A perfume of incense and adventure, in the legendary footsteps of great traveling writers: Arthur Rimbaud, Henry Monfreid, Joseph Kessel, Albert London, Romain Gary … Today, we are headed for Djibouti for its famous skoudehkaris!
Strait between Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, Djibouti declared its independence from France in 1977. Located in the Horn of Africa, Djibouti was a French colony from 1842 until its independence in 1977, which explains the broad French influence in the cuisine from Djibouti.
Djiboutian cuisine also consists of a blend of Ethiopian, Somali, and Yemeni cuisine, with some South Asian influences. Popular Djiboutian dishes include sambusas (samosas), hah-fah (vegetable spiced soup with goat meat), yetakelt w’et (spicy vegetable stew), lahoh (flat bread), garoobey (oatmeal porridge), xalwo (Djiboutian halva), fatira (omelette made from bread and meat), banana fritters and skoudehkaris that I am featuring today and which is considered by most people as national dish. It is often eaten with injera, a teff flour bread, also famous in Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines.
Skoudehkaris is a dish from Djibouti prepared with lamb, rice and the delicious flavors of cilantro, cumin and cardamom. A close cousin of Indian biryani, this dish is traditionally cooked with lamb but it is not uncommon in Djibouti to use beef, chicken or even seafood instead.
The History of Rice
Let’s talk about rice, which is probably one of the oldest cereals known to man.
Rice is the grain found in the fruit of a herbaceous plant of the graminaceous family. The fruit of this plant is a caryopsis, a term that defines a fruit that does not open naturally. The rice is born with a robe (paddy rice, unhulled) and, to consume it, it must be rid of its hull.
The shape of this caryopsis determines the classification of the rice. One of the main classification parameters is the length/width ratio of the grains.
There are two types of rice produced in the world: oryza sativa, of Asian origin, which is the most widespread and cultivated in 95% of the world’s rice, and oryza glaberrina, of African origin.
In recent years, research has intensified to establish where rice was born and how it has spread from Asia to the rest of the world. Thanks to these studies, it has been possible to establish that 15,000 years ago, wild rice was an important source of food for prehistoric populations in parts of Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, China and a few islands in Southeast Asia. Among the most widespread theories about the origin of rice, the most valid one remains that rice could have been born on the slopes of the Himalayas about 15,000 years ago.
In China, rice has been cultivated for about 7,000 years.
Recent studies have shown that the first areas where rice was grown intensively are Eastern China and Northern Thailand. From China, rice cultivation has spread to India. The first traces of cultivation of this cereal in the swampy regions of the Ganges date back to 3000 years ago. By the 6th century BC, cereals were grown in the Middle East and precisely in the fertile crescent, in Mesopotamia.
The first to introduce rice in the Western World were the Greeks. Introduced by the Arabs in Spain in the thirteenth century, rice first spread in Europe only between the fourteenth and fifteenth century, during the period of great famines.
For millennia, rice has been a staple food for Asian civilizations hence the famous legend that describes it as a gift from some supernatural powers. The most famous legend is the one which involves Shiva and Retna, two Indian deities.
The god Shiva was so in love with a gorgeous young virgin named Retna Dumilla (which means “resplendent jewel”) that he asked her to marry him. Retna replied that they would not be married until Shiva created food as a wedding gift that could be eaten every day without her getting tired of its taste. Shiva tried to please his future wife and tried for a long time to create this food, without success. Tired of failures, Shiva forced Retna to marry him, but the bride died of grief shortly thereafter. Forty days and forty nights after her death, a plant of a species never seen before appeared all around and on her tomb, a plant that bears the name of pari (rice), in India.
Even today, in the popular culture of many Asian countries, rice is considered to be the basis of human sustenance. In Madagascar, this food is so important that rice is the unit of measurement used to mark the hours of the day. Indeed, on this island, to indicate a measure of time of 30 minutes, people say “the time necessary to cook rice”! Also in Madagascar, as the local tribe came into contact with Europeans for the first time, and received the offerings of Western merchants, they responded by giving each piece an equivalent value in rice.
The varieties of rice around the world
There are more than 100,000 rice varieties in the world of which only 8,000 are exploited. Preparing a rice dish seems rather straightforward, a recipe that can be done with your eyes closed, right? Well, not really…
We are often tempted, wrongly, to think that one rice looks like another. Unless you are content to eat something that looks like mashed potatoes rather than a rice dish, you have to respect the cooking times for the rice and choose the right rice for each recipe. Each quality of rice is specific to a particular type of cooking. Each variety of rice has its characteristics.
The amount of starch contained in a rice is very important. To obtain a dish with grains that are well separated from each other, it is necessary to choose a quality of rice with more amylose.
For example, basmati rice with its long, fine grain has the highest amylose content (a component of starch), also Thai rice with a long and soft grain.
In contrast to amylose, a high amylopectin content (another component of starch) will produce sticky rice.
Round or short grain rice swells a lot during cooking as opposed to long grain rice, which absorbs little water. Round grain rice is often recommended for desserts. Know that the highest quality round rices come from Italy, the homeland of risotto!
To make sushi or California rolls, for example, you will need Japanese round white rice. It has a very high amylopectin content which gives it its sticky character, very useful for Japanese recipes. Be careful not to confuse it with glutinous rice, which has a zero amylose content and a very high content of amylopectin.
For our skoudehkaris, a basmati or Thai rice will be perfect!
Skoudehkaris is delicious Djibouti food with captivating aromas that I urge you to prepare, with a preference for the lamb version.
- 1 lb lamb shoulder (shank), cut into pieces
- 2½ cups rice
- 5 tomatoes , peeled, seeded and diced
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 red onion , sliced
- 2 onions , finely chopped
- 4 cloves garlic , crushed
- ½ teaspoon chili powder
- 4 tablespoons oil
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 6 cardamom pods
- 2 pinches cinnamon
- A few cilantro leaves , chopped
Preheat oven at 350 F.
In a dutch oven, pan fry the meat over medium high heat. Brown on all sides without burning. Add all the onions and sweat. Add garlic, tomatoes, chili peppers and tomato paste. Add salt and spices.
Cover everything with boiling water and put the dutch oven in the oven for 45 minutes. Check the tenderness of the meat and continue cooking if necessary. Also check the liquid level and add water while cooking if necessary. Remove the dutch oven from the oven and place on medium heat.
Pour the rice, mix well, cover and cook rice 15 minutes (5 minutes over medium heat then 10 minutes on low heat). Check the amount of liquid again and add water to cook the rice if necessary. The rice should be slightly sticky and juicy.
Sprinkle with cilantro leaves and serve hot.