Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Around the World in 80 Dishes: Gabon

With many African countries, there is always two stories (at least) when it comes to the cuisine. There is the story about the cuisine of the indigenous people; and, there is the other story about the influences inserted into that cuisine during the colonialist period. I often struggle with those two stories, wavering between those stories when pursuing my personal culinary challenge, Around the World in in 80 Dishes. More often than not, the emphasis tends toward the indigenous peoples.  (After all, if I want to do a personal culinary challenge that involves English or French culinary influences, I could always do a challenge for the United Kingdom or France.) But, that is not always the case. Sometimes, I have to take both stories into account. 

Take, for example, the country of Gabon. It is situated in west-central Africa along the Atlantic Coast. The territory had long been the home of various Bantu groups, including the Fang, Punu (or Bapunu), Teke (or Bateke), and the Bakota. Its southern reaches were part of the Kingdom of Loango, whose obscure origins get lost in the beautiful art, such as intricately carved ivory tusks, along with a developed society and economy. 

Then came the European explorers and colonizers.  The Portuguese arrived first in the late 15th century. The Portugese provided the name, Gabao, which translates to "a coat with sleeves."  The French followed and stayed, establishing a protectorate in the area between 1838 and 1841. Several years later, the French freed a slave vessel and transported the persons to an area near a French post.  The freed slaves established Libreville (Free city), which would eventually become the capital of an independent Gabon. That independence would not come until 1960. 

While Gabon achieved its independence, it still embraces the French influences, especially when it comes to the country's cuisine. Beignets and brochettes are popular among the Gabonnais. Indigenous foods are also present, taking advantage of local ingredients, such as cassava and atanga. The most common proteins are chicken and fish, but beef, goat, lamb and other meats can be found as well. I decided to focus on the use of beef for this particular challenge, because I found a recipe that I could not resist to make. 

MAIN COURSE

Before I get to that recipe, I wanted to make an observation.  As I have pursued my Around the World in 80 Dishes, one of my favorite challenges involved a sandwich, the Chivitos al PanI made that sandwich to complete a main course from Uruguay. That was ten years ago.  I think it is time for another sandwich challenge.  Rather than a heart clogging conglomerations of steak, ham, bacon and cheese stuffed between two buns, I decided to take on some central African barbecue. 

That barbecue is known as Coupe Coupe. The name comes from the past participle of the French word, coupe or "to cut." Coupe Coupe is a catchall for a type of barbecue that is common throughout central Africa, including Gabon, as well as in neighboring countries such as Cameroon, Republic of Congo and Democratic Republic of Congo. 

As to how one could describe this barbecue, I think the best description comes from Barbecue: A Global History (at page 74), by Johnathan Deutsch and Megan Elias. Deutsch and Elias describe Coupe Coupe "represents a fusion of indigenous ingredients and techniques with colonial influences." They do not go on to explain that characterization, which I guess leaves it to the readers' imaginations to fill in the blanks. 

Coupe coupe is quintessential street food in Gabon. Men and women work in small food stalls to prep the meat and cook it.  When it comes to cooking the meat, which is usually chicken or beef, the methods differ with the cooks.  Some grill the meat, while others slow roast or smoke it. Either way, the cooks have to start early so that they have enough for the lunch crowd. Once the meat is ready, the cooks slice, chop or pull it, thereafter stuffing the meat into small foil packets that are served to hungry customers with a section of a baguette.  The meat and bread are also served with toppings, such as grilled peppers and onions, or sauces, such as a hot pepper (pili pili) sauce. 


COUPE COUPE

Recipe adapted from Global Table Adventure and Congo Cookbook

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoon powdered chicken bouillon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 1/2 pounds of flank steak
  • Vegetable oil
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Grilled poblano peppers, skinned and cut into strips
  • 1 onion, sliced and grilled
  • 1 baguette
  • 2 cups of hickory chips
Directions:
1.    Prepare the fire.  Soak the hickory chips for at least 15 to 30 minutes, or if you use hickory chunks, for 30 minutes to 60 minutes depending upon their size.  Start a fire in a chimney and get it ready to be placed in the smoker. 

2.  Prepare the flank steak.  Place the powdered chicken bouillon, garlic powder and cayenne, as well as salt and black pepper, in a small bowl and stir until well mixed. Apply some oil on the flank steak and then apply the spice mix.  Once the steak is covered, wrap it in plastic and allow it to marinate for at least a half hour to an hour in the refrigerator. 

3. Smoke the steak. Remove the steak from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature.  Once the smoker registers 225 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, place the steak on the grill and add the hickory chips/chunks to the fire. Smoke the meat until it registers about 145 degrees Fahrenheit as an internal temperature.  Remove the meat and let it rest for 5 to 10 minutes. 

4. Finish the dish.  While the steak is the smoker, grill the poblano peppers, remove the blackened skin and slice.  Grill the onion and slice that as well.  Place the baguette on the grill to toast for a minute or two and remove. Once all of the ingredients have been prepared, lay slices of the flank steak on the bread, top with the peppers and onions, and serve immediately. 

*    *    *

While it is always hard to top a sandwich like the Chivitos, with multiple different types of pork and beef, as well as an egg, I have to say that the Coupe Coupe came in a very close second. Quite frankly, this challenge has gotten me into thinking about more street food as part of my personal culinary challenge. Only time will tell. Until next time ...

ENJOY!

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