Benin. Just admit you have no idea where it is. That’s ok, it is in the under part of the part of Africa that curves out at the top

image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

left… you know? Ah, just look at a map. It is a small country, roughly the size of Florida.

The area was previously known as the Kingdom of Dahomey (insert early 90’s joke here), and was a heavily militarized society. This militarization included both men and women, and an all-female regiment often called the Dahomey Amazons (named by Europeans of course) was remarkably similar to that of antiquity. Human sacrifice was practiced, but eventually the kings decided to sell their captives into transatlantic slavery rather than kill them, thus amassing great wealth.

It was briefly a Marxist state from 1975 to 1990, and has since become a multi-party system. French is the official language of Benin, but others including Yoruba are widely spoken. Interestingly enough, Yoruba is the liturgical language of Santeria, the Caribbean religion started by West African slaves. For more on Santeria please consult the internet, or that one song by Sublime.

I think the country looks like the 3D model of the Velociraptor’s voice chamber from Jurassic Park 3…

Untitled-2 Untitled-1

…others have pointed out it is more like a house key, the Statue of Liberty’s torch, or my favorite, a turkey leg from the Renaissance festival.

While the royal palaces at the former Dahomey capital of Abomey (where 12 kings succeeded each other from 1625 to 1900) is a UNESCO world heritage site, Benin in general is not the best place to live. It has one of the most heavily agriculture dependent economies in the world, with little industry diversification. Almost half the country is 14 years old or younger, and close to 40% of the population lives below the poverty line; these factors ultimately result in increased human trafficking.

But the food…the food is good! They do a lot with corn particularly, as well as peppers. I made a traditional Beninese dish called Amiwo (red paste), this version with chicken. Meat is often very expensive in Benin so I tried not to make it the focus. The preparation of this meal is in two parts, the chicken and the cornmeal. I used coarse Italian polenta cornmeal but I think any cornmeal would work the same. To make the dish easier and economical I also used leftover meat from a grocery store rotisserie chicken, torn up and shredded.

There is no word for this meal other than delicious. I continue to surprise myself with how much I can enjoy green peppers in the right application. The polenta/cornmeal made with the tomato incorporated was fantastic and I never thought to infuse any flavors like that before. The overall flavor palate has a lot in common with Spanish or Caribbean cooking and that is not surprising based on shared heritages. Overall it was a nutritious and filling meal, and tasty to boot; what else could you ask for?

 

A NOTE ON POLENTA: If you are a fan of polenta, grits, or cornmeal in general, I highly recommend buying online. On amazon.com you can get a 5 lbs sack which will last you quite a while, delivered to your house for $14.

(http://www.amazon.com/Roland-Course-Grain-Polenta-5-Pounds/dp/B0046LDTGG

They have different grain sizes, although I have only used the coarse, maybe trying the fine or medium is in my future. I never like the look of that premade mush in tubes in the supermarket, it just… doesn’t seem right.

 

Next up, a mini-entry on the British territory of Bermuda because, who wouldn’t want to stop there…

 

 

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Amiwo Chicken

4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 2 cloves garlic (chopped)
  • 1.5 onions
  • 4 tomatoes (chopped)
  • 1 green pepper (strips)
  • 3/4 cups polenta/corn meal
  • 3 cups water (2 + 1)
  • 2 bouillon cubes
  • 9.5 oz pre-cooked boneless Chicken (shredded/torn)

 

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Polenta Directions:

  • In a pot – heat some oil and add 2 chopped tomatoes- then one 2 cups water and 1/2 boullion cube.

Simmer covered for 10 minutes, then add salt, pepper and one garlic clove (chopped)

  • Add a 1/2 boullion cube and simmer covered for another 10 minutes.
  • Increase heat and bring to a boil then add polenta, stirring constantly. Lower heat and continue to stir until polenta is desired doneness (taste until grittiness is mostly gone – keep adding boiling water if necessary).

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Chicken Directions:

  • Simmer the remaining two tomatoes with one cup water, onions, one garlic clove (chopped), salt and pepper and the last bouillon cube until vegetables are tender, add water if needed, stir in chicken, cook on low-med heat for 5 minutes.

 


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image courtesy of http://www.flags.net

 

I’m sorry.

So, I felt like getting ambitious. It was well intentioned but did not go as I had planned. I apologize Belize, you deserved better. But let’s start at the beginning…

Belize was known as British Honduras until 1973 based on a series of claims involving the Spanish and the British dating back a few hundred years. The country was kind of like a child in a divorced home, not really knowing…or caring sometimes… which parent was in control. This uncertainty did eventually matter, as there would be a dispute with Guatemala, stemming from certain recognized and unrecognized British treaties. Guatemala essentially says that Belize belongs in whole or in part to them, and Belize of course differs in opinion. This has been such a major point of contention over the years, that many Belizean prime ministers proclaim it as their number one priority. To get by there is basically a neutral zone which seems to prolong any decisions on the subject.

But on to the IMPORTANT stuff… Belize is the only Central American country whose official language is English. And the most important contribution Belize has made to the whole of human civilization… GUM. Remember Chiclets? Come on, you remember… those little squares of gum which the hard shell on the outside…they were good and fun in an old-timey way? Well… the name is derived from the word “chicle” which is the natural gum harvested originally in Belize from trees similar to the way rubber and latex is collected. Ok… not the best visual I get it… “chicle” is the Nahuatl word meaning “sticky stuff”. Where would we be in this world if we didn’t have gum… I don’t want to think about it.

Speaking of sticky stuff… I decided (because I’m smart) to try tackling tamales for the first time. I found a few Belizean recipes… and attempted to “wing it”. It did not go well. I got some good Masa from the local Mexican Grocery (finding out later it was at the supermarket as well, though no employee could locate it). Once combined with water/oil it is very difficult to handle, I had a hard time and the end result was… edible but not ideal.

So I apologize Belize, I will post the picture of what I made, which amounted to a very thick and dryish tamale. I will say that the technique of cooking them wrapped in parchment paper instead of banana leaves worked very well, so that was a positive. I will come back later and re-attempt this or a similar recipe and update at that point, I just didn’t want the blog to be held up on it.

Next? Benin… and one of my favorite recipes to date…