Five Spice Banana Pancakes

Me and Jen’s Sunday morning tradition in the States: pancakes. After ten weeks of living with our host family in Porto Novo and eating the same breakfast every day (bread, butter, jam), our first morning in our new house in Benin meant it was time to revive a tradition. I made a pot of coffee, put on an old podcast of Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and got to work. We didn’t have butter or syrup or jam to put on the pancakes, but they were still a tasty welcome to our new home.

Recently I came home hungry for lunch and tired of the normal Beninese fare I buy for lunch (rice with spicy tomato sauce, spaghetti with spicy tomato sauce, rice and spaghetti with spicy tomato sauce). Pancakes sounded good. Fruit flies hovered around some bananas we’d had for several days, so the bananas needed to be included. I mashed them into the batter. Pancakes with banana… still too straightforward.

Red, green and yellow; here are three of the banana varieties available in our town. All three are ripe and ready to eat.

The day before I’d been at our local outdoor market and saw small baggies of a tan flour for sale alongside the usual offerings of garlic, ginger, onions and hot peppers. Soy flour I was told. I’d been told that people cultivate soy beans locally though I hadn’t seen them in our market. Excited to add some flavor, nutrition and texture to our baked goods, I bought four little baggies, each with about ½ cup of soy flour, for $0.30. I replaced 1/3 of the flour in the recipe with soy flour. A step in the right direction but not yet enough flavors different from what I’d been eating.

I still can’t open our reserve of maple syrup because of a lack of refrigeration so I needed something else to make the pancakes interesting. Cinnamon? Couldn’t find it in my spices. But I did see the Chinese Five-Spice Powder. Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds. Ëëëëëëëëëëëëëëë. (That’s ‘yes’ in our local language, Gun.) That’s what the pancakes needed. I put some in the batter and tasted. I added some more.

The finished pancake had a dark brown hue from the spice mix and the carmelization caused by the bananas in the batter. I slathered a bit of imitation brand Nutella on top and dug in.  A winner.

The next day I made a nutella and peanut butter sandwich with two leftover pancakes for a snack at work. Throughout the morning my mind kept wandering to the tasty treat waiting for me. Later, while working with a colleague, I decided to share some American culture and gave him half of the sandwich. He took one bite, tried to hide the look of repulsion on his face and called another colleague over to let her share in his good fortune. Before she tried it, he said something to her quickly in the local language, of which I understand almost nothing. She thanked me graciously and walked out telling me she would try it soon but that she had to take care of something. I should have hoarded the pancake sandwich for myself. 

 Five-Spice Banana Pancakes

1 C       white flour^

½ C     soy^, whole wheat or other flour

2 t        salt^

1½ t    baking powder^

1 T      sugar^

1 T      Chinese Five Spice^^^

1          egg^

1 T      vegetable oil^

1          ripe banana^

1½ C   milk ^

  1. Mix the dry ingredients together.
  2. Mix the wet ingredients together.
  3. Combine the wet and dry ingredients. The batter should be the consistency of a drinkable yogurt. Add a little milk if its too dry or a little flour if its too wet.
  4. Heat a non-stick or cast iron pan until hot but not smoking. Add some butter or oil if you want. Or don’t. Put a ladle full of batter in. When small bubbles have formed and burst all over the pancake, flip it.* Cook for another 30 seconds to a minute. Enjoy.

*The pancakes were a little tricky to flip because the banana made them stick to the pan a little more than normal, so be careful if you use this method.

^          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.

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