Readers, this was a harried week. I had all sorts of lawyerly challenges to contend with. So, cooking through the cuisine of a continent – plus expat recipes thrown in for good measure – was only bound to make me stressed and a little confused.
In fairness, I should state that I don’t know a lot about African food. But, this book didn’t do that much to enlighten me. Considering the context in which this book was being introduced – the hoopla about how Marcus Samuelsson was introducing African food to the culinary world – the introductions and explanatory text seemed a little thin to me. The recipes themselves were also a bit cursory for a fumbling cook such as yours truly. There was not as much explanation as I wanted regarding how things should turn out, or what to do if things start to go awry. More frustrating to me, though, was the failure to explain the dishes – I would have loved to have found out more about the social meaning of a dish, or what defines success for that particular dish.
Take the Snapper Wrapped in Banana Leaves, which sounded lovely – a West African layered dish of rice in coconut milk and chicken stock, topped with plaintains and snapper nestled in banana leaves with garlic, chili and lemon. But, there was almost no explanatory text. Also, the rice did not cook evenly and the fish parcels barely fit into my dutch oven. I think maybe this dish needs to be made with an extra large dutch oven, not the type that most people have in their kitchen. I also thought the flavors were a little too unbalanced and aggressive. Mr. Addict liked the rice but didn’t like the dish as a whole.
The Ethiopian Stir-Fried Beef Stew was delicious, but I didn’t follow the recipe. The recipes instructs you to stir-fry the ingredients only briefly, and tells you to add the liquid just one minute before taking off of the flame. At that point, the stew did not look anything like the picture or the beef stews I have eaten at Ethiopian restaurants. Also, it would not have worked well on the injera (spongy Ethiopan flat bread) while so liquidy. So, I pulled out every last morsel of meat and cooked the liquid down a bit, in defiance of the instructions. As doctored, Mr. Addict loved it.
I had mixed feelings about the injera recipe too. Injera is traditionally made with a sourdough starter, and takes several days to prepare. In this version, baking soda replaces the starter and a little yogurt is added to give it the characteristic tang. I thought it tasted more like a slightly springy savory crepe than injera. But, it did go nicely with the beef, and made preparing a complete semi-Ethiopian meal on a weeknight feasible. It did make me wonder, though, what type of injera Samuelsson is serving in his new restaurant, Merkato 55.
The Cumin Braai Bread, a simple yeasted loaf flecked with cumin and enriched with a spiced butter, was the only recipe that went completely smoothly. This was one where I didn’t need his guidance to understand the desired texture or flavor profiles. I thought it was a little plain, but Mr. Addict liked it a lot.
My favorite parts of this cookbook were the rare portions here and there in which he did provide some background - like explaining that foie gras originated in Egypt and that the fattening of geese is depicted in hieroglyphics.
But, overall, this cookbook felt a little like a travelogue. And the scope was, well, a bit untenable for someone who has not spent their life researching the subject. I didn’t understand, at all, the decision to include Middle Eastern dishes and Jamaican dishes, or to provide any meaningful background on the culinary philosophy behind African cuisines. I guess in some ways the scope of the book isn’t really that different than, say, certain all-in-one cookbooks about Jewish food all over the world. But, the really good ones provide tons of context, back story, and authoritative stances on at least some pocket of the cuisine. That was missing here.
Have any of you been to Merkato 55? If you have, please let me know what you thought!