Music & Food – Congolese Cuisine
By Courtney Buchanan
Map of the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Most people don’t know that there are two Congos in Africa. Only one of these exists in most people’s minds – the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Congo that is often in the news for its political turmoil is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the larger of the two. The Republic of the Congo is located to the west of the DRC and has a population of 4 million people compared to DRC’s 71 million.
At the Global Union’s Congo Night, Goma Mabika spoke about the history of his homeland, the Republic of the Congo. Eighty percent of the 4 million people live in the southern region since the northern area is primarily jungle, Mabika said. The most significant crop exports are coffee and palm oil. Influenced greatly by France, the official language and currency in the Republic of the Congo are French.
While the Republic of the Congo and the DRC hold distinct political identities, they share many customary culinary dishes. Cassava is the consistent component to every meal. Cassava plants were brought to Africa in the 1500s from the Americas. Instantly they became rooted into Congolese cuisine. Substitutes for cassava include rice, sweet potatoes, yams, tomatoes and various nuts. The Republic of Congo only cultivates two percent of its land; therefore, a majority of the food eaten is gathered.
From 1997 to 2002 when his homeland experienced a series of civil wars, Mabika was finishing up his years in high school. During his journey from his village home, a group of men came up to him and his friend and asked for clothes. As part of the Congolese culture, they are very giving people. Naturally, Mabika handed the man a bag of clothes that he carried but didn’t realize that inside that bag was his cassava. Food was very important during those times, so Mabika rushed after the man after realizing the loss of his cassava and asked for the food back but didn’t mind the loss of his clothes.
Food is a focus for the Congolese people. It’s a compliment to tell someone they gained weight, Mabika shared. “For Congo, everything fat is good,” he said.
At a Congolese table sits a starch accompanied by a vegetable and meat stew. Since cassava is grown throughout Congo, often times a cassava mash or paste is made as the starch. Because of the plethora of peanut plants, the stew often has a peanut flavor. When a stew is not prepared, cassava is eaten with a main dish soaked in a sauce such as chicken in peanut sauce.
The foods that the Congolese people eat are dependent upon the crops that grow best on their land. Palm trees and cassava are two of the most abundant. Cooking foods in banana leaves is quite common because banana trees are abundant in Congo and the leaves provide flavor for the surrounding foods.
Several typical dishes are derived from the palm tree and cassava plant. Mwamba is a dish prepared from palm nuts that come from the African oil palm tree that are plentiful in the Congo. Chikwanga is cooked cassava that is stored in banana leaves. Sombe is made from cassava leaves that are boiled, mashed and cooked. Fufu is sticky dough made from cassava.
As the Congo Cookbook website states, “Fufu is to Western and Central Africa cooking what mashed potatoes are to traditional European-American cooking.” Fufu is traditionally eaten by tearing off a piece, shaping it into a ball, indenting it and scooping stew with it. As one of the main staples to Congolese food, it is made from yams, plantains or cassava, depending on the region. To make fufu, see the featured recipe below.
Typically decadently sweet desserts don’t mark the finale to Congolese meals. Instead if a sweet is desired, a pudding made of tropical fruits satisfies the sweet tooth.
Recipe for Fufu
- 2 to 4 pounds of yams, white or yellow; or equal distributions of yams and plantains
- 1 teaspoon butter
- Place yams in a large pot. Fill pot with cold water until yams are submersed.
- Boil water and cook until yams are soft, about half an hour.
- Drain water and peel yams.
- Add butter. Mash yams and butter with a potato masher and then beat and stir with a wooden spoon until all chunks are gone.
- Shape the sticky dough into balls and serve immediately with stew or main dish with a sauce.
Please note: This recipe was adapted from the www.congocookbook.com website.