My parents being from North Africa, I enjoyed the cuisine from the Maghreb during my entire childhood. While Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are part of the African continent, their cuisines do not share much with the countries on the other side of the Sahara.
If my memory serves me correctly, this was the first time I cooked authentic sub-Saharan African cuisine. This adventure began as I was looking for places where I could find the ingredients typical of this cuisine. If this is an easy task in France, a country where many immigrants from former colonies such as Gabon reside, it is definitely not easy in a city like Los Angeles.
After some research, I found a small African supermarket in a neighborhood that I rarely go to. On a rainy Friday afternoon two weeks ago, I decided to pay them a visit. There, I discovered a fairly small market with a rather limited selection but that still carried all the basic ingredients of African cuisine.
I had already decided to cook chicken nyembwe before I went there so I grabbed a can of “Sauce Graine” (palm butter) and a bottle of palm oil. Palm butter is a paste made from palm nuts (fruit of the African palm). The nuts are cooked before being crushed in a mortar. I’m sure there are still women making their own palm butter in Africa, but it is just as easy to buy it pre-made, the same way we buy peanut butter here in the US. Palm oil is a red-colored oil extracted from the same African palm tree.
I had to linger at least an hour in this small supermarket. There I met Sam, the owner from Liberia and Ghana (son of the original owner who opened the store there more than 30 years ago). Sam was a huge help. While the store was not busy, he gave me a tour and took the time to explain all the ingredients to me and more importantly gave me ideas for recipes in which these spices or other ingredients were used. So I stocked up on spices, canned goods and other ingredients to prepare my next African recipes.
Before leaving, Sam was kind enough to give me two kola nuts. He told me that these nuts should be chewed as is and that they have stimulant virtues. I have had cola drinks for 40 years but this was the first time I saw raw kola nut. It is true that a subtle flavor of cola emanated from those nuts but they clearly didn’t have the typical cola taste when I chewed on them. Another interesting experience that I would not have lived without 196 flavors.
Nyembwe chicken is the national dish of Gabon. Nyembwe means palm oil in the Bantu language of Myene. It is also the national dish of the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) and Angola under different names. It also comes in a few variations in across Western Africa as well as Central Africa. It can be served with white rice, plantain, pounded yam or cassava.
The chicken used in this recipe is often smoked. As I enjoy challenges, I decided to smoke chicken for the first time. I will long remember the experience. I was on the phone with my friend Véra and she followed the smoking of the chicken with me live via webcam!
Recipe of Smoked Chicken
1 whole chicken
2 cups wood chips (apple wood, hickory or other)
1 can beer (or other)
Place wood chips on two sheets of tin foil. Close the tin foil to form pockets. Poke a few holes.
Open the can of beer and drink (or empty) half of its content. I personally would never waste beer so it ended up in my stomach. Place the chicken on the can. Add salt and pepper.
It is possible to smoke the chicken with a gas or charcoal BBQ. The key is to follow the instructions below:
(1) Place the wood chips pouches in direct contact with the heat. With my gas BBQ, I lifted the grate and placed each pocket directly on the burners on each side of the BBQ.
(2) Place the chicken in the middle of the BBQ.
(3) Depending on the number of burners available, leave at least the left and right on (medium heat)
(4) Close the BBQ and seal any vents with aluminum to create a smokehouse
Maintain a temperature of about 300 F. After 90 minutes, check if the chicken is cooked. It must reach an internal temperature of 165 F.
Recipe of Chicken Nyembwe
- 1 smoked chicken, boneless
1/2 box of palm butter (sauce graine)
Red palm oil
2 onions, chopped
3 garlic cloves, pressed
Pour palm butter in a skillet. Add a glass of water and heat over medium heat.
Skim oil which forms at the surface after a few minutes. Continue to cook over medium heat.
Meanwhile, heat red palm oil in another pan.
Add the onion. Sauté for 6-8 minutes.
Add garlic and chicken. Sauté for a few minutes.
Add chicken to palm butter. Stir and continue to cook for a few minutes.
You can serve chicken nyembwe with:
Cut plantain slices of about 1/2 inch (1 cm). Deep fry in hot oil for 5 minutes. Turn over and continue to fry for 2-3 minutes. Arrange on a plate covered with paper towel. Salt right away.
Pounded white yam (typical African side)
Traditionally, this is done by boiling yam and pounding for a long time while incorporating water to make a stretchy texture. I adopted the easy way out and I mixed pounded yam flour with water (which is probably what most Africans do today).