Sunday, February 22, 2009

Notes on Ebeh

Every once in a while, my (mostly Gambian) friends over here get together and cook Ebeh. It is usually on a weekend, with no school and no work: the whole day becomes centred around the Ebeh: waking up late, lounging around until the afternoon, going to the International store to get ingredients, arranging rides to where it's going to be cooked. And then the lazing and becoming increasingly hungry as you smell it coming from the kitchen, at various stages of being ready.

Nyaambi (Cassava) is one of the most important ingredients. Ebeh is mostly liquids with small bits of solid (kobo, nyama-nyama[1] things) floating in it - of these bits of solid the most important is the nyaambi. Without it the Ebeh would float too dangerously close to being entirely liquid - the nyaambi anchors it as it were in solid reality.

This image is a bowl of nyaambi peeled and ready to be boiled. The nyaambi is boiled first, laying the foundation, and then the other parts of the ebeh are gradually added.

To understand the consistency of Ebeh, think of a line of foods, arranged by solidity. Soups and other watery dishes would be at one end, foods with almost no water in them at the other. Ebeh would lie somewhere in the middle but - and here is the important distinction, and one that I think is the main one that forms the difference between how a Gambian thinks of Ebeh versus how a non-Gambian does - for someone Gambian Ebeh lies closer to the solid foods: it can be used standalone as a meal, complete in itself without the need for a second course. Whilst to a non-Gambian Ebeh appears to be only a thick soup. It is a fine distinction, but one which subtly changes the Ebeh eating experience.

I have never seen Ebeh cooked with meat - even imagining it threatens to make me nauseous. Instead an assortment of seafoods are used - from the venerable kobo (bonga fish; which, alas, we could not get here) chopped into tiny pieces, to paanye (a specie of clam), to shrimps. Oysters, despite their similarity to clams, are not used - these extra bits apparently have to be small, to stick with the general philosophy of the Ebeh. Nothing can be bigger than the nyaambi. Unless, of course, you lay your hands on some crabs.

No one who I have asked knows exactly where Ebeh came from, though most opinion seems to be that it originated in Sierra Leone, before it came down to us. I imagine a Sierra Leonian living in Gambia inviting their Gambian friend over for a meal. The plates are set out, the pot brought from the stove and set on the table. In it a bubbling yellowish fluid, with bits of lumpy solid sticking out. "What is that?", I imagine the Gambian asking with a curious face. "Oh - na Ebeh" (assuming this is what they call it in Sierra Leone). With some trepidation the Gambian dishes some out - "only a little - my stomach is not good today - not that hungry even" - and tries it. Three bowlfuls later, she is gleefully taking down the recipe, and can't wait to cook it at home. The Ebeh sensation begins, and within a month everyone is having Ebeh at parties, cooking it on weekends, using it for picnics on the beach...

Where the International Store we went to lacked in kobo they more than made up for in crabs. They had a whole bucket full of them, live and feebly kicking at each other's shells. Here they are in the sink being washed. They are cooked whole in the Ebeh. When one is eating one leaves them last, for the end, when one has finished consuming everything else in the bowl. Then one picks them up and starts on them. Ebeh crab eaters can be divided into two caegories. The first will attempt to stick to what they imagine is their dignity, picking the crab up in a spoon and sucking on its appendages, taking cracking bites into them. But it is impossible to completely enjoy a crab out of a spoon, which is what the second category of people has realized: when they reach the end of their Ebeh they put the spoon down to one side and slide up their shirt cuffs[2]. Then, with a manner that seems to say to anyone looking that dignity does not lie in the eating of a crab (and even if it did, this crab is worth losing it for) they begin to strip the crab layer by layer of all its shells and juices. By the time the very best are done all that is left is a chewed-up mass lying in a pool of palm oil on the bottom of the bowl.

Sometime during my childhood - I don't remember exactly when - Ebeh became the food of choice for parties. It has all the good qualities of a party food: cheap, easy to make, plentiful when it is done so it can feed many people. Also homogenous: apart from the extras (such as the dahaar sauce) everything goes in one pot - the more pots you have for a food the more the chances increase that you will run out of the contents of one pot before the other when serving, for example. And most important: everyone loves it.

Dahaar (Tamarind) is an optional extra, but a necessary one for any true connoisseur. It is mixed with lemon or lime juice, and served in a side dish. It can be added to the Ebeh as you eat - after you have chewed on the nyaambi and swallowed all the liquid the dahaar seeds are left in your mouth. They have imparted some of their sourness to the Ebeh all this time, giving you a hint of what is to come - now you suck on them to get the full flavor (even the thought of it makes my mouth begin to water as I type this).

After we finish eating we sprawl - some on the ground, some on the sofa. There are foods we eat to stave off our hunger: once we are satisfied we stop. Then there are others which we continue eating and eating (and eating) until we feel we are about to burst - we stop only because we begin to feel vaguely uncomfortable as our stomachs complain at the added baggage. Ebeh, like Mbahal (the "bu tilim" type, with diwtirr on top), are like this. Cooking the Ebeh, with the sounds from the kitchen and the smells wafting through to the living room, we were back in Gambia, someone's house hanging out. Now after it is done we are independent of country or culture - we are a couple of college kids happy in each others' company, just lying there and saying anything, while slowly inside us it digests, our bodies thanking us again and again for the food.

[1] nyama-nyama, one of those beautiful Wolof words whose sound contains its meaning, is used to mean "small-small". So nyama-nyama things is all the little bits and pieces floating around in the Ebeh after it's done.

[2] Ogasu is the Wolof word for this. See note [1] above.

Wollof word of the day: chaalit


1. v., to act in a manner not usual because of food. eg: Serign dafa chaalit palansoram bi ndik leka bi. . Serign forgot his umbrella here because of the food (maybe it was super, and the rainy season, and Serign enjoyed it so much he stepped out into the rain without his umbrella, so focused was he on the food).

2. v., to lose one's restraint because of great pain, sorrow, etc. eg. bul chaalit -yaala kor dogal. do not lose yourself - it was the will of God. (this said to a man whose whole family has just died in a freak accident, and who has begun to speak strickenly of taking his own life).

usage 1 is meant jokingly, usage 2 only with great seriousness.

also pronounced saalit.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Wollof word of the day: toox

toox (pronounced "tookh"), v., to smoke. notice how the word starts out on your lips then gets to your tongue and then, just as it reaches your throat the difficult "kh" comes in, mirroring the harshness of smoke in your throat as you inhale, and lingering in your throat for what seems to be a moment after the word has run out of syllables, like the aftertaste of tobacco.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Awesome Tapes From Africa

This site that brought tears to my eyes. Check especially the Bamba J Faal, the Pacotille (looked everywhere online for this), and our very own Moussa Ngum.