Tuesday, 2 October 2012

A Taste of Africa: Cooking class organised by Rainbow Tours, Open Kitchen

I am pretty international about my tastes, but must confess that other than a small amount of experience with mainly north African food, I am pretty ignorant about African food, ingredients and cooking techniques. I'm not proud of it, I am admitting it since I always do my best to be honest.

I was invited a few days ago to a cooking class which explored Madagascan and Tanzanian food. It was organised by Rainbow Tours, who decided to run this session for food bloggers to celebrate winning the title of  ‘Tour Operator of the Year 2012’ by the readers of Food and Travel Magazine.

The evening began with wine, sociability and canapes. The drink flowed freely. Our nibbles, all with an African flavour, included slices of roasted sweet potato and plantain topped with a spiced peanut puree, fish croquettes, and plaintain chunks with salsa. 

The staff from Rainbow Tours circulated and were hugely knowledgeable and fired up with enthusiasm about pan-African and ethical travel. They were the first company to really pioneer responsible travel in post-Apartheid South Africa, as a direct result of (then) President Mandela inviting travellers from around the world to visit and share in the momentous changes in that nation. Diane from Rainbow Tours was great fun and I had a super time chatting to her about how easy it is to travel in Africa and how good the food can be. Here she is, just after her introduction to the session:

Our instructor and tutor for the evening was Chef Attoma Mandji, and the event was at Hoxton's Open Kitchen. Chef Mandji has worked in well-known restaurants such as Chez Gerard, Harvey Nichols, Conran group restaurants with Chef John Torode and People’s Palace with Chef Gary Rhodes.  More recently, Chef Mandji has turned his attention to teaching, and he teaches cooking skills at Hackney Community College, educating the new generation of chefs and catering professionals.

Chef Mandji demonstrated two dishes, which he then assisted us in making for ourselves. We made Romazava Vary (Malagasy Beef with Greens); a dish from Madagascar, and Samaki wa Kakuango (Steamed fish with fried onion salsa); a Tanzanian dish.

Here are the recipes:

Madagascar was formerly known as the Malagasy Republic, and its people still often refer to their culture and society as 'Malagasy'. There are many ethnic groups inhabiting this unique and vibrant island nation. They recognise themselves primarily as either 'Highlanders' or 'Coastal dwellers'. There are 3 main 'Highland' ethnic groups; the Merina, Sihanaka and Betsileo. The Coastal peoples show greater ethnic and cultural variation, with 17 recognised main cultural groups. Being such an ethnically and culturally diverse nation means that Malagasy food reflects these traditions. Their cuisine draws together these varied influences to make a culinary portfolio which is tasty, flavoursome, but not highly spiced.

I learnt that rice is the main "staple" ingredient of Madagascan food, and is the main energy source for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Zebu cattle are the traditional source of meat, although beef is a popular choice for traditional stews cooked over an open fire. Which is just as well, as I don't think sourcing Zebu for our own cooking efforts was going to be easy!

The first dish we made, Romazava Vary, like so many important dishes around the world, can vary from house to house and family to family. However, the dish is usually made in a single cooking receptacle and is made with beef (or Zebu) with some form of greens. Savoy cabbage, spring greens or spinach are all acceptable, provided the leaves are chiffonaded (finely sliced). The name reflects the way in which the dish is cooked; Ro (soup) Mazava (clear) and Vary (rice). It is meant to be a saucy, stew style dish. A one-pot meal which is designed as comfort food; sustaining, hot and filling. This is Chef Mandji’s bubbling away:

We received the demonstration of this dish and started cooking it first, since it is quite time consuming. My kitchen partner was none other than the lovely Amy from http://londonfoodadventures.tumblr.com/. I don't know how I came across to her, but I liked her straight away. No-nonsense, warm, fun and full of energy, I knew I had fallen on my feet. The relationship between chef and sous-chef is an important one, and thankfully she was happy to be a benign and kind chef! And I did my best to be a competent sous. 

Whether I managed this or not, you'll have to find out from Amy!

We were lucky that with the Romazava Vary, none of the cooking techniques were in themselves very difficult, but enough time needs to be left for the beef to cook slowly in the stock base. Later, when the rice is added, it needs sufficient time to become tender and cooked.

This was our effort at Romazava Vary , still simmering, whilst the rice was cooking.

And this was our finished dish:

Our second dish, Samaki wa Kakuango, as I have said above, is from Tanzania. Tanzania in East Africa, has a coast on the Indian Ocean. Needless to say, this vast length of coastline along with the extensive freshwater coast of Lake Victoria, means that fish dishes are a fundamental aspect of Tanzanian cuisine. Interestingly, meat is more of a rarity. I learnt that cattle are reared primarily for dairy products. As such, meat is a 'treat', eaten on high days and holidays. 

Samaki wa Kakuango is a dish commonplace across East Africa, despite being a traditional Tanzanian recipe. It is interesting that steamed fish does not appear to be popular in European cooking, yet is found across China, the Far East and Africa. The fish is usually steamed whole to keep it moist and soft, with aromatics such as chilli and garlic. A salsa style topping is made from fried onions and tomatoes to add moisture, flavour and provide a variation of texture. The fish and topping is served rice and greens. We first had to make the chilli garlic rub, which we liberally spread over the fish:

Owing to time constraints, we had to cook our fish in the oven, although we did see Chef Mandji’s results cooked in a large bamboo steamer.

Here is the finished dish:

Both of our dishes were very enjoyable. The beef was tender and juicy, and cooking the rice in the same pot lent it all the flavour of the beef, aromatics, tomato and stock. The fish (we used sea bass) was cooked perfectly, and I am sold on the idea of serving it with a salsa style topping.  It was a pleasure to learn something about a food heritage I had no knowledge about. Chef Mandji is a patient and kind tutor, and his assistant was full of useful advice.

In the interests of fairness, there were a couple of glitches; we were never provided with the green peppercorns for the beef dish and some of the ingredients were provided to us late. However, the Open Kitchen is a small charity, whose function is to train local people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, the skills required for work in the catering industry. So it is difficult to be too hard on them, and none of our food suffered for these issues.

I love travelling and when I am travelling a major highlight is sampling the local cuisine. I must say that my curiosity about exploring Africa in all her cultural variety has been given a nudge in the right direction. The Rainbow Tours brochure has so many amazing destinations and itineraries, I feel most inspired.

The next Taste of Africa cooking class covering the food of Madagascar and Tanzania will be at the Open Kitchen on Friday 21st November. If you want further details, their website is: http://www.openkitchen.biz/
Rainbow Tours arranged the cooking class for myself and a number of bloggers. I am very grateful for their kindness. They have hosted information about the event they organised for us here: http://www.rainbowtours.co.uk/taste-of-africa/


  1. This is fantastically helpful. Like most people my knowledge of African cooking is mostly located to North Africa, dishes such as tagine and couscous, so this was a really different look. Africa has so many fascinating cultures and it was really good to get an introduction to the lesser known regions. I've favourited this in case I can adapt the steamed fish recipe! Thank you Snigskitchen (and the people who hosted you).

  2. Hello Starstrike,
    How very kind of you! Thanks so much!
    I think the steamed fish recipe is absolutely up for being adapted. Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese food have versions of steamed fish. It is a great way of avoiding overcooking (rubber fish, anyone?), and manages to get the aromatics to subtly permeate through. PLEASE let me know what you come up with, it would be great to know.
    Very best wishes,

  3. This recipe is going to be useful for me because I am going to Africa after a couple of weeks for a business trip. I want to surprise all my colleagues by making these great African recipes for them.

    1. Hello Luxury Tours Ireland!

      Hope you have a great time on your trip to Africa. Where are you going?

      I hope your colleagues are impressed with your handiwork. Perhaps you could let me know how you get on? There is a Snig's Kitchen FB page where you could tell me and my friends all about it: https://www.facebook.com/snigskitchen

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I really appreciate it!

      Very best wishes

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