Saturday, April 7, 2018

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Djbouti

My personal culinary challenge -- Around the World in 80 Dishes -- takes me to a country where making a main course may seem like a daunting task.  If you were to find yourself in this country, you would see a land of dry shrub lands, volcanic formations, and sandy beaches.  Indeed, it is the hottest piece of inhabited land in the world.  If you ventured into the country looking for water, you might come across a lake, known as Lake Asal, with the highest salt contents in the world.  The water would be undrinkable, but you could marvel at the chimney-like mineral formations created by the evaporation of the water.  If you haven't guessed it by now, you would be standing in the Republic of Djbouti.

A long time ago, the land constituting Djbouti was part of the legendary land of Punt.  (The ancient Egyptians referred to the land as "Punt," or "God's Land" because of the plentiful resources that could be found there.)  Fast forwarding through time, thee land was thereafter ruled by various sultans for hundreds of years from the thirteen century to the nineteenth century.  However, as that latter century came to a close, in 1894, a colonial power -- namely, the French -- established French Somaliland.  It remained a French colony for nearly 80 years.  Colonization ended with a referendum in 1977, which led to the establishment of a presidential republic and the present day country of Djbouti.  

The country has a diverse population.  The largest ethnic groups are the Somalis, who comprise 60% of the population and the Afar, who comprise 35% of the population. The remaining 5% consists of Ethiopians, Yemeni, and Europeans (mostly Italians and French).  

These cultures provide a window into the culinary influences that have shaped Djbouti cuisine.  That cuisine is a mix of Somali, Yemeni and French influences.  There are even some Indian influences in some of the dishes.  Proximity also has left its imprint on the cooking and dishes of Djbouti, with many Middle Eastern spices finding their way into the food eaten by everyday people.  Ingredients like cinnamon are added to spice blends, while saffron is also used in some dishes.   All of these influences played a role when it came to my decision as to the main course that I would make for my challenge.  I wanted to choose a dish that showed the diversity that can be found among the people of this small country.  


That diversity is best illustrated by the dish of Skoudehkaris, which is often referred to as the national dish of Djbouti.  To make this dish, one sautes onions with a spice blend that draws from many Middle Eastern ingredients.  These ingredients include cumin, cinnamon and cloves, along with cardamom (an ingredient used in subcontinent cooking).  After the onions have softened, lamb is added and browned in the pot.  Tomatoes and water are then added to create a stew, which is then finished with some long rice, which helps to soak up some of the liquid.  The end result is a dish that draws from the land of Africa and the spices of the region to produce a dish that, in some respects, resembles a biryani from Pakistan or India.  

Recipe from Global Table Adventures
Serves 4

1 pound of lamb, cubed
1 onion, chopped
1-2 tablespoons ghee or vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 can of diced tomatoes (14 ounces)
1 cup of water (more if needed)
1/2 cup of long grain rice
Freshly ground black pepper

1.  Saute the onions.  Heat the ghee or oil in a large pot.  Add the onions and the spices (cumin, cloves, cardamom, cayenne, and cinnamon) and cook until soft and fragrant.  

2.  Brown the lamb.  Add the lamb and brown it a little.  (Push the onions out of the way so that the meat has contact with the pan.) 

3.  Cook the lamb.  Add the tomatoes and the water.  Cover and simmer for about 45 minutes, until the lamb is tender.  Add pepper and salt to season.

4.  Add the rice.  Add the rice and 1/2 cup of water if needed. Stir, cover and let simmer for about 20 minutes until the rice is tender.  


After having made Skoudehkaris, I needed something to serve with the lamb and rice mixture.  The recipe that I used recommended Laxoox, which is a sponge-like bread.  Laxoox -- or Lahoh, as it is known -- is a bread that can be found in Djbouti, along with Somalia and Yemen.  Thus, the preparation of this bread, which is a lot like the injera prepared in Ethiopia, allows me to bring together the other culinary influences upon Djbouti cuisine.  Those would be the influences of the Somali and Yemenis.

Injera is typically made with teff flour, but the recipe for Laxoox calls for a combination of all purpose flour, wheat flour and millet flour.  If you are like me and you don't have millet flour, just use some more wheat flour.  The end product may not be as good as when you use millet flour, but, if you are like me, it works and saves you some money by not having to buy a package of a type of flour that you will not use in the foreseeable future.  

Serves 4

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 cup wheat flour
1/4 cup millet flour
1 1/2 teaspoon yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 1/2 cups of water

1.  Combine the ingredients.  Add the flour to a bowl.  Then sprinkle on the yeast.  After that, add the salt and sugar.  Add the water and whisk all of the ingredients.

2.  Refrigerate the dough.  Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.  Remove from the refrigerator and place on the counter for a few hours.  When the mixture begins to bubble or froth, it is ready.  

3.  Make the bread.  Heat some oil in a stainless steel or cast iron skillet.  Add a ladle of the mixture and use the ladle to spread it out to about 1/4 inch thickness.  Cook gently until the bubbles form and the surface dries out.  There is no need to flip, just cook until the underside is golden and it is cooked all the way through.

*          *          *

It has been quite a while since I have made a main dish from a country in Africa.  Six (6) of my thirty (30) challenges have involved African countries.  Of those six, I think that my preparation of Skoudekaris and Laxoox may have been the most successful challenge.  The Skoudekaris was very delicious.  The lamb was tender, the sauce had a good kick, and the Laxoox provided a wonderful tableau for the food. Overall, it was a big victory cooking the main dish of a very small country.

Time to prepare for the next challenge.  Until then ...


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