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Food

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Clay Pot Cooking
By Evangeline Kim

Published August 3, 2006

All over Africa, long before the introduction of ironware by European traders during the 16th century, women have traditionally produced clay pottery for cooking, serving and storing food and water and for ritual uses in household shrines. From North Africa’s tagine, the round terra cotta cooking pot with a cone-shaped top, to South Africa’s Zulu beer pots, beautiful handcrafted clay pottery remains in high demand throughout the continent, not only for aesthetic reasons but also for practical purposes: clay can keep food or beverage warmer or cooler much longer than metal pots in rural areas where stoves or refrigeration are non-existent; then too, the slow cooking method tenderizes meat or poultry requiring longer cooking time.

One of West Africa’s most famous dishes from the Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is Kedjenou. It’s a luscious chicken stew with vegetables that is still today slowly simmered in a tightly sealed, round-bottomed, narrow-necked terra cotta pot called a “canary,” or “canari,” over an open fire of hot coals, as it has been for centuries. Kedjenou has by now become a national dish throughout all of Côte d’Ivoire. The traditional recipe comes from the Baule people, part of the Akan ethnic grouping, who inhabit western Ghana and central Côte d’Ivoire. Kedjenou in the Baule language means, “to shake.” No water or liquid is usually necessary, since juices from the steaming vegetables provide ample broth. In order to keep the ingredients from burning or sticking to the bottom, it’s essential to periodically shake or turn the round pot over the fire.

New York-based Jerome Vogel, Africana scholar and art collector, has been importing some of the highest quality Kedjenou pots, a few dozen at a time, for African museums in the U.S. from a Baule women’s cooperative in the Ivorian village of Tanoh Sakassou, since 1984. Over the past two years, however, availability and sales of the pottery and the consequent source of income for the women’s cooperative have become increasingly difficult. Tanoh Sakassou is situated precisely at the map point where two opposing forces have blockaded the delivery route to and from the village during the country’s civil war. The village has effectively been cut off from access to local markets.

The founder of the cooperative, Koua Aya, now in her sixties, is a member of a family in which the women have been potters for many generations. Only women in most African societies usually dig clay for pottery because women are associated with earth and fecundity. Girls in the Tanoh Sakassou village learn to make the Kedjenou pots as well as an array of plates, bowls, pitchers, vases, cups, candle holders and ritual pottery from their mothers and aunts, and in turn, teach the craft secrets to their own daughters and nieces. The 13-14 female potters in the cooperative, and very recently two young boys, the sons of potters, are trained under an extensive apprenticeship system. They learn where to dig clay, most often from the banks of streams or from pits in the earth, following prescribed rituals; how to pound and strain the clay to rid it of impurities; and how to mold and shape the pots by the “coil” technique. The Baule do not throw their pottery on a wheel as practiced in North Africa or more recently introduced in sub-Saharan Africa, for example.

Once carefully incised with decorative patterns and designs with twigs and air-dried in the sun for a few hours, the pots are placed in a clay kiln or in a very large metal barrel over fire for seven or eight hours or all night long. The pottery is again fired on an open fire of straw and wood, then blackened by placing it on smoldering sawdust and rice chaff and brushed while sizzling hot with a tincture made of leaves and tree bark. This latter step waterproofs the surface and brings out the typical surface metallic sheen from an element within the clay. These materials and ancient firing tec

  Recipe
Recipe

The following Kedjenou recipe can be cooked over an electric or gas stovetop in a tightly covered deep casserole, but the results won’t be the same as the special melding of flavors and ingredients from the slow two-hour simmering method in an authentic Kedjenou clay pot (sealed with aluminum foil in place of a banana leaf), which can also be placed directly on a stovetop burner. Cameroonian-French crafts designer Vickie Fremont’s innovative recipe from her forthcoming African cookbook uses smoked turkey pieces in place of the traditional chicken. Served with hot rice, a mouth-watering hot sauce to pique the palate and a bottle of excellent red wine, Kedjenou is well worth the wait. According to a Touareg proverb, “At the end of patience… lie the heavens.”

KEDJENOU

This recipe is for six to eight people. No African dish is ever made for less than six. One must always be ready for the surprise guest, the friend who brings along a sister or brother, the son’s friend who drops in unannounced…

Eating alone is your privilege but remember your pain will be even greater. - Congolese proverb

2 pounds smoked turkey, cut into bite-size pieces
1 eggplant, peeled and chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
2 red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
8 scallions, trimmed and sliced (use the white and the tender part of the green leaves)
3 sprigs fresh thyme
6 stems fresh coriander, snipped finely
1 teaspoon dried coriander
1 pound fresh, washed spinach
8 fresh tomatoes, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Begin by combining the garlic, 2 chopped tomatoes, a pinch of salt and the dried coriander in a small bowl. Set aside.

All the cooking is done in your Kejenou, a terra cotta pot, over a very low flame. The bottom will heat quickly but it will take close to an hour for the entire pot to heat. Start the cooking process immediately, however, by heating the olive oil in the pot for two minutes. Then quickly sauté the onions and scallions before adding the turkey, a pinch of salt and some pepper.

Shake the pot before incorporating the eggplant and spinach into the mixture. Kejenou in the Baule language means “to shake,” so from time to time, before adding other ingredients, take hold of the pot with potholders and shake it back and forth, up and down.

Add the rest of the chopped tomatoes and the fresh coriander and another pinch of salt. Cover the pot and let simmer gently for 1/2 hour. By then, the pot should be heated through. Give it a shake and add the tomato, garlic and coriander mixture from the bowl, plus one half-cup of water, the soy sauce and another pinch of salt.

Continue cooking slowly for another 1 and 1/2 hours, “shaking” the pot every 15 minutes.

Serve in a casserole dish or large platter, accompanied by rice.

RICE

1 pound (2 cups) of long-grain rice, preferably basmati
1 teaspoon olive oil
Salt

Bring 1 quart of water to the boil. In a medium-size saucepan, heat the olive oil briefly before adding the rice. Stir until the rice becomes opaque. Then, add enough water to cover the rice and one or two pinches of salt. Let simmer for five minutes and add the remaining water. Stir and cover. The rice will be cooked and fluffed after another five to 10 minutes.

VICKIE’S UNFORGETTABLE HOT SAUCE

6 large chili peppers (scotch bonnet or jalapeno, for example) seeded and minced
2 tomatoes, chopped
1 red onion, thinly sliced
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons soy sauce

Take particular care when preparing the peppers. Avoid touching the seeds, which are to be discarded, with your hands and do not bring your hands to your face or eyes afterwards. (Use rubber gloves, preferably.)
 

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