“Chez nous, the mothers have to teach their children how to cook. The parents work in the fields and plant corn, peanuts, yams and other crops. And when the plants start to grow, the children have to guard the crops, because birds and monkeys and squirrels love to eat young plants and there might be nothing left to harvest. So all the children work. There is one field for corn, one field for peanuts, one field for yams, one field for rice, and one field for yuca. The parents work together as a team. ‘Today you work in my field, tomorrow I work in yours.’ So the parents tour around and tend to the earth, plant and harvest while the children work together in other fields.
The women in Africa suffer. They work with the men in the fields and then the women walk all the way back to the village carrying wood and food, while the men are already gone by bike. Once back in the village, the women cook. As soon as she arrives, she has to prepare the evening’s meal. While all of this is going on, the man sits and does nothing, touches nothing. He doesn’t have the right to go into the kitchen; it would be disrespectful. Also, the woman boils water for the husband’s shower. She carries it to the shower, calls her husband, ‘Your water is ready,’ and when he’s done showering he leaves the bucket for his wife to bring back to the kitchen. She washes everything, she does the dishes, she washes the kids, she cleans the house and she cooks. The men just eat. That’s it. So the woman in Africa needs help! My mother loved to cook, but it was also an obligation.
Today, we are going to cook oxtail and oxtail takes a long time to cook. When my mother cooked oxtail, the children went far, far away to play. When she cooked chicken, we stayed close by because chicken cooks fast. You can choose your meat depending on how much time you have.
I never measure my rice; I never measure the water. When you make rice for a lot of people, you don’t have time to measure. You just know. If you feel that it’s a bit heavy when you stir the rice, you know it’s good. If the spoon goes fast, you know you have too much water.
When we cut our okra, we don’t throw away the tops. We dry them, and then we smash them in a mortar and sift them. You get like flour and grains. The grains, we call it djumblé, and we use it to make another type of gravy. It’s my favorite.
In Africa, we prepare a lot of starches. Fufu made with yuca, fufu made with yam, fufu made with plantain. You cook everything for a long time, so you don’t have to chop everything so fine. The vegetables fall apart, and if they don’t, you mash them. You don’t see the individual vegetables in the gravy. If you do, the gravy is not cooked right. If I go to an African restaurant here and see pieces of onion in the sauce, I know the sauce wasn’t ready. Ce n’est pas normal. I don’t go back there.
In Africa, food can be very spicy. Some people actually won’t eat food that isn’t spicy. I like spicy food so I cook with a lot of hot peppers. I add them whole; this is the trick. When the peppers are cooked, you crush them, but you don’t have to crush all of them. I will put six whole jalapeños in here and if you want a very spicy stew, you crush all of them. But today, I will crush three and leave the other three whole. When I cook for people who don’t like spicy food, I don’t crush any peppers. If you want it spicy, you serve yourself a pepper and crush it in your bowl.”
Seguenon Kone’s Okra and Eggplant Stew with Oxtail
This is a wonderful stew that actually feels very New Orleans. The gravy is light and almost all vegetables, cooked for hours until they disintegrate—so don’t bother chopping them too fine. Adding the jalapeños whole is a great way to add flavor but almost no heat. If you own a crock pot, use it, and let this cook all day!
5 lb oxtail (in pieces about 2 inches thick)
2 lb okra
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped
1 tomato, quartered
3 Maggi beef bouillon cubes
1 mounding (!) soupspoon tomato paste
½ lb whole jalapeño peppers (tops snapped off)
Place oxtail meat in a large pot, adding water to cover. While you wait for this to boil, slice okra, discarding tops. Cut off top from eggplant and cut into 8 or 12 huge chunks. Add okra and eggplant to meat. Add yellow and green onion and tomato to meat. Also, add bouillon cubes and tomato paste. If there is still room in the pot, add jalapeños now. Otherwise wait for vegetables to cook down. Simmer for about two hours, stirring carefully from time to time. When meat is soft, remove eggplant and jalapeños. Mash eggplant with a fork; add it back. Mash as many jalapeños as you like, adding them back to the pot as well. Note: You might want to mash only one jalapeño to start and leave the rest whole. Kone mashes about four, because he likes his food H.O.T.