, haul the water for tea, set the pot boiling. Carry the food back to the house and set the table. Make the tea, carry it back. Call the men for breakfast. They mosey into the house slowly, chatting about the service from the night before. It’s 8:30 am. I still have to eat, clean up, haul water for a bath, take a bucket bath, and walk to church before 9 o ‘clock. Man, that hauling water and cooking on the fire thing takes a lot of time! No wonder it seems like the Zambians are always running late!

So, after that, I served the food, swallowed some rice and tea, and took a (much needed) bath from a small bucket. I wasn’t on time for church, but no one seemed too concerned. I have a feeling they understood perfectly! So, now I know. Things take much longer out of your own environment and even longer when the firewood is wet. I’ll get up earlier next time. Or, we’ll eat bread. End of story.

Just in case you ever get a hankering for tomato/onion gravy, I’ll give you the recipe. I made it for lunch here at the guest house, and everyone loved it.

1 medium onion (thinly sliced)
1 can diced tomatoes or 3 fresh tomatoes finely chopped
2-3 Tbl. Cooking oil
1 tsp. flour

Fry onions in cooking oil until tender. Add tomatoes. If canned, they will need a short time to cook. If fresh, they’ll need a bit longer. Make a paste with the flour in a bit of water. Add to the gravy mixture and stir constantly until it boils. Boil for a minute so that you don’t a raw flour taste. Add salt (quite a bit). Serve over hot rice. Yum!

Okay, so now you know my struggling cooking experiences…would you like to hear about my one victory? A Zambian friend from the other orphanage on the hill taught me to make “fire bread.” Fire bread is a sweet bread that can be cooked in a pot, whether on a fire or on a brazier. A brazier is a tiny circular metal grill just big enough for one pot. You build a charcoal fire in the top of it and then set the pot on to cook. Most Zambians use braziers when it’s raining and the firewood is wet, or if they just need to cook a one-pot meal.

Here is the recipe for fire bread, which will come in handy for me in the bush when I don’t have an oven! I made it for dinner the other night, and the visitors couldn’t believe that it was cooked over the fire. It comes out beautifully moist and sweet.

Start a charcoal fire and let it get very hot and burn down.

5 heaping handfuls flour
1 heaping Tbl. Baking powder
1 tsp. salt
5 Tbl. Sugar
3 Tbl. Cooking oil

2 cups water or 2 eggs and 11/2 cups water

Mix the first 4 ingredients. Add oil. Mix well. Add water or eggs and water and mix again. Wipe a big pot with oil on the inside and a bit of dishsoap on the outside. Put the bread batter in the pot. Cover the pot with a large, flat lid. The lid must be able to hold coals on the top. Empty most of the hot coals from the brazier and put them on the lid. Place the pot on the hot brazier and make sure the coal-covered lid fits with no gaps. Let bake for 30-40 minutes. The bread is finished when it is golden brown on the tops and sides. (Carefully) take the lid off of the pot and remove the pot from the brazier to cool. After cooling 10 minutes remove the bread from the pot. Cut like a pie. There you go…fire bread!

So, I have had quite a time learning to cook like a Zambian. It’s really quite an art even though their “cuisine” isn’t very extensive. The trick is to learn from a Tonga woman, and then sneak away and do it by yourself. Because as long as there is a Tonga woman around, she will take the spoon right out of your hand and tell you, “No! Not like that!”

As all those Food Network stars say: “Happy cooking!” Let me know if you talk to Rachel Ray, I think I could really boost her ratings. Ha! ;)


Anonymous said...

HHHHHMMMM, well, Jessi, I think you are a TERRIFIC cook!!! Actually, I have made some pretty rotten tasting food--and I have a stove,microwave and excuses here!!! LOL!!!
I can imagine taking a "bucket bath" because my Grandma Moninger used to "plop" me into a galvanized pan and "scrub" the skin off of my body. I always liked it, though. I still love the smell of Ivory soap because it reminds me of how neat it was to be in the old "wash house" with my crazy grandma!!!
So glad you had a nice Thanksgiving--Miss you so much
Mama S

Pappa S said...

Wow...I am sooo impressed with you! Not only are you a real Tonga Woman now but you are an incredibly gifted story teller! You must put hese experiences to book form because they will be a BIG seller! Congratulations on all of your new experiences and the successful way you attack your next adventure. Love ya girl...
Dad S

LillyB said...

Now that you are Jessi Schwertfeger instead of Jessi Hall are you supposed to be on time?? Because the Jessi I know was always running late!

Beth said...

Great post, Jessi! I can't cook with my modern conveniences, so I am seriously impressed by you! :)

Love and miss you tons.

Jenn said...

I will pay $5 to see Mama S. build a fire in the yard and cook fire bread! (She's the only one within zoning regulations who can do it!) Such a fun post Jessi!

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