Togo, unlike much of sub-Saharan Africa, is a place where food is bountiful.
Its mild tropical climate allows agriculture to flourish. Its diverse population, which includes 40 indigenous ethnic groups, along with influences from Germany and France, have also contributed to the tiny nation’s interesting cuisine.
Togo’s traditional food was among the things that Koffi Amuzu-Gassou missed after he moved to Wisconsin eight years ago. And because boys in Togo aren’t to cook unless there are no sisters in the family (he has one sister), he couldn’t cook his favorites for himself.
That changed recently when his mother emigrated to Madison, following Koffi’s girlfriend, Deborah Edoh, and his brother and sister. The family joins Madison’s Togolese community, which now includes about 100 people.
Mercy Amuzu-Gassou, 70, is now teaching her son and Deborah the secrets of Togolese cuisine. Their modern kitchen, with its rice cooker and microwave, is a far cry from the “charbon de bois” — a cooking vessel that is set on a hollow log filled with hot coals — that Mercy used for cooking in her rural village.
On a recent afternoon, when her husband, Michel, was visiting from Togo, Mercy was showing Koffi, 35, and Deborah, 36, how to make one of the most beloved Togolese dishes, chicken in spicy peanut sauce, which calls for ginger, jalapeno peppers, cloves, basil and onion and free-range chickens, like those found in Togo, because they are leaner and more flavorful than most commercially raised chickens. Leaner chickens require longer cooking times, which further develops the flavors of the dish.
The menu that day also included fried plantain (which can also be boiled, baked, sprinkled with salt or sugar, or eaten raw if it’s ripe enough), rice, fufu (a bread-like paste that’s usually made from mashed boiled yams, cassava root or plantain — though on this day Mercy took a shortcut and used mashed-potato flakes), and pate, a cornmeal mush cake that is eaten throughout the day in Togolese homes.
Desserts aren’t part of a typical Togo diet, but bamboo or palm wine sometimes accompanies a meal.
Chicken in Peanut Sauce
1 whole chicken, chopped without removing bones
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 small jalapeno peppers
3 cups water
Put the above ingredients in a pot and cook on medium until the chicken is tender. Then remove the chicken and fry it in 2 cups oil until lightly browned. Put the fried chicken in a clean cooking pan with:
2 teaspoon cooking oil
6 large chunks of onion
Sauté until the onion is lightly browned. Then remove the onion and chicken from the frying pan set aside.
Into the frying pan put:
3 tablespoons tomato paste
Simmer the tomato paste in the oil, stirring constantly for 5 minutes
Then add to the frying pan:
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon chicken bouillon
4 cups of water
Boil for 5 minutes. Then add:
3 tablespoons peanut butter
Stir until smooth and cook on medium heat for another 10 minutes.
Return the fried chicken to the pan and boil another 5 minutes, then add:
1/2 medium onion, chopped
1 yellow banana pepper, chopped
1 tomato, chopped
Add salt to taste and boil another 2 to 3 minutes.
Garnish with sliced tomato, jalapeno or onion, if desired.
Serve with rice or pate (“akoume” in the local language of Ewe)
In traditional African cuisine, any tuber used to make fufu is peeled, boiled and beaten smooth with a mortar. In other settings, starchy powders like potato flakes, cassava or yam flour are used.
2 cups potato flakes
2 tablespoonsful butter
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup cream of wheat (optional)
4 cups water
Bring the water to a boil in a large pot. If you are using cream of wheat, add it to the boiling water and stir into a thick paste.
Add the butter and potato flakes, stirring continuously until it’s the texture you prefer.
Add salt and pepper and continue to stir until it’s a smooth dough. Roll it into balls and serve with the main course.
African Cornmeal Mush (Pate)
In Kenya and Tanzania it’s called ugali, and different names are used in other sub-Saharan countries.
4 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups white cornmeal, finely ground
Bring the water and salt to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Stir in the cornmeal slowly, letting it fall through your fingers. Reduce heat to medium and continue stirring until the mush pulls away from the sides of the pot and becomes very thick.
Put pate in a serving bowl, to accompany meat, vegetable stews or greens.
To eat, pull a small ball of mush off with your fingers. Dent it with your thumb and use it to scoop up the stews and other dishes.