Monday, January 4, 2010

Songhai Recipes

Traditionally, Songhai are millet and rice farmers. Due greatly to the advancement of the Sahara Desert towards the Niger River, harvests of recent years have been very poor. Often seed grain has been eaten long before time to plant again; more and more, they daily live hand- to- mouth. During the scorching months of March through May, those who live in smaller villages graze the hot, bare, sandy fields along with their animals looking for leaves and herbs to eat, some starving before the next harvest. Cash / food crops of millet and sorghum are raised during the short three to four month growing season from June to October. However, for those Songhai who live right along the banks of the Niger River, they have the opportunity to fish, harvest mangos, raise rice, cultivate small gardens, and raise a few small livestock to help feed their families. Much of their garden produce is sold rather than eaten.

The largest majority of the population is undernourished or malnourished, as they subsist on a diet mainly of millet. Millet that is ready to eat requires a tremendous amount of work by an entire family from planting to harvest to meal preparation. The typical dish of the Songhai is millet porridge. A hard ball of pounded grain is placed is a bowl and covered with water to soften it before eating. If milk is available, the ball is covered with milk rather than water, and occasionally sugar is also added. This dish is eaten twice a day. If rice or millet is eaten for the evening meal, a thin sauce that contains whatever vegetable(s) might be available accompanies it. But at the moments of celebration, food abounds; a goat is slaughtered for the sauce, rice or macaroni appears on the plate rather than millet, and individual portions increase.

Sunday Leg of Lamb

1 large head cabbage cut up in chunks
5 pounds carrots
5 pounds onions
1 large can tomato concentrate
5 pounds green beans
2 Tbsp. Black pepper
3 small hot peppers, or to taste
5 large bouillon cubes
4 Tbsp. Salt
3 cups vegetable oil, more or less
1 gallon water
Seasoning leaves of your choice or whatever is in season

  1. Take one large leg of lamb, clean it well, and boil it in water. Add salt and pepper. Cook it until tender, then take it off the bone, and cut up in small pieces.
  2. Cook up about 20 pounds of rice in another pot.
  3. Take a third, very large pan to cook the sauce.
  4. Add all together and cook until vegetables are tender, about 1 hour. Juice from the lamb can be added as ingredients cook down. Add meat about 10 minutes before the sauce is finished cooking. Add 1½ cups of peanut butter at the end of cooking time, if desired.
  5. Serve meat sauce over rice in large medal trays or in individual serving bowls. Eat with your hands.

Serves about 40 people. Can be doubled for large groups.

Buy baguettes to slice and serve with the meal, or use macaroni rather than rice, to make the meal extra- special.

When everyone is finished, invite the neighborhood children in to eat what is left.

Rice & Black-Eyed Peas
Mo & Dunguri

Pot 1: cook rice according to package directions to obtain about 1 cup of cooked rice per person.
Pot 2: cook black-eyed peas according to package directions to obtain about 1/4 - ½ cup of peas per person.
Pot 3: chop 1 medium onion ("albasan") and fry it in about ½ cup of oil ("ji") till slightly black (but not burned).

To serve: Layer first the rice, then the drained peas, and top with onion/ oil sauce. Salt to taste. Often it is topped with a powdered spice mix ("yaaji margu-margu") made of powdered, roasted peanuts ("damsi"), dried onions, chicken bouillon cube ("maggi"), garlic ("tafarnuwa"), salt ("ciiri") and dried, hot peppers ("tonko").

Alternate recipe: Sometimes women cook their rice and peas together, seasoning it with a small chunk of market soda ("soso") which turns the dish a dark reddish purple.

Serves 6 people.

Bissap Juice

2 cups dark red, dried hibiscus flowers *
2 cups sugar
a few sprigs of fresh mint leaves
2 teaspoons of vanilla
2 cups pineapple juice-- optional

Bring to boiling 2 quarts of water. Remove from heat and add flowers and leaves. Steep for at least 10 minutes. Separate the flowers and leaves from the water with a strainer. Add the sugar, vanilla, and pineapple juice. Let cool. It is usually served as a cold beverage, but during cold season the flower is often brewed simply with sugar as a hot tea. It can be frozen in ice cube trays, Popsicle forms, or small plastic bags for individual servings.

*As hibiscus flowers are not readily available in the USA, you can get the same taste from cranberry or cranberry/ raspberry juice. Substitute the juice for the liquid you would get from steeping the flowers. Alter the sugar according to your taste.

Alternative recipe: In a more concentrated form, it can be used as a punch. Steep in 1 quart of boiling water (or begin with an unthawed, frozen concentrated juice). Add 2-4 cups of sugar while still warm. When cooled, it can be diluted with soda water, tonic, ginger ale, sprite, or fruit juices. Crushed pineapple can be used, as well as ice cream, sorbet, or sherbet.

Alternate recipe: You can experiment with the flavorings using pineapple, orange, or almond, rather than the mint and vanilla.

Date Sauce

1 pound of lean round steak, chopped in bite-sized pieces
¼ cup oil
4-6 fresh tomatoes, chopped
2 medium onions, chopped
2 medium green peppers, chopped
2 cloves fresh garlic, minced
¼- ½ cup dried, pitted dates, chopped
2 tablespoons or so of tomato paste
2 soup cans of tomato sauce to start with
water, if needed
spices-- 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. pepper, ½ tsp. cumin, ¼ tsp. cinnamon

Brown meat in a couple of tablespoons of oil. Remove from pan. Add tomatoes, onions, and green peppers to the same pan, adding oil. Simmer until the vegetables are mush and the oil has separated out. Add garlic, spices, meat, dates, tomato paste, and tomato sauce. Simmer till sauce is thick (should be very thick and rich) and meat is tender. Add only enough water to keep the mixture from going dry (or you can add more tomato sauce). Serve over prepared couscous, rice, or noodles.

Serves 6 people.


A popular dish at most local African, as well as European, restaurants is brochettes (shish-k-bobs), with frites (french fries) on the side (definite French influence). So, using your favorite meat marinade, grill out your k-bobs (nothing fancy, just any kind of meat and onions) and fry up some french fries (eaten, of course, with dijon mustard or mayonnaise!).


2 cups dried black-eyed beans 1 small onion
1 egg 2 cups cooking oil
salt hot pepper

Wash and soak beans (about 2 hours). Remove skins by rubbing a few of them together at a time in your hands. Use a blender to grind the beans into a smooth paste. Chop onion and pepper finely. Blend into the bean mixture and beat for about 5 minutes. Add salt. Beat thoroughly for 5 minutes. Add beaten egg to improve food value and to make the mixture light. Heat cooking oil. Deep-fry the mixture a tablespoon at a time until golden brown. Drain.

From Niamey to Tera, Niger, cecena is a popular food among the Songhai. It can be eaten alone with a dip made of tomatoes, onions, green peppers, and spicy peppers (see tomato sauce). It can also be eaten as a sandwich made of a baguette, split open, a few cecena stuffed inside, and the dip poured over top.

Sugar Peanuts

2 cups raw peanuts
1 cup sugar
a scant ½ cup water

Put all ingredients in an ungreased loaf pan. Cook until water evaporates. Make 1 layer of the nuts; don't crowd the pan. Bake at 300 degrees F for about 1 hour.

Throughout West Africa, sugar peanuts, as well as roasted peanuts, toasted coconut, and roasted cashews, can be bought almost anywhere. The people make these and stuff them in used, empty, quart liquor bottles or wrap them in plastic bags, to sell. Smaller servings of roasted peanuts in the shell can be bought on the ferry ride across the Niger River near Gotheye from a little girl with a big tray of tiny tin cans full of peanuts on her head.

Sauce Gumbo

Fry together:

1 pound beef, cut in small pieces
couple Tbsp. Oil
1 onion, chopped

2 Tbsp. tomato concentrate or paste which has been mixed with about 2 C. water. Add salt, pepper, and other seasonings to taste. Let simmer.

In another pot:
cover with water 2- 3 C. finely chopped, fresh okra and boil with a pinch of soda and cook till the seeds begin to turn color. Then add the meat mixture and cook about 10 minutes.

Serve hot over rice, macaroni, or couscous. Songhai people will eat this (usually without the meat) with a corn flour ball ("kolkoti hawru"), similar in taste to cornmeal mush and similar in texture to Jello.

Fari Masa

In a big bowl, mix together 2 Tbsp sugar, 1 Tbsp yeast, 1 1/2 -- 2 C warm water and let the mixture rest until it foams.

Add 4 C sifted plain flour, a dash of salt, and a beaten egg. Mix well and allow the mixture to rise 30- 45 minutes. Here, the ladies put it in the sun covered, so the flies do not get in it.

Heat about 2 C vegetable oil in a small sauce pan (or prepare your deep fryer). Here, the ladies use a "fema" (traditional cooking spot/ kettle/ fire combo), which is a big pot of grease, supported on three large rocks, over an open fire.

Keep a small bowl of water next to your dough bowl and wet your serving spoon each time before dipping out a spoonful of dough. Here, the ladies will use their hands flopping out large handfuls or pinching off small portions of the dough. They are very adept at this. It is amazing to watch. This technique is for the very adventurous or most talented of cooks!! Drop several spoonfuls of dough into the hot grease and fry till golden brown, turning once. Here, the ladies use a twig or old bike spoke to poke around and turn the fari masa while they are frying.

Take them out with a spoon which has holes and drain on paper towels. Here, they use old bits of cement sacks, or paper that has been scavenged and recycled from the corner dumpster. So, one is never too sure just who's news one could be reading!

Tomato Sauce

Chop up one onion and fry it in a saucepan with about ¼- ½ C vegetable oil. When the onions are transparent, add a couple of tablespoons of tomato concentrate (or a small can of sauce). Allow this to simmer several minutes until onions turn orange. Add a couple of chopped, fresh tomatoes, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 large chicken bouillon cube, and a chopped green pepper. Allow this to simmer covered till vegetables are soft. Serve warm with fari masa or cecena. Optional ingredients: add chopped garlic and spicy pepper to taste.


2 pounds of lean beef cut into bite-sized pieces
a couple of tablespoons of oil
1 medium onion
chicken bouillon cube(s) or powder
assorted vegetables cut into bit-sized pieces—
tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, eggplant,
cabbage and zucchini
tomato sauce
garlic, black pepper, and salt to taste

Combine and sauté meat, onion, spices, garlic in a well-oiled skillet. Cover and simmer about 15 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and bouillon cube(s), or a combination of tomato paste/ tomato sauce/ chicken bouillon. Add some water, enough to allow it to cook over medium heat till the meat is tender. Add vegetables and cook till thick (consistency of potato soup).

For the steamed bread you will need:
2 C plain flour
½ Tbsp yeast
¾ C lukewarm water
1 tsp salt

Mix the dough and let it rest 30 minutes. Make the dough balls, at least 6, and let them rise about 1 hour. Make the tomato-based meat /vegetable sauce then separate the vegetables and meat from the sauce / broth. Place the dough balls into the sauce, and cook until done. The sauce should be enough to cover the balls about half way up. Steam dough balls in the sauce about 30 minutes, covered, over low heat. The bread balls will be about softball size when done and have a firm texture.

Tukasu is a special dish of the Timbuktu area, served when a Songhai host wants to express to visitors that they are very special and respected.

Peanut/Vegetable Sauce

Step 1: Put a couple of tablespoons of oil in a pot. Add about a pound of beef, cut into bit-sized pieces. Fry till brown. Add a cup of water and simmer till tender.*

Step 2: In another pot, start again with a couple of tablespoons of oil. Add 1 medium to large onion, cut into small pieces. Stir well. Fry till onion is transparent. Add 1/ 3 C of tomato paste and 1 soup-sized can of tomatoes (or fresh, cut into small pieces). Cook for about 10 minutes. Then add a couple of chopped garlic cloves.

Step 3: While the other pots are simmering, prepare your veggies, cutting into small pieces whatever you like or have on hand. We use a combination of green pepper, carrots, eggplant, zucchini, cabbage, and greens (about 2 – 3 Cups of fresh veggies).* Add these to your tomato sauce and a cup of water. Add the meat and broth. Season sauce with ½ tsp black pepper, ½ tsp coriander, ½ tsp cumin, ½ tsp curry, 1 or 2 chicken bouillon cube(s), and salt and hot pepper to taste. Bring to a boil and let it simmer till thick and veggies are tender.

For Peanut Butter Sauce, you can half the meat quantity. Add a couple of tablespoons of crunchy peanut butter to some warm water, and stir it in at the last when the veggies are tender. Allow the sauce to continue to simmer till it is thick.

Serve over white rice or macaroni.

* Many times we begin with left-over roast, veggies, and broth and the sauce is equally good, if not better!

Serves 6 people.