Sunday, July 26, 2009

Eritrean Coffee Ceremony

A nice end to a long week... It seems I have a willing partner in my quest to know food in Southern Sudan. I got a surprise invitation on Friday from Fatmah to join her and her Eritrean colleague, Nebyat, for an afternoon coffee roasting ceremony. She said it would take about an hour. Being a coffee lover, I hoped for a Sudanese hour!

The affair was simple and elegant with satifying results, all in about an hour...and a half.

Nebyat got the little cooker going with charcoal, and when it was nice and hot, she began roasting. She put about a cup of green Ugandan coffee beans in her long-handled roasting pan, and just patiently sat there, chatting away, and shaking the pan every few seconds. As the beans started to brown a bit, she placed a nice chunk of dried ginger inside, and kept on shaking. In no time that lovely smell began wafting, and the beans had become a rich brown. Nebyat placed the roasted beans in a wooden mortar and began to grind them with a heavy metal pestle. Though she referred to this process as a coffee ceremony several times, it wasn't necessarily tradition that impelled her to grind the old-fashioned way...she said simply that she didn't have an electric coffee grinder, so this would have to do.
After the beans were somewhat coursely ground, she funneled them into a long necked clay jug, followed by water, and a reed stopper. In Eritrea, Nebyat explained that people often use a cow tail as the cork. This piqued my curiosity, as I imagined the tail might rot or something, so I asked her how long the tail would last. "A very long time," she said, "unless you lose it."
She placed the jug on the same charcoal stove where she roasted the beans, and we waited. Not an eager waiting, like I have in the Starbucks line, but the most relaxed waiting for coffee I think I have known. We chatted, nibbled on roasted barley and digestive cookies, talked about Eritrean customs, and just enjoyed the warm evening. The coffee started boiling after about twenty minutes, filling the entire room with its aroma. Nebyat lit resin incense in a small charcoal burner, and its sweet smell floated above and around the earthy aroma of the coffee. Then she poured out four little cups.
And it was good...

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Making Kisra

I won’t even attempt to share a recipe here, but I will share my experience of spending a Sunday afternoon in a local Sudanese home, while a new friend, Susie, made us a traditional fermented flatbread called kisra. A note for psychological context: I was told by Fatmah, a Kenyan friend who arranged the day’s event, that we would spend probably an hour to an hour and a half with Susie learning to make this typical Sudanese bread. It took me about three hours to give up the notion that I would have part of the afternoon to myself, and four and a half for the full experience to close. This was the most recent of many lessons for me so far in South Sudan’s greatest subject, the rewards of patience.

We were first received in Susie’s family home, one of many mud and thatch huts in a large compound close to my neighborhood and to Konyo Konyo market. The one-room dwelling looked dark as we ducked under the thatch to enter, but the low light inside made the very tidy living room/sleeping quarters a relaxing and cool oasis from the hot day. We all chatted and looked at photo albums, learned about Susie’s family and customs, and generally relaxed and got comfortable with one another as Susie’s sisters prepared the ingredients for our cooking lesson.

Kisra is a traditional flatbread made with fermented sorghum batter, and I believe millet flour can also be used. In Susie’s recipe this Sunday, she also added a packet of wheat flour to the fermented sorghum ‘soup’ after it had fermented overnight, to give the mix a pancake-batter consistency.Kisra is only part of the story – two types of side dishes were also prepared from about the only leafy vegetable in Juba, a flat-leafed green called kudura (koodra).As the batter set (after a night of fermenting the sorghum flour and water in a big pail, then adding wheat flour at about one p.m.), Susie and her younger sisters showed us how to make two distinct kudura dishes from virtually the same ingredients. For one the kudura was roughly chopped by hand and cooked together with an ash salt that made the dish very slimy; in the other the kudura was chopped finely for nearly a half hour until almost black, and cooked into a somewhat more savory (and less slimy) stew.The ash salt is actually water that has drained through the ash from the brick oven. The water filters through the ash into a bowl, becoming the color of ice tea and giving the kudura dish its slimy consistency.

Ash was not even the most interesting ingredient used that afternoon. The hands-down winner in that category was…cow brain. Susie nonchalantly showed us a tomato-sized clear plastic bag with a little red and white watery brain inside, and explained that it played a crucial role in the preparation of kisra.

For some reason cooking oil just won’t do – the cow brain is sautéed and used like butter to keep the kisra from sticking to the iron skillet.

Hours of preparation led to the culminating event: watching Susie masterfully prepare the kisra, and then each of us taking our turn by the hot fire to (attempt to) make our own.

First, Susie fed the fire with long thin bamboo reeds to make the skillet evenly hot. She checked the temperature by flicking a spray of water onto the iron and watching for an even sizzle all the way across.

Then she took a small piece of the ‘cerveau sauté’ and rubbed it all around the skillet as grease.

Susie casually poured the batter in an even arc across the top of the skillet, and followed quickly with a handheld palm spatula to evenly spread the batter down the entirety of the iron square. Within a minute or so, the bread had cooked, so Susie rubbed a small tin can around the kisra to lift its edges. With a bit of material now to hold onto, Susie lifted and pulled the kisra gently off of the iron, flipping it face down on a serving tray in the same graceful movement.

Susie repeated the process several times, giving me confidence that I could do the same when my turn came. A subtle voice assured me: you are a muffin master, this shall be no different.

I am not embarrassed to report – that voice was wrong.

Where Susie was able to spread one cup of batter across the entire two foot square skillet, I was barely able to make the batter move. Pictures do this justice:

There is a bright side to all this wasted batter – it’s not wasted at all. All of our rejects went into a big bucket, even those that fell on the dirt floor, for further fermentation into a local beer called merisa.

With so much beer resulting from our kisra lesson, Susie assured us that her mom, who makes and drinks the brew, will be happy for us to visit more often.

The day finished where it began, back in the hut, where we all shared the two stews from the same bowl, pulling off pieces of kisra and dipping them with our right hand... Thank you Susie, Fatmah, and Nduta!