When assessing a new place to live, I go straight to the kitchen. I picture myself at work: making coffee and pancakes on a lazy Sunday morning, whipping up something quick for a midweek dinner, fussing over an elaborate meal for friends, sweating over a Thanksgiving dinner for twenty. Natural light, counter space, good ventilation, a two-basin sink with spray gun, generous cabinets, a dishwasher – weighing each element, I rate apartments based on my future cooking experience.
Last week Jen and I moved into our ninth apartment in eleven years. As Peace Corps volunteers serving in Benin, we had zero input into our new living situation. Peace Corps selects our housing based on proximity to our jobs, on safety and on how the location will facilitate our integration into the community. The ease of hosting dinner parties fails to enter the equation.
Our newest apartment is in a town of about 20,000 close to Benin’s capital city, Porto Novo. Our apartment is one of eight within the concession, a walled complex with a shared yard. Our concession consists of a tennis court-sized yard with a long, one-story cinderblock apartment building running along one side and an eight-foot cinderblock wall along the other three sides. People enter through a metal gate opposite the apartment building. Each apartment is either 12 or 18 feet wide (ours is 18) and 35 feet long with eight foot ceilings. We have electricity but not running water. We draw water from the well in a corner of the yard.
Jen and I visited our new apartment several weeks before moving in. I entered and looked for the kitchen. Without the familiar set-up of an American house, this took a moment. Measuring ten feet by six feet, the kitchen lies behind the rest of the house in a narrow space shared with the pit latrine and the bathing stall. Not quite inside or outside, corrugated tin partially overhangs the space, keeping the rain partially out but letting in mice, insects, lizards. The walls are concrete. The floor is tiled. Other than being the traditional space used for a kitchen in Beninese homes, nothing distinguishes the space as a kitchen. No dishwasher, no sink, no running water. No counters, no pantry. No oven or fridge. The kitchen did not score well with my future-cooking-experience rating system.
Preparing to move into our new place, we discussed keeping the kitchen in the designated space or carving out a part of the living room. The silver lining began to show itself. Peace Corps issues each volunteer a mobile three-burner camping-style stove and a tank of gas. No kitchen infrastructure meant we could put the kitchen wherever we wanted. The cockroaches decided the matter. They like to hang out on the inside lip of latrine hole, just under the wooden cover. I’ve found that jiggling the cover with my foot before I open it scares them away long enough to take care of business without the additional company. But they like to come out and explore the latrine/bathing/kitchen area at night. The image of the roaches crawling out of the latrine and over our dishes provided me with the necessary motivation to put the kitchen in the living room.
Before moving into our own place, Jen and I lived in Porto Novo for ten weeks of PST (pre-service training) with a host family while we learned French and practiced techniques for helping entrepeneurs start or improve small businesses. Our host family took good care of us. They fed us well (more fruits and vegetables than in the typical Beninese diet) and the food was yummy. For me, though, cooking is more than a means to eating. I missed planning a menu and then puttering around the kitchen, listening to music and creating something to enjoy with Jen. Setting up a new kitchen and cooking my own meals fueled many a daydream during those ten weeks before we moved into our own home as sworn-in Peace Corps volunteers. As the end of training neared, I began a list of dishes to cook for the dinner. Some cravings couldn’t be met, at least not initially. No lasagna or burgers or tacos al pastor. Yet.
In preparation for our first home-cooked meal in Benin, I perused the cookbooks on my Kindle. I picked up a copy of Lucky Peach. An impulse buy purchased days before we left the states in July, 2011, David Chang’s Lucky Peach combines articles about food (non-fiction and fiction) with recipes. I’ve heard it described as avant garde foodie porn. I’ve had the magazine for over a year but haven’t read all of it. I’ve saved some articles for a rainy day, when I need an escape and want to lose myself in foodie literary bliss. If you like reading about food and cooking, go buy yourself the magazine; I’ll refund your money if you’re dissappointed.
Searching for inspiration for the first meal I’d cook in our new house, I re-read a favorite article in Lucky Peach for the third or fourth time. The first issue’s most substantive and informative article explains Japanese ramen in great detail, going over the regional differences, the history of each region’s version, the flavor combinations used in each. Reading this, I remembered some ingredients I’d received in care packages from friends and family – bonito flakes, nori sheets, dried mushrooms. I thought about what other ingredients I could buy and which I’d have to do without. It wouldn’t be perfect, but I thought I could pull off a decent ramen. I went shopping.
I am excited to cook in Benin because of the challenge of limited ingredients and equipment and because I love cooking. I don’t have any lofty goals of cooking only with what’s available or in any particular style. I want to eat tasty meals and will use whatever I can get my hands on – from the local market, from fancy supermarkets in the city and from care packages sent from the U.S. No 100 mile radius challenge for me. Over the course of trips to several different supermarkets in Cotonou I bought soy sauce, locally grown and dried mushrooms, dried and ground shrimp and rice noodles. The dish started to come together.
As the ten weeks of PST neared their end, Jen and I also purchased some kitchen essentials to prepare for the move into our new place. We bought a frying pan, a small pot, bowls, forks and spoons. These items rounded out the knives, spices and other basics that we’d brought from home and Cape Verde along with the Peace Corps issued stove.
Moving day arrived. As we packed our belongings into the waiting taxi, our host mother gave us a squat, foot-high wooden stool. We arrived with no other furniture. I sat in a corner of the living room-come-kitchen on the stool. On the floor next to me sat the three burner stove and the two boxes of spices and ingredients that constituted our pantry. No fridge requires more cautious purchasing and I had just enough fresh ingredients for this meal. I didn’t yet have a cutting board so I held the onions, garlic and ginger in my hand, scoring and dicing them with the technique our host mom in Cape Verde taught me. Jen sat on the concrete floor, unpacking and organizing. She was three feet away from where I sat on the stool. My rating of our kitchen climbed several notches.
Asian Noodle Bowl:
Starting with the idea of ramen, I’m calling the dish I cooked ‘Asian Noodle Bowl’ because of my willy-nilly usage of Asian ingredients and flavors. This dish included Japanese nori sheets, Thai fish sauce, Korean dried tuna flakes, Vietnamese soy sauce, Chinese sesame oil and rice noodles. Not of any specific culinary tradition but a tasty way to scratch a ramen itch.
Many of the ingredients were the same ones used in everyday Beninese cooking, just combined in a different way and with additional accents. (See the notes below the recipe for which ingredients are local or not.)
Serving size: 2
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 25 minutes
2 T ginger, chopped^
1 medium red onion, chopped^
2 T lemongrass, chopped^
2 T scotch bonnet^ or other chili pepper, chopped
2 T vegetable oil
½ C dried mushrooms^^ (I used oyster)
1 medium smoked fish^, meat removed from bones
1 T dried, pulverized shrimp^^
2 sheets nori paper, torn into pieces^^^
2 T dried tuna flakes^^^
½ lb. rice noodles^^
1 bunch amaranth^ (similar to spinach, but use any green: spinach, cabbage, kale, bok choy), stems removed and torn into pieces
+ soy sauce^^
+ fish sauce^^^
+ sesame oil^^^
- Sautee first four ingredients in oil until fragrant, 2 – 3 minutes. Season lightly with salt.
- Add mushrooms through tuna flakes and about six cups of water. Cover and bring to a boil. Partially uncover pot to allow steam to escape and reduce the heat to a steady bubble. Cook for about 15 minutes. (If you have an immersion blender and want to fool finicky people into eating ingredients they don’t know, blend the broth at this point.)
- Add noodles and cook in broth. Five minutes before noodles are ready, add amaranth. (If using heartier green like kale, add sooner so that greens cook until soft.)
- When noodles are done, season broth to taste with salt, soy sauce and fish sauce. Drizzle sesame oil over bowls of soup before serving.
^ Ingredient purchased in our town and used by locals on a daily basis.
^^ Ingredient purchased at supermarkets in Porto Novo or Cotonou that cater to wealthier Beninese and foreigners.
^^^ Ingredient sent courtesy of friends and families in care packages.