Following on from my earlier post about World Food Night, featuring a colourful bowl of fish benechin, I wanted to share with you the wonderful morning I spent with Ida Cham-Njai learning how to cook Gambian style!
I joined a small group of tourists on Ida’s cookery course one Monday morning. As soon as we arrive we are shown two clothes’ rails of Gambian traditional outfits. Everyone eagerly picks out their new look. I have always found Gambians love to see visitors embrace their culture in this way so I too select a beautiful bright green ensemble, including a matching head wrap, and get changed.
From Ida’s we head to Tanji fish market where all our senses are overloaded with the sights, sounds and smells on this bustling beach. Women are busy buying and selling, while the men are bringing in the latest catch in their colourfully painted wooden boats. Few people in The Gambia have access to electricity let alone a fridge so it is common for women to shop at least once a day at the local market. Ida decides what she is going to cook each day depending on what is available and looking good. Today fish benechin is on the menu and she selects a john dory fish and a red snapper.
Benechin literaly means one pot and can be cooked with chicken or other meat but fish is probably the most common variation. While the fish sellers scale and gut the fish, we’re off to buy the other ingredients: tomatoes, carrots, spring onions, sweet potatoes, onions, aubergine, cassava, bitter tomatoes and butternut squash are gathered into baskets. A small amount of dried salted fish will also be used for extra flavour.
Back in Ida’s courtyard we grab a seat and gather round to prepare the vegetables, many of which are left whole rather than chopped so that they are easy to scoop out and place on top of the finished dish for serving. Others are pounded together in a large wooden bowl.
A smaller bowl and a gourd are used to mash up the chillies and garlic which will be used to make a chilli sauce. They are fried in some oil with a dash of salt and Dijon mustard. This would normally go into the main dish but as some of us may not be used to spicy food it is prepared as a separate sauce.
The vegetables are cooked in a large pot over a charcoal fire and as the pot is stirred a delicious aroma fills the air but we are told it will 2 ½ hours before it is ready.
While we wait Ida teaches us the traditional game of wuri bringing out the competitive streak in all of us and before you know it we have a mini wuri tournament taking place! Sitting in the dappled shade of Ida’s courtyard I feel quite envious of this out-door life style. (I’ll tell you more about wuri and where I first came across it in another post.)
With an hour’s cooking time left to go the fish goes in to the pot.
Half an hour later the fish and whole vegetables are removed and the spring onions which have been pounded up with some garlic are added together with vegetable stock cubes and diced carrot. Pre-steamed rice is stirred in and it’s left to simmer for another 30 minutes.
Our tummies are rumbling as we all sit down on a rug in the courtyard. Dinner is served! As is the tradition we are not given plates but all eat out of a communal bowl, which looks and smells delightful. We have no skill at rolling the food into small balls with our fingers as the locals would so I’m pleased to say we were allowed spoons. I think the verdict is unanimous. Fish benechin is delicious! The chilli sauce, however, was not to everyone tastes but my neighbour on the rug adored it and I couldn’t believe how much of it he ate as it really did pack a serious punch!
More of my photographs from the day are on Flickr and if you fancy trying some Gambian cookery yourself look out for my up coming post reviewing The Gambian Cookbook.
Ida, originally from The Gambia, studied hotel tourism and catering management in Twickenham in the UK but returned to The Gambia in 1989. Having spent some time working at the popular Senegambia Hotel and then the luxurious Mandina Lodges at Makasutu, she started running cookery courses from her home in Brufut with the desire to preserve and promote her culture.
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Great post Kathryn! Looks like you had an awesome day! 🙂
I really did. I’ve done this twice now and I’d happily do it again.
I can almost smell the fish cooking and feel the sea breeze blowing. Looks like a great experience 🙂
Thanks Zoë, I had a fabulous time and chatting with Ida gives you a wonderful insight into the country.
Love your images!
Thank you! 😀
I am now ridiculously hungry! And my appetite for Africa is also further whetted… Thanks!
Thanks for popping by my blog and I’m looking forward to reading more about your travels (when I get the chance!)
Great pictures – love the floor of the room! Very interesting!
Thanks Gretchen and yes, the broken tiles make a very pretty and colourful floor. A great idea.
“Oh my that looks good” he says as he settles down with a bowl of Scott’s Porridge Oats, have yet to visit sub-Saharan Africa, but Gambia is now on the list!
Am I allowed a quick sales pitch here? Holidays in the Gambia from £299pp from London http://www.gambia.co.uk/Docs/Special-Offers/Late-Offers.aspx 😉
No problem with the pitch, but it’s gonna have to be next year, we are forward planning central here at Shipscooksstuff with trips booked right up to Chrtistmas! Actually it’s my wife who is the genius forward planner, I just do the PR!
Looking forward to reading all about them!
We are off to Tallinn next week, then Cyprus, the Cape Verde Islands (new for me very exciting), Rhodes and finally Mexico, plus trips to the south coast and of course Edinburgh so plenty coming up.
I’m so jealous (in a positive, upbeat kind of why of course!) Have a wonderful time in Tallinn. I have some photos from Cape Verde on Flickr if you want to check them out http://www.flickr.com/photos/travelwithkat/sets/72157627993295461/
Wow….beautiful images, I feel right back at home just looking at the photos. Yummy yummy. Thank you xx
My pleasure, Fatou 😀
it sure looks like a mouth-watering dish and I am sure the whole process would have made it all the more tastier… Beautiful photos – all of them at flickr and I especially liked these two:
beautiful people and what colorful attires !
Thanks Abu. They are two of my favourites too! One I’ve used in a previous post and one I’ll be using in an up coming post or a travel snap of the week perhaps.
I should NEVER read posts like this when I’m hungry. Off to the pantry to see what I can find.
Opps! Sorry. Hope you found something good though. 😉
Will have to pop over to Flickr to see if I can find a photo of you in costume! A mouth-watering , colourful post – and I”m looking forward to hearing about Wuri…
Sorry to disappoint! No photos of me on that day I’m afraid. I’ll have to dig some others out for you to laugh at instead 😉