It's 2014, and our family is embarking on our virtual travel to West Africa. To explore these countries and their culture, we will follow along with the festivals, cook and eat traditional foods, learn of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

West African Staple Food - Plantain {With Recipe for Spiced Fried Plantain}

Plantain Market, Nigeria
Photo Credit: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

Throughout West Africa, plantains are regularly consumed either as a snack or side dish. They are related to bananas, but they are much starchier and the sweetness is more subtle. Though they can be eaten raw when ripe, they are usually cooked. Plantains can be fried, baked, boiled, pounded or dried and milled into flour.  They can be used at all stages, whether still green or overly ripe. 

A common way throughout West Africa to enjoy plantain is by frying it. Often known as dodo, green to ripe plantains are peeled and sliced diagonally, sprinkled with salt, and fried until golden in shallow oil. We tried Kelewele, spiced fried plantain, a popular snack in Ghana. They were tasty and fun.

Road side stall selling Dodo, fried plantain in Burkina Faso
Photo Credit: Roman Bonnefoy
This was my first time cooking with and eating plantain. The biggest challenge was getting them to ripen evenly, which is not an uncommon issue in cold areas (and our house is cold). Keep plantains in a warm area, and hope they ripen properly - sometimes they just harden up and become inedible. The riper they are, the sweeter they become, and we wanted just ripe plantains. They are also much easier to peel when at warm temperature, and soaking them in hot water for a few minutes can help.

How to Peel a Plantain

Peeling a plantain is not as easy as peeling a banana. Here are the steps, as demonstrated by Elle. 

  • First, cut off both ends.
  • Hold the plantain firmly, and cut through the skin without cutting into the flesh. Cut along the length of the plantain.
  • Carefully peel off the skin. Some pieces of plantain will stick to the peel (let it go), and some pieces of peel will stick to the plantain (cut off with a knife). Green peel will be much stiffer. 

Kelewele: Spiced Fried Plantain

We all enjoyed this snack. Make sure to eat them when warm - they do not taste good reheated. This recipe makes a small snack for 4 people, and can easily be doubled. Adapted from The African Culinary Network

  • 2 plantains
  • 2 tbsp roughly chopped red onion
  • 1 tbsp peeled and roughly chopped ginger
  • 1/2 tsp aniseed
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes (or more depending on how spicy you like it)
  • Pinch of pepper
  • 2 tbsp water
  • oil for frying
  • roasted peanuts to serve with
1. Cut the plantain in half lengthwise, and cut into small bite sized pieces.

2. Combine onion, ginger and spices into a food processor or grinder, and process into a paste. Stir together the plantain pieces and paste together, and let sit to absorb flavors for 20 minutes. 

3. Heat a pan, and fill with about 1/2" of oil. Heat oil until hot, but not smoking.
4. Fry the plantain in batches, making sure not to overcrowd them. Fry, turning once, until golden, approximately 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Best for an adult to be doing this part, as hot oil can splash and burn.

5. Serve warm with roasted peanuts or try them alone. 


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Igbo Age Grade System {With Book Recommendation}

Can you imagine spending the rest of your life engaged in various activities with all the kids you met in kindergarten? Not only through your school years, but as adults, even into retirement?

The Igbo people are an ethnic group from Nigeria. In Igbo village life, there is an important, centuries old custom of age grade groups. These groups are composed of people born within 2-5 years of each other, depending on the village. 

Each group is responsible for contributing to village life, with simple chores for the younger groups (at around age 10), with increasing responsibility as they grow older. These groups work together for their community their entire lives.

Age grades become initiated into adulthood after proving themselves to the elders and their community. This used to be defined by defending the community against hostile neighbors, but these days it is in building something that addresses community needs, such as a school, road or better access to water. If the task is deemed successful, the age group gets to chooses a name, and is then accepted into adulthood. The group then becomes part of the decision making in the community. When an age grade becomes elderly, there is a celebration of "retirement", after which that group is no longer required to do labor. These members become the most respected and influential members in the community.

There's a strong sense of kinship within the age grades. It's fairly common for those who have moved away to a city to come back to their village over some weekends and holidays to reunite with their group, and help with the projects. Within each age group, decisions are made by a majority vote. There is an Igbo saying that illustrates how equal all are considered within their group, no matter what station in life they lead outside it: "No man is above his age mate".

Ogbo: Sharing Life in an African Village by Ifeoma Onyefulu. This is a great non fiction book with large colorful photographs. Told from the perspective of a six year old child who describes her various family members (immediate and extended) and their roles in their age groups. This book is a great way to learn about the different responsibilities of each age group, for every generation. 

Books are a wonderful way to experience new worlds and ideas. Our house is filled with books, most of which are borrowed from our public library. Public libraries are an incredible resource, making books accessible to everyone, and we highly encourage everyone to discover theirs. If you are hoping to build your own home library, I've made it easy by linking book titles to Please note that I have become affiliated with them, which means that if you make a purchase, you are also supporting this website. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

National Poetry Month - Poetry from West Africa: "Dry Your Tears Afrika" by Bernard DadiƩ

April is National Poetry Month, so I thought we'd discover a few West African poets. 

The first is Bernard DadiĆ©, from Cote d'Ivoire, a prolific Ivorian writer of various genres. The poem below, translated in English to Dry Your Tears Afrika, (originally written in French, Seche tes Pleurs) was published in 1967. It's a moving poem about Africans returning to their homeland after centuries of slavery and colonialism. This poem was also translated into Mende (a language spoken by 46% of Sierra Leone) and set to music composed by John Williams as a beautiful choral piece for the movie Amistad. You can hear the piece in the video below. 

Translated into Mende, you can hear the beautiful choral piece in the following video:

Monday, April 7, 2014

Our Weekend in a Nutshell

Tired kids working on their sock zombies
I spent most of the weekend offering support to a friend, which put Hubby in charge of Elle's slumber party. They were a group of rowdy girls, who seemed to be having a grand time (based on all the yelps and laughter). This included blind folded make up artists at 1:30 am - so glad I slept through that!. Hubby was great, plying them with food: fruit and veggie trays, pizza and smores. I took the morning shift, when the girls were much more subdued - tired, but not yet cranky :) We took the opportunity to make sock zombies that turned out both creepy and cute! 

I'm not sure I'd want to cuddle up with one of these

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Our French Canadian Roots: Maple Syrup Recipes - la Tire & Feves au Lard a l'Erable {Maple Taffy & Maple Baked Beans}

Sharing our French Canadian heritage with a monthly recipe from our childhood, hoping to inspire similar traditions and memories for our daughters

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of a cabane a sucre in Quebec. My mother's friends owned a camp in the woods, and I remember the thrill of riding a trailer of sorts - a low plank on wheels hitched up to a tractor - through the woods, feet hanging over the edge, mud gathering on my pants. The whirl of activity around us as the hot, sweet steam filled the air inside the camp, coating our skin in dew. The rows of metal tubs, filled with sap though others were used to cook beans and eggs to feed the friends and family gathered together. Waiting with utter excitement for when they would start pouring thick syrup onto a patch of snow, turning it into sticky, delicious tire. I don't know how young I was, but I believe these memories are from my earliest childhood, and it was the beginning of my life long love of maple syrupI haven't been able to fully replicate this experience with the girls, but I have passed down my love of syrup. Every spring we do drive a couple of hours to a working maple farm and restaurant to stock up on a year's worth of syrup - all the sweeter since at this point we'll have been rationing it for the past month or two. Though there is no tractor ride through the forest, we take a hike in the woods following the tubing system attached to maple trees, up to their (now defunct) original sugar camp enjoying the fresh air. The highlight continues to be la tire, also known as syrup on snow or maple taffy. 

You can read about the history of maple syrup here.

Maple evaporator
Photo Credit: Denis Savard
Canada produces 80% of the world's maple syrup, and Quebec produces 91% of that.

Maple syrup comes from the sap of maple trees. This sap is collected during the spring by tapping maple trees, which means to drill holes in the trees and insert a spout. Though previously metal buckets were used to collect the sap, these days it is collected in tubing that directs the sap into tanks. This process can only occur over a few weeks in spring, when temperatures are above freezing during day, and below freezing at night. Because the sap is 98% water, it must be boiled down to produce syrup, and can be boiled down further to produce maple sugar. It takes 40 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. That is to say, it takes 2 1/2 cups of sap to produce 1 tablespoon of maple syrup.

You can see pictures of maple trees being tapped here 
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