#16: Mauritanian Maafe

See, I told you it wouldn’t take me seven months this time! Managing to get this post up in one-seventh of that time is still somewhat longer than I’d hoped for, but in fairness, my slowness this time was caused in part by the fact that on top of my “normal” problems, I currently don’t have internet access at home, so it’s been a challenge to find times when I could actually write this post. (The reason I don’t have internet access is a long and not particularly interesting story, but the important bit is that it’s supposed to be fixed next week, so hopefully it won’t delay my progress on the next country’s recipe and blog post too very much.)

Anyway, on to Mauritania! This is the first time I’ve plucked a country out of the jar that’s geographically adjacent to a country I’ve already done – in this case, Senegal, way back at #1. And in researching Mauritania, I found that, given that the vast majority of the country consists of the Sahara desert, the Mauritanian population is heavily concentrated in the south – i.e. along the border with Senegal. It was, therefore, not terribly surprising to learn that Mauritanian cuisine and Senegalese cuisine aren’t really very distinct from each other. (In fact, according to Wikipedia, both countries have the same “national dish.” I didn’t actually make said national dish for either one, but I might yet if it turns out it’s also supposed to be the national dish of the Gambia or Cabo Verde or something!)

But what’s rather cool about revisiting the food from that particular area of the world is that it means I get to engage in another first – taking a reader’s suggestion! Or, well, sort of taking a reader’s suggestion, because as it happens, I actually had already pretty much decided to make maafe when I thought, “Hey, wait a minute, didn’t someone suggest this very dish or something like it in the comments for my post on Senegal?” Which, in fact, they had. So thanks, atomtrident, for making me absolutely certain I wanted to make maafe instead of just mostly certain I wanted to make maafe!

I did still have a few decisions to make, though. Since maafe – also known as groundnut stew (and spelled an assortment of ways, including “mafé,” “maffé,” and “maffe”) – appears to be a pretty common meal across much of western Africa, I found a LOT of recipes for it, with a LOT of variations. Think of just about any meat or vegetable, and I probably found a maafe recipe containing it somewhere on the internet. (Well, except for pork. Given that much of western Africa’s population is Muslim and Mauritania itself is supposed to be 99.999% Muslim, it’s not a big shocker that pork wasn’t used in any recipe I read.) I didn’t have any very good way to ascertain which among those recipes was the most authentically Mauritanian, but I tried to lean towards any that specifically described it as being a dish from Mauritania, Senegal, or Mali and away from versions that specifically described it as being a dish from, say, Côte d’Ivoire, since the climates of those areas are different enough that it seemed likely that the vegetable choices in particular would be rather different. (That said, I never promised perfect authenticity here, so if a recipe just said it was from “West Africa” and had an ingredient that sounded tasty to me, I didn’t worry too very much about using it even if I had my doubts about its availability to the average Mauritanian. This is probably not maafe exactly as it’s most likely to be served in Mauritania, but it should at least be fairly close, and fairly close is good enough for me!) The toughest decision I had to make was the choice between meats. The reader suggestion I mentioned above was for chicken maafe, and that sounded pretty tempting, but the recipes that specified the region around Mauritania as their origin generally called for beef (or sometimes lamb) instead, which sounded a little more intriguing, since I’ve definitely eaten at least a couple of chicken-and-peanut dishes before, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever combined red meat and peanuts. So, two choices. Two good choices. Two good choices that I didn’t really want to decide between. Hmm, is there any meme-based wisdom I can once again turn to here?

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Why Not Both girl is pretty much the mascot of this blog at this point, given how often I ignore the title of the project because I just HAD to make two things, gosh darn it.

Now, admittedly, the “why not both” strategy isn’t always the most practical one, but when you do in fact already have both chicken and beef in your freezer and you’ve worked out a recipe in which the meat will be the last thing you add to the stew (thus making it very easy to pour half of the stew into a second pot and put a different meat in each), it’s a pretty persuasive argument! Chicken maafe AND beef maafe it would be, then.

So, let’s stew some peanuts ‘n’ stuff, shall we?

THE PROCESS

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I came pretty close to having the right ingredients in this picture – that counts for something, right? (I have one more tomato than I actually used and I forgot to include the rice, but rice isn’t part of the maafe per se, anyway. It’s just the thing one serves maafe atop, so it hardly even counts. Or at least that’s the excuse I’m going with.)

First up: the meats. I know I just told you that they’re added to the stew last, and they are, but they were sautéed (and then set aside for a while) first. I chopped both varieties of meat into fairly small pieces (the beef stew meat was already cut up, but this package happened to have relatively large chunks, so I cut them in halves or thereabouts) and seasoned them lightly with salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Then it was time to oil up the skillet and use the Brand-New Ingredient of the Week (where by “Week” I mean “the time period between these entries that is currently quite a bit longer than a week,” but you get the idea), which, in this case, was red palm oil.

When I read about red palm oil, I found it described as both “strongly flavored” and “an acquired taste,” which made me a bit trepidatious, but acquiring acquired tastes is clearly a significant part of the point of this blog, so red palm oil it would be. Since it was also frequently described as a “superfood,” I correctly guessed that I could find it at the local kinda-pretentious-supposedly-healthy-food type of grocery store without too much trouble. Like coconut oil, red palm oil is solid at room temperature. Unlike coconut oil, red palm oil is also bright orange. It resembled nothing so much as canned pumpkin – which is slightly bizarre, because when I tasted a little bit of the strongly-flavored-acquired-taste oil, it also tasted like nothing so much as canned pumpkin (or some similar sweetish squash). Given that oil palms are not, to the best of my knowledge, related to squashes, that was unexpected to say the least, but not unwelcome, since (a) I like pumpkin a lot, so acquiring that taste didn’t seem too challenging, and (b) one of the ingredients I was using in my stew was sweet potato, so it’s not like I was going to think, “Oh no, this oil will make my stew taste like it contains a mildly sweet orange vegetable associated with fall harvests!” (Incidentally, using a sweet potato rather than a genuine African yam is one of the ways in which this recipe isn’t quite authentic – but I prefer to consider it one of the ways in which this recipe is very authentic, because quite a lot of sources suggested that the vegetables one should put in maafe were basically “whatever’s available and sounds good,” two conditions which sweet potato easily met as far as I was concerned. So there!)

So anyway, into the skillet went a largish scoop of red palm oil (enough to thoroughly coat the bottom of the pan). And while I just told you that as a solid it was bright, pumpkin-like orange, it transformed a bit as a liquid, creating an effect I found rather delightful:

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It’s like I’m cooking in a pan made of solid gold! Except without the part where that would cost a truly insane amount of money and also possibly give you some sort of horrific heavy metal poisoning if it ever got chipped or scratched. But anyway, OOH, SHINY!

Red palm oil was definitely the most attractive oil I’ve ever sautéed anything in, so I felt like I was off to an auspicious beginning. Next it was time to throw in the first of my meats. I started with the chicken, although the order didn’t particularly matter – while I was using the same skillet for both meats without washing it in between, the other strong flavors in this stew meant that I wasn’t really worried about a little bit of chicken getting in the beef maafe or vice versa. (This is also why I only used beef broth and not both beef and chicken broth – once the broth is mixed in with everything else, I don’t believe one would taste any significant difference between chicken maafe made with beef broth and chicken maafe made with chicken broth, so I didn’t feel the need to open a second carton of broth when one would do. And keeping my two varieties of maafe separated from the point when the broth is added would have been much more of a pain in the butt than keeping them separated from the point when the meat is added, and I prefer to avoid butt-pains whenever possible.)

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Painless-butted meats being sauteed. Well, maybe not exactly painless-butted for the cow, since that may possibly be its butt that I’m sauteing, but I would certainly hope that it wasn’t feeling any pain by the time said butt was converted into beef chunks, anyway. (P.S. It continues to annoy me that WordPress won’t let me use accented letters in captions, so “saute” loses its accent every time I write it here. Grumble grumble.)

Once I’d sautéed both meats (adding another scoop of red palm oil before I put the beef in) until they were nicely browned – or nicely yellowed in the chicken’s case…

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Look at the chicken pieces, look how they shine for yooooouuuu, and all the things that yooouuuu doooo, yeah they were all yellow! (And also kinda pumpkin-scented.)

…I set both meats aside and got to work on the veggie side of things. Which started, as it so often does, with chopping some onions. (I also chopped my tomatoes, sweet potato, and cabbage at this point, but they got to sit in bowls by themselves for a little while before I actually used them.) Then yet another generous spoonful of red palm oil went into the skillet, followed by said onions.

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Look! It’s the picture that appears in basically every non-dessert recipe on this blog, but now in an exciting “kinda yellow” variation!

While the onions were softening up, I grated a little ginger, and then added it and the minced garlic to the skillet as well. Once the onions were moderately soft (not fully soft, since they were going to simmer in the stew soon, and that would finish the job), I removed the pan from the heat and set it aside along with the chicken and beef.

Next up: making the actual peanut base of the stew. Truly traditional maafe would require me to grind a whole bunch of peanuts by hand, but given that you can find an assortment of jars of ground-up peanuts at almost any grocery store (at least in the US), every recipe I found agreed that you should simply use peanut butter and spare yourself the hassle. (The one catch: you do need to use natural, unsalted peanut butter, i.e. the kind of peanut butter that has exactly one ingredient, since this is a direct substitution for ground peanuts and not for ground peanuts + salt + sugar + soybean oil and so forth. You can, however, totally choose creamy or chunky based on your personal preferences; I went with creamy, but either would work just fine.) I stirred my peanut butter well to mix the oil that had separated out back in, and then measured out a somewhat generous cup of it. Into a pot it went, along with one last spoonful of red palm oil and roughly a cup and a half of the beef broth. (Much more broth will be added later, so you don’t need to be especially precise here.)

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Okay, so, I know this kinda looks like either some weird fungal growth or a horrifying one-eyed sea monster rising up from the depths of a soup pot to swallow you whole, but it really is just peanut butter, a floating scoop of red palm oil, and beef broth. It will not eat you, I promise.

I stirred that together well – and I really wish I’d taken a second picture of that pot as I did so, because the peanut butter and broth take their time about mixing, and so stirring it creates hundreds of swirly little peanut-butter tendrils, which was actually pretty cool looking. (And, admittedly, a little bit like the horrifying sea monster had hundreds of tentacles propelling its terrible bulk through the dark waters of the beef broth after it awakened from eons of slumber to devour mankind. Iä! Iä! Peanut butter fhtagn!)

Ahem. Anyway, I then moved my definitely-not-a-fearsome-elder-god pot onto the stove, set the burner to roughly medium heat, and let it heat up and melt together, stirring it constantly. At that point, it definitely ceased to look like any sort of monster and mostly looked like a pot of liquefied peanut butter. Once that had had been gently simmering for four or five minutes, I stirred in the tomato paste, and then continued cooking and stirring for another two minutes or so. Then in went the chopped tomatoes, which changed the look of the dish from “liquefied peanut butter” to “the bizarre lovechild of a peanut butter sandwich and queso dip.”

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The love that dare not speak its name…possibly because it didn’t know how to pronounce “maafe.” (It’s MAH-fay, or so Google tells me.)

I brought the mixture back up to a simmer, and then added the chopped onion mixture and all the herbs & spices, along with some more broth to keep the consistency about the same – i.e. a thickish but still easy to stir liquid. (Well, okay, I actually added about half of the onion mixture, realized that the onions and broth were going to end up filling the pot nearly to the top and that it was therefore very stupid to keep using the smaller of my two available pots at this point in the recipe seeing as I was going to end up putting maafe in both pots anyway, poured everything into the bigger pot, and THEN added all that stuff. I mostly mention this because the next photo is obviously of a larger pot and I didn’t want you to think I was a wizard with the ability to magically alter the shape and size of pots. Although, come to think of it, convincing my readers I’m a wizard could be pretty useful. I could say things like “Give me money, and lo, I shall magically transform it into books, games, and chocolates!” Never mind, I take it all back, I’m totally a wizard. Yep! Super wizardy over here! If ever a wonderful wiz there was, that’s me! I fight Balrogs and/or play Quidditch and/or kill Red Court vampires and/or get followed everywhere by The Luggage and/or have a very high INT score, depending on your personal wizard preference!)

So, as I was saying, after I moved the peanut butter mixture to a bigger pot magically transformed the shape and size of the pot with my amazing wizard powers, in went the onion mixture, broth, and seasonings. I wasn’t at all precise about the seasonings, but just started with a pinch of each and then taste-tested and added another dash or pinch or smidge as needed. And once all those things had been added and the mixture had been brought back up to a gentle simmer, the maafe went from looking like the lovechild of a peanut butter sandwich and queso dip to looking like the lovechild of, well, queso dip and queso dip, because it looked so much like a chunky queso dip that it was almost weird to look at it and smell its very definite peanut aroma at the same time.

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See what I mean? It’s like a mystery written by someone doing a particularly cheesy Irish accent: The Case o’ the Counterfeit Queso! (Okay, that was bad even for me.)

That got to spend another ten minutes or so at somewhere around a medium or medium-low heat, I think (I forgot to write that bit down, but whatever, basically just cook it at a not-super-hot temperature until it looks like a somewhat less chunky queso dip because the tomatoes and onions are softening up and getting soup-ified and you’ll be fine), being stirred occasionally. Then it was time for the rest of the veggies.

As I mentioned before, there aren’t really any “wrong” vegetables to put in maafe as far as I could tell from the recipes I saw – pretty much everyone seemed to have their own list of vegetables, which varied tremendously from recipe to recipe. Since my impression when reading about maafe was “this is basically West African comfort food, isn’t it?” I opted for two vegetables that appeared on multiple people’s lists and particularly evoked “hearty, comforting stew” to me: sweet potato and cabbage. You could totally use just about any reasonably stew-able vegetable, though – white potatoes would be fine, as would carrots, celery, okra, squash, and so forth. You could also stop after stewing the vegetables and just serve up vegetarian maafe (assuming you used vegetable broth rather than beef or chicken broth, of course). That’s a perfectly valid and authentic option, and I think it’d work very well. (I actually halfway considered putting the “vegetarian” category label on this post even though my recipe obviously contains meat, because adapting this dish to be vegetarian really is just a matter of “don’t put in the meat.” I decided against it because I feel like if I were a non-carnivorous newcomer to this blog, I clicked on the “vegetarian” category in the sidebar, and the first thing that came up was a meaty stew, I’d be a bit annoyed, but if you’re vegetarian or vegan and trust me not to lead you astray, do please consider this recipe to be secretly tagged for you!)

Anyway, if I hadn’t already actually chopped these earlier, I’d tell you that I chopped up my potato and cabbage at this point, but mostly I just took a picture of them at this point so I could show you the size of the chopped pieces.

maafe10
They’re about THIS big. Well, okay, technically they’re significantly bigger, because I resize these photos so they fit on the page (and so they don’t use up all of my storage space on WordPress with giant image files) and I do not, in fact, have bowls that are only about 300 pixels in diameter, but if you assume the white bowl is in fact a normal bowl-sized bowl, which it is, they’re about as big as that would then make the chunks of potato and cabbage. (To be slightly more helpful, I’d say the potato chunks were probably each about a centimeter or so across.)

Into the stew they went, which finally made it stop looking like queso dip.

maafe11
Well, unless you put cabbage and sweet potatoes in your queso dip. Which you might, I suppose, but it doesn’t seem like that would taste very good. Of course, I’ve had people say “it doesn’t seem like that would taste very good” about a few of the dishes on this blog before they tried them, and so far they’ve happily retracted that evaluation every time, so who knows? Maybe sweet potato and cabbage queso dip is amazing and I’m just too unimaginative to realize it!

The stew then got to simmer for a good long time, with more broth being added periodically to keep things at the right consistency. Again, I didn’t remember to write down the specifics of how hot the stove was or how long this cooked for, but what matters is “medium to medium-lowish heat” and “until the potatoes are mostly cooked, as determined by scooping one potato chunk out of the stew and seeing how much it squishes when you press a fork on it.” By the time the potatoes were moderately squishy, that meant the tomatoes, onion, and cabbage had all softened up (or outright dissolved)…which also meant that I was back to “this seriously looks like queso dip, you guys” territory:

maafe12
Seriously! (Although I think it at least looked LESS like queso dip at this point, both because you can kinda see potatoes and cabbage just under the surface and because the increasingly dissolved tomatoes had darkened the color of the stew a bit. But still, if you saw this picture without any context, I bet many of you would think this was something to dip a nacho in. Which I suppose it might actually be, if you wanted it to be; unlike cabbage-and-sweet-potato queso, maafe nachos sound a little weird but not outright unpleasant.)

I did a bit more taste-testing and seasoning, and then it was time to divide and conquer! Or, uh, divide and put beef in one pot and chicken in the other, but in a conquering sort of way? Something like that. And I’m sure you’ll be positively shocked to learn that the next step is to keep simmering it for a while, stirring occasionally, and adding broth as needed – you know, pretty much the exact same step as after every other addition to this stew, because it’s stew and “simmer a bunch of stuff for a while” is pretty much how you make stew.

So, the meat went in…

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Meat meets meetly meted out maafe!

…and then simmered until it was nice and tender, the sauce was at an ideal consistency (thick enough to stay together on top of rice when it’s served, thin enough to mix into that rice easily once you start eating), and the potato test I mentioned before yielded a result of “totally squishable” rather than “moderately squishable.” (Given my differently-shaped pots, I had to cook the beef maafe and the chicken maafe at different temperatures to achieve the same effect in the same amount of time, so the beef in its wide pot was at medium-low and the chicken in its narrower pot was at medium to medium-high. As long as the maafe in your pot of whatever size is lightly bubbling, you’re doing it right!) While my two pots of maafe were simmering, I used one more pot to cook up some rice, and when my maafe-pots looked less like they were full of a bunch of fully distinct items in a sauce and more like, well, stew…

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Cheerfully orange (and very peanutty-smelling) stew!

…it was time to serve them up and dig in!

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(I think that top picture is chicken maafe and the bottom one is beef maafe, but honestly, it’s pretty hard to tell just by looking at it once it’s all covered in peanut sauce.)

THE VERDICT

So, you know how I mentioned that my impression of maafe just from reading about it was “West African comfort food”? Apparently I form good impressions, because that’s exactly what it tasted like. I mean, I suppose I can’t swear to it specifically tasting “West African,” but the “comfort food” part was right on the money. It’s rich and hearty and very tasty, but less in a “wow, this is amazing gourmet cuisine” way and more in a “wow, this is exactly what I want to be eating on a cold night when I’m feeling a bit down” way. I admit that I was a little more uncertain about the potential deliciousness of this recipe than some I’ve done for this blog – I mean, I never really questioned whether “caramel custard topped with wine-infused meringue” or “artichokes stuffed with bread, olives, capers, and garlic” were going to be tasty, because those basic descriptions alone were enough for me to safely assume I’d like the result. “Beef or chicken in a peanut butter and tomato-based stew” didn’t come with that same “well, obviously I’ll like this, since it’s impossible for that combination to be bad” guarantee in my mind, but in the end, I liked it every bit as much as either of those two dishes I just mentioned. (Honestly, maybe even more – those were both much flashier to look at, certainly, but they’re more “food to wow your guests” and not so much “food to stick to your ribs and make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.” There’s a lot to be said for good comfort food!)

As for the obvious question: which was better, beef maafe or chicken maafe? Of the three people who ate it the night I made it, one voted for beef (but still liked the chicken a lot), one voted for chicken (but still liked the beef a lot), and one (me) voted for “I just can’t decide – they’re both really good!” I did, however, amend that very slightly in the days afterward when I ate both again as leftovers. My true, final verdict as to which one was my favorite is, I think, “chicken, but only just barely.” If chicken maafe and beef maafe were somehow given legs and made to run a race to determine my approval of them, it’d have a photo finish, but chicken would end up winning by a nose. (Or maybe a beak?)

If I make this again, which I almost certainly will, I don’t honestly think there’s anything I’d change. I might experiment with different vegetables just for the heck of it, and I’d probably only make either beef or chicken maafe (and would almost certainly decide which of them to make entirely on the basis of “which meat is already in my fridge or freezer?” because they really are both very nearly equally delicious), but there’s nothing about this recipe that feels to me like it needs fixing.

THE INGREDIENTS

(Since several of the quantities I used, especially of the spices, were “to taste” or “as needed,” this is going to look like a very imprecise list, but I think maafe is flexible enough that just about anyone’s “to taste” will still result in something tasty! You don’t really need to be very precise with any of the measurements below, to be honest – this is the sort of dish where just throwing in approximately the right amount will almost certainly turn out just fine for pretty much every ingredient.)

3/4 lb beef stew meat
3/4 lb chicken breast, chopped
a few tbsp red palm oil
2 large onions*, diced
1 large sweet potato, peeled and diced
1 cup natural, unsalted peanut butter
roughly 1/4 of a medium-sized cabbage, chopped
5 Roma tomatoes (or roughly 2 1/2 cups diced tomato)
roughly 4 cups beef broth (slightly more or less as needed)
1/2 tbsp freshly grated ginger
2 tsp minced garlic
2 tbsp tomato paste
pinch thyme (more or less to taste)
pinch parsley (ditto)
pinch white pepper (you get the idea)
pinch black pepper (as above, plus more sprinkled on the meat)
pinch cayenne pepper (as above, plus more sprinkled on the meat)
pinch salt (as above, plus more sprinkled on the meat)
rice

*(My large onions were unusually large, so I actually ended up using more like 1 3/4 huge onions, but 2 more typical large ones is probably about right. And, again, precision doesn’t matter greatly here, anyway.)

Stay tuned for the next country’s announcement, and (hopefully not too very long afterward) the next country’s recipe post!

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