Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Week 44: A Journey to Mozambique

I began this week’s journey with a search for culinary inspiration from an African nation.  When I discovered John Burnett’s chronicled story, “Hungry for Adventure,” published by Gourmet in March 2000, I found that spark.  Burnett tells the story of his quest through a minefield and into the bush of Mozambique in search of a good matapa.  He writes,

I had heard about matapa from Michael Bond, in the Mozambican capital of Maputo, where he is the British chef at the city’s Hotel Cardoso. Bond, who had described Mozambican cuisine as a blend of Portuguese, African, and Asian influences, had told me that finding a really good matapa—a combination of seafood, peanuts, coconut milk, cassava leaf, and garlic—prepared a day in advance, was worth almost any effort. “You can find it in the city,” he said, “but that would be like me going to New York for good hush puppies. If you want the best matapa, you don’t come to Maputo—you have to go into the bush, where they have the time, the ingredients, and the tradition. Find a fisherman. A good matapa, really, is a little taste of heaven.”

He found a fisherman who agreed to drive him into the country on the next morning for the best matapa, and fortunately, he finally made it to the little spot that the fisherman promised where he is served a matapa full of seafood that he describes as, “to my taste, quite possibly one of the most intriguing, satisfying dishes I have ever eaten, worth almost any effort—short of blowing oneself to smithereens. I could not get enough of it.”  With this, I decided to focus on Mozambican cuisine for the week and seek out my own version of matapa.

Matapa and Arroz de Coco
matapa and arroz de coco
As I began my search for an authentic matapa recipe, I discovered that most online recipes are much more basic than the dish John Burnett describes in his article.  In essence, there are three recipes posted repeatedly online: (1) one with only coconut milk, cassava leaves, peanuts, and garlic, (2) one which takes those basic ingredients and adds shrimp and shrimp broth to the mix, and (3) a recipe called matata or Clam and Peanut Stew.  I found references noting that some cooks add onions and/or tomatoes, and in John Burnett’s description of the dish he was served, he describes the inclusion of tomatoes, onions, and so many different types of seafood that he couldn’t even identify every type.  With this in mind, I set out to create a dish as close to his experience as possible.  I substituted collard greens for the cassava leaves, and I also used tomatoes and onions.  I made a broth with the shrimp shells to serve as the base of the dish.  I simmered the matapa for a few hours on the stovetop, and then I refrigerated it as I had read that most people make the dish a day before serving to ensure that all of the flavors develop.  When I was ready to serve it, I reheated the matapa, made arroz de coco (rice in coconut water) to serve it over, and sautéed some clams and shrimp in onions and garlic to serve on top of the dish.  I wanted to love it as much as Burnett, but somehow, it left me wanting more.  Don’t get me wrong…the flavors were nice, but it reminded me a great Indian curry without the curry.  About halfway through the plate, I added some piri piri hot sauce to the dish, which definitely helped to elevate the flavors. 

coconut scars
Interestingly, when Burnett asked his driver why he couldn’t have a good matapa in Maputo, the driver responded that the coconuts in the city aren’t sweet.  With this bit of info, I began to consider the quality of canned coconut milk versus homemade coconut milk, and I set out to make coconut milk for my matapa.  Unfortunately, this project did not turn out so well.  I followed the directions precisely.  I set the coconut on my kitchen counter, laid a kitchen towel over it, and smacked it as hard as I could three times.  It didn’t seem to be breaking apart, so I removed the kitchen towel to discover that the coconut wasn’t breaking up, but my kitchen counter had a huge dent in it.  Lesson learned.  Beat the hell out of your coconut outside on the ground.  Considering that this is week 44 of the project, I’m shocked that this is my first real casualty.  Oh well.  Live and learn.  Fortunately, I had a few cans of coconut milk in the pantry, and we have a few extra pieces of that tile for events such as these.

Tomato-Avocado-Buttermilk Soup, Frango a Cafrial (Barbecued Chicken), Mucapata (Rice with Split Peas) , Piri Piri Hot Sauce, and Bolo Polana (Cashew Cake)
tomato avocado buttermilk soup

Early in the day, I made a cold Tomato-Avocado-Buttermilk Soup that is popular in Mozambique.  It’s a simple soup with mild flavors, and the pureed avocado adds a nice creaminess.  Perfect for a hot summer day.  We began our dinner with a bowl of this soup while we waited for the chicken to finish on the grill. 

frango a cafrial, mucapata,
piri piri hot sauce
Frango a Cafrial is one of the most popular Mozambican meat dishes, and it couldn’t be simpler to make.  It’s just a grilled whole chicken seasoned with hot sauce.  The Mozambican hot sauce of choice is Piri Piri named for the small red fiery pepper native to Southern Africa.  In addition to the piri piri peppers, the sauce includes fresh lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and salt.  I found some recipes that also included ginger, coarse red pepper, and vinegar.  Because I couldn’t find piri piri peppers, I just used a chile paste and added lots of fresh lemon juice, garlic, ginger, olive oil, white wine vinegar, and salt.  While not the most authentic, I imagine it is authentic in that most home cooks start with the basic pepper and fresh lemon juice then add other ingredients to taste.  To prepare the chicken, I simply mixed some of my hot sauce with olive oil and covered the chicken in the mixture.  Then, I handed it off to the hubs and sent him to the grill.  (During this year’s project, he has mastered the art of cooking a whole chicken on the charcoal grill.  Everytime he cooks it, the skin is crispy and flavorful, and the chicken is the moistest I’ve ever tasted.  Big shout out to him for his mastery of this dish!) I served the chicken with mucapata, which is a dish of rice, split green peas, and coconut milk.  As a fan of all three ingredients, I thought I would like this dish, but as it turned out, I found it to be a bit flat.  Even with some hot sauce poured over it, it just felt like eating a filler dish.  That’s okay though.  I just focused on that amazingly delicious grilled chicken!

bolo polana
Cashews grow so well in Mozambique that they are one of the country’s primary sources of agricultural income.  Because of their abundance, many dishes, from stews to desserts, include them.  I found a recipe for a popular cashew cake, Bolo Polana,  served at the Grand Hotel in Maputo.  The cake is made with ground cashew nuts in place of flour and mashed potatoes, sugar, butter, lemon zest, and eggs.  I loved this cake!  With so many eggs in it (9 yolks and 4 whites), the texture was moist and the flavor rich.  In addition to serving a great dessert, it made an excellent breakfast cake with coffee the next morning.

Although I found John Burnett’s story to be a bit more exciting than the actual dishes I made from Mozambique, I certainly enjoyed my journey of discovering Mozambican cuisine.  Sometimes, the journey is as much about understanding the history and cultural impact of a cuisine as it is the actual flavors.  Fortunately, we had some dishes, too!

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I am very impressed after reading through parts of your blog. With your cooking skills I think you could be interested in this competition I have found. You cook your national dish and then you have the opportunity to win an iPad mini or money. It could also be a good chance for you to let more people know about your blog since you will be shown on their homepage and in a cookbook!
    Here's the presentation about the competition:
    Competition: Win iPad or Money
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    I hope you will be win..