“All afternoon she stayed in the kitchen, making egusi stew with smoked turkey, garri and okra soup, fried ripe plantains and beans, jollof rice with chicken gizzard, and ekwang, which took two hours to make because she had to peel the cocoyams, grate them, tightly and painstakingly wrap teaspoons of the grated cocoyam into spinach leaves, then simmer in a pot with palm oil, dried fish, crayfish, salt, pepper, maggi, and bush onions, for an hour.”
– Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers
This month in the Diverse Books Club, we’re reading about the immigrant and refugee experience. This is a hot-button issue right now and our theme reminded me of a book I read back in May, Behold the Dreamers, about an immigrant couple from Limbe, Cameroon, struggling to make a new life for their family in New York City. Although some of the characters fell flat for me and I ultimately found the ending frustrating, the first half of the book was so compelling and the juxtaposition of a couple in pursuit of the American dream and a couple who seem to have achieved it was stark.
Food is weaved into Behold the Dreamers time and again as a source of comfort and a link to Jende and Neni’s country and culture. It is shown to bring the characters together, breaking down the walls between the children of poor Cameroonian migrants and Wall Street royalty. Imbolo Mbue did a wonderful job evoking the flavours (and the hard work) in West African cooking, and it was actually one of my favourite things about the book. I was somewhat limited in terms of ingredients, so chose not to attempt the traditional egusi stew or ekwang—and while pepper soup sounded good, I wasn’t feeling the addition of cow feet and gizzards! Instead, I went with a simple chicken and rice stew like the one eaten by Jende, Neni and Liomi on Christmas Day.
I chose to base my dish on this spicy African chicken stew from BBC Good Food. Peanuts being a major cash crop in Jende’s beloved Cameroon, I’d like to think this isn’t too far off from what Neni might have cooked for her family in New York. I adjusted the recipe to taste and to make use of what we had in the pantry and garden, cutting down to about three-quarters of the peanut butter and using crunchy rather than smooth for a little texture. I also doubled the cayenne pepper to make up for not having Scotch bonnets.
I wanted to serve this with something a little more exciting than plain rice, so I also used this recipe on Immaculate Bites for inspiration. I fried up the onion, garlic, smoked paprika and cayenne pepper with a couple of our homegrown tomatoes, a level teaspoon of ras el hanout, a pinch of saffron for colour, and coriander in place of thyme. The result was a bright, bold dish with a satisfying balance between heat and flavour.
Have you read any books that portray the immigrant or refugee experience? Let me know below. I could definitely benefit from hearing more of these stories.