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Vittles 2.19 - Two East African-Asian Recipes
On the hunt for mandazi, by Samir Jeraj; King Cassava, by Abbas Asaria
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The first time I had an identity crisis was during a war at secondary school. One day, for reasons still unknown, someone decided there was going to be a school wide fight. Africa vs Ireland (it was a Catholic school - this grouping made more sense than you think). Soon kids were going round drafting other kids. “It’s Africans vs Irish, who are you going to join?”. “Well…my mum was born in Africa” I said, slightly unsure that counted. “Good enough”. My unease then at being conscripted into fighting on the African side was the first time I had to wrest with my East African-Indian heritage ─ I think it signified that I couldn’t justify any African identity for myself, but also there was no way I was going to fight for the Irish.
The history of Indians in East Africa is a long and complex one. Many came over in the 19th century to aid the building of the Uganda-Kenya railway, described by one MP as ‘naught but a lunatic line’ . They eventually settled in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, with a fair proportion of Gujaratis (particularly Ismaili Muslims) and Goans. In an article on the anti-colonial solidarity of Afrikanders, the writer Vivek Menezes describes the strange in between role these Indians had within Empire, partially subjugated, but also partially complicit in the subjugation of others. Like in Nigeria, and in India itself, the various groups were pitted against each other by the British, and the ramifications of that can be still felt today. It may be the bitterness of Edenic loss but I know there are some East African-Indians who have harboured anti-Blackness with them in the UK, instead of extending solidarity (here I think of some of the astonishing scenes in John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs which involve the Sikh community, both young and old, empathising with or coming down on the side of the Caribbean rioters).
Food often hides these fault lines; although sometimes, like with the recent case of an East African Gujarati restaurant in Queensbury whose looting was blamed by Hindu nationalists on the BLM protests, it can also widen them. There are plenty of East African-Indian restaurants in London, particularly in the north west, but there is a surprising ─ perhaps astonishing ─ number of famous Indian restaurateurs who came to the UK via East Africa in a way that doesn’t exist for Pakistani, Bangladeshi or, indeed, any African restaurant owners. In food you can too see how the hierarchies of Empire have played out, how those concentric circles of inequality still exist in whose cuisine is considered important and whose isn’t.
Today’s newsletter tells two stories of East African-Asian identity through two recipes, with food as the common intersection between two communities that remain unresolved. I’d like to eventually commission a sister article to this piece which looks at it from the other side, from the East African perspective ─ please email me if you have ideas! Until then, there is always cassava.
Today’s illustrations are both by Reena Makwana https://reenamakwana.com/ . Reena was paid for her work.
On the hunt for mandazi, by Samir Jeraj
Every immigrant culture has a genre of food that can be tentatively called aunty food: the type of food item that is almost exclusively only supplied to order by an aunty (an aunty is not necessarily a relative, just someone in the community). Mandazi is one of the East African diaspora’s aunty foods.
These tasty triangular puffed fried snacks are usually made at home by aunties deep-frying batches in the kitchen, which are then flavoured with cardamom and often sweetened with coconut milk (when this is the case they are called mahamri). In Kenya, where my Dad is from, you would get them sold from carts on the street, or door to door, for breakfast with a bharazi (pigeon pea) curry or perhaps with chai for a snack.
Because they are sweet and fried, mandazi are often compared to doughnuts, but they are less in-your-face sweet, with the small bit of sugar mostly there to feed the yeast and the flavour carried by the coconut and cardamom. The coconut mahamri version is popular along the coast, where the majority of coconut trees are. It is probable that cardamom, native to the Indian sub-continent and Indonesia, would have been an addition made by the Asian community who long traded in the area and came in numbers to Kenya in the 1890s (my great-grandfather among them).
You can find mandazi sold as street food in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Somalia but they are virtually impossible to find in central London – although now I’ve said that I’ll no doubt be flooded with suggestions (I’m okay with this). I’ve spent years trying to find a reliable source closer than Barking or Harrow, where there are significant East African and East African-Asian communities.
I once went all the way to Lewisham to a Somali café to buy some (in Somalia they are called bur). As I entered, I could tell this was a place for regulars only; the doors closed behind me like a saloon and I got an interrogatory look from the guy at the counter before I got my three mandazi in a bag and made a swift exit. The next time I went they were closed, and the time after they’d sold out. I couldn’t really continue to justify the hour-long journey there and back.
When I got the urge to have mandazi during lockdown I meant to try the Somali cafés and restaurants on Seven Sisters Road, but I learned they had closed down before I even made the trip. I decided, in the absence of aunties, to make my own.
The first challenge was the flour and yeast. I found some flour at a nearby corner shop, but my search for yeast would take another two weeks. My sources at a local bakery in Hoxton pointed me towards a Turkish shop and, lo and behold, there in between spices and beer were red sachets of Turkish yeast.
The next challenge was deep-frying. Deep-frying terrifies me. We never did it when my sister and I were growing up. A series of traumatic public service adverts on TV warning about chip pan fires and witnessing a demonstration by the fire brigade at a fair when I was 14 sealed the deal.
But I pressed on, mixing up the dough, grinding the cardamom, and opting instead for a shallow fry rather than the full deep version. The oil glugging out of the bottle made me wince, as much for my diet as my immediate safety. Once it was heated to the appropriate temperature, I rolled out the dough and cut it into quarters. If you have got it right, then it will puff up, leaving an interior that can be filled with pigeon pea curry. A poorly made mandazi will fall flat and resemble a fried biscuit, tasty but lacking the fluffy and light texture.
I looked at my stacked plate with satisfaction. Okay, not all of them were puffed and smoothed to perfection, and the colour was far from the beautiful even brown it should have been, but they were recognisably mandazi. The feedback from the family WhatsApp group was supportive, with some gentle suggestions on how to improve (“add an egg”). My partner and I fed on them for a couple of days as snacks, for breakfast and dinner, but still managed to reserve some for a couple of friends (one of whom is also East African Asian) and other friends running a local homelessness outreach. The feedback was positive, and I rustled up another batch for a socially distanced 50th birthday for one of the volunteers. For the moment, however, the aunties of north west London are safe; they still have the edge.
2 cups of white flour
1 egg (I’ve tried this with and without; both work but I prefer with an egg)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon desiccated coconut (or freshly-grated)
½ tin of coconut milk
2 tablespoons oil
1 teaspoon of yeast
½ teaspoon of roughly ground cardamom seeds
Mix the dry ingredients.
Add the egg and coconut milk.
Add warm water to bind until you get soft dough.
Cover and leave in a warm place for a couple of hours to rise.
Divide into balls, roll out into a circle and cut into four quarters.
(One of my aunties says you should keep them overnight before frying)
Fry in hot oil until browned. Press under the oil with a wooden spoon or spatula to help it puff up.
Eat with chai as a snack or breakfast, or with pigeon pea curry for a more substantial meal.
Samir Jeraj is an author, social affairs and housing journalist in London. You can find him on @sajeraj to send your mandazi recommendations. Samir was paid for this newsletter.
King Cassava, by Abbas Asaria
In the court of the starchy carb, cassava is king. Its taste, texture and the inimitable scent when you boil it are things of beauty – elevated to another level by the holy trinity of salt, chilli and lime.
Cassava is particularly significant to me, as an East African-Asian, given its prominence in the cooking of my family and community. This cuisine comprises not just traditional Indian and East African dishes, but also the ‘fusion’ food that developed from the time Indian communities have spent in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. As a result, and also growing up in the UK far away from the Indian subcontinent and East Africa, my assumptions on the origins of my favourite dishes were often very wrong. I would talk with one of my close friends from Uganda about our love for matoke (think plantain’s East African cousin), both of us assuming we were talking about the same dish and way of preparing it. Only much later did we realise that her yearning for the groundnut stew with smoked meat or dried fish that her mother would cook it with was a world apart from my cravings for the spicy coconut and lamb that my family would prepare it with. Neither of us was aware of each other’s way of enjoying it before then. A mutual understanding of cassava, interestingly, bridges all of these cuisines.
Cassava crisps, whatever their origin, are divine. I’ve only very occasionally come across them in London. Mostly, I enjoy them on the rare occasion when I have a relative visiting from Kenya, when I get them in see-through, unbranded, plastic packets. Cassava fries are equally perfect – beautifully crunchy on the outside, and light and fluffy on the inside. With these I forego my usual favourite chip condiments, and after tossing them in salt, chilli and lime I love to dip them in tamarind sauce. The version of cassava I like the most, however, is stewed with coconut milk. I’m not sure if that’s because it’s the tastiest version, or purely because it was the first East African recipe I learned how to make. But when you have a dish with ginger, garlic, chillies, turmeric, coconut milk and a lot of fresh coriander, it’s always going to be brilliant.
Something that makes cassava fairly unique among root vegetables, and something that was an extra advantage during lockdown, is that you can buy it frozen, making this a fantastic time for look for it in that section of your local South Asian supermarket (I usually buy mine from Taj Stores on Brick Lane, and I saw it once in the Tesco Superstore by Hackney Central Overground when passing by). Peeling and preparing fresh cassava, with its thick, waxy skin, can be difficult and intimidating if you’re unfamiliar with it, so buying it frozen, already cut and peeled, is a really convenient and easy way to start cooking a new ingredient. All you have to do is remove it from the freezer, boil it in salty water for 15-20 minutes, and it’s ready to use in any of the ways I’ve mentioned above, or any other fun way you might use a potato.
In fact, it’s so much easier for me to buy and deal with frozen cassava here, that only once have I actually bought unfrozen cassava in my life. It might seem strange that I’m spending an article waxing lyrical about an ingredient I’ve only ever bought fresh once, but at the same time it makes sense that how I enjoy it is materially different to how it’s enjoyed ‘back home’. The change in how one enjoys home comforts in a new homeland is a common aspect of migration: whether that’s switching to tinned coconut and frozen cassava from having been used to buying it fresh, or remixing traditional recipes with products from your new home. My grandmother, for instance, makes her chilli paste with 50% green Kenyan finger chillies and 50% padrón peppers, and my favourite East African recipe blogger proudly talks about the Irish and Italian influences on what she cooks since moving here.
When you’re a third generation immigrant like myself, what happens when you try to feel some connection with ‘home’ via cooking? Some of the dishes I make, both for myself at home and in my supper clubs, are ones that have been directly told to me from relatives (mostly orally, with given quantities ranging from ‘some,’ and ‘a bit’ to ‘a bit more’), while others are approximations of a dish made by someone else buried somewhere in my memory, which might very well be the result of them doing exactly the same thing. This results in a beautiful diversity from person to person in how a particular dish or ingredient can end up tasting that I think is the best counterargument to evaluating dishes through the reductive lens of authenticity. Is my coconut cassava recipe authentic? Beyond whether or not it’s authentic to myself – which is the only question that should matter – I honestly have no idea how I would answer that. I care more about sharing it with you, and hopefully I can inspire a love for cassava in yourself like the one that I hold.
1kg frozen cassava
Tablespoon garlic paste (or fresh diced garlic)
Tablespoon ginger paste (or fresh diced ginger)
1-5 green finger chillies, chopped (depending on heat tolerance)
2-3 tomatoes, blended
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
400ml tin coconut milk (I personally like Island Sun)
Boil the frozen cassava for 15-20 minutes in salty boiling water until done (if you stick a knife in a piece and lift it up, the cassava will slip off it very easily), drain and set aside
Softly fry ginger, garlic, chillies and a three-finger pinch of coriander in a pot
Add the blended tomatoes, turmeric and a bit of salt, and continue until the tomato is nicely fried
Add the cassava to the pan, stir to coat, then add coconut milk and some more fresh coriander
Simmer away, then with your spatula cut the cassava into bite-sized chunks and mash up to half of it – depending on how thick you want it to be
Season with salt, lemon/lime
Garnish with coriander, and anything else that takes your fancy, e.g. crispy fried onions, chevda, gochugaru, flaked almonds, scrunched-up crisps – the possibilities are endless.
Abbas Asaria is the host of the East African - Indian Supperclub, which he started last year to celebrate his family's history, culture and cuisine, with the aim of exploring the relationship between migration, identity and food. He currently operates Abbas' Delivery Service (roughly) once a month, delivering popular dishes from his supper clubs on his bicycle around London, which you can follow and order via his Instagram page @talkfoodwithabbas. Abbas was paid for this newsletter.