Last December, whilst visiting The Gambia, I spent a lovely morning with the colourful traditional cookery expert Ida Cham-Njai.
Ida, originally from The Gambia, studied hotel tourism and catering management in Twickenham in the UK but returned to The Gambia in 1989. Having spent some time working at the popular Senegambia Hotel and then the luxurious Mandina Lodges at Makasutu, she started running cookery courses from her home in Brufut with the desire to preserve and promote her culture.
I joined a small group of tourists on Ida’s cookery course one Monday morning and as soon as we arrive we are shown two clothes’ rails of Gambian traditional outfits. Everyone eagerly picks out their new look. I have always found Gambians love to see visitors embrace their culture in this way so I too select a beautiful bright green ensemble, including a matching head wrap, and get changed.
Few people in The Gambia have access to electricity let alone a fridge so it is common for women to shop at least once a day at the local market. We go to Tanji fish market where all our senses are overloaded with the sights, sounds and smells of the market – women are busy buying and selling, while the men are bringing in the latest catch in their colourfully painted wooden boats. Ida decides at the market what she is going to cook depending on what is available and looking good. Today fish benechin is on the menu and she selects a john dory fish and a red snapper. A small amount of dried salted fish will also be used for extra flavour.
Benechin literaly means one pot and can be cooked with chicken or other meat but fish is probably the most common variation. While the fish sellers scale and gut the fish, we’re off to buy the other ingredients: tomatoes, carrots, spring onions, sweet potatoes, onions, aubergine, cassava, bitter tomatoes and butternut squash are gathered into baskets.
Back in Ida’s courtyard we grab a seat and gather round to prepare the vegetables, many of which are left whole rather than chopped so that they are easy to scoop out and place on top of the finished dish for serving. Others are pounded together in a large wooden bowl.
A smaller bowl and a gourd are used to mash up the chillies and garlic which will be used to make a chilli sauce. They are fried in some oil with a dash of salt and dijon mustard. This would normally go into the main dish but as some of us may not be used to spicy food it is prepared as a separate sauce.
The vegetables are cooked in a large pot over a charcoal fire and as the pot is stirred a delicious aroma fills the air but we are told it will 2 ½ hours before it is ready.
While we wait Ida teaches us the traditional game of wuri bringing out the competitive streak in all of us and before you know it we have a mini wuri tournament taking place! Sitting in the dappled shade of Ida’s courtyard I feel quite envious of this out door life style. (I’ll tell you more about wuri and where I first came across it in another post.)
With an hour’s cooking time left to go the fish goes in to the pot.
Half an hour later the fish and whole vegetables are removed and the spring onions which have been pounded up with some garlic are added together with vegetable stock cubes and diced carrot. Pre-steamed rice is stirred in and it’s left to simmer for another 30 minutes.
Our tummies are rumbling as we all sit down on a rug in the courtyard. Dinner is served! As is the tradition we are not given plates but all eat out of a communal bowl, which looks and smells delightful. We have no skill at rolling the food into small balls with our fingers as the locals would so I’m pleased to say we were allowed spoons. I think the verdict is unanimous. Fish benechin is delicious! The chilli sauce, however, was not to everyone tastes but my neighbour on the rug adored it and I couldn’t believe how much of it he ate as it really did pack a serious punch!
On 24th February charity Refugee Action are holding their very first World Food Night where people all around the world are hosting dinner parties to raise money for this good cause. I too will be hosting a Gambian feast that weekend for the event with dishes from ‘The Gambian Cookbook’. I have been asked to review this wonderful new book which I will do in full following World Food Night, however, for a sneak preview check-out the authors version of Fish Benechin on World Food Night’s website under ‘NEWS’.