GABON: Crispy baked banana

While desserts aren’t too common in most traditional African cuisines, there’s some really tasty modern creations. I figured I’d give crispy baked banana from this Gabonese recipe at Toi Moi et Cuisine a go (recipe in French, but the video makes the steps clear). It’s a really fast and easy recipe; dredge sliced banana in orange juice and egg, then breadcrumbs. Get it a little gold and crispy in a pan with butter, then give it a quick heat in the oven. Boom.

The banana slices come out sweet and hot and tender with a crispy shell and a little hint of citrus. They’re fantastic. The recipe suggested vanilla ice cream on the side, which would be a beautiful contrast, and you could get really creative with toppings for these.

GABON: La Françafrique

Presidents Omar Bongo and Jacques Chirac – Source

While the period of decolonization in the 60s and 70s held dramatic changes for all European colonial powers, France has remained deeply engaged in its former colonies – militarily, politically, and economically. This gave rise to the term “Françafrique” – where France agreed to the sovereignty of its colonies, while still retaining a level of informal control over the new countries’ politics (including vetting leaders) and continuing to extract resources. France had just been forcefully expelled from Algeria at the start of the 60s and did not wish to repeat the experience, especially as it had lost access to Algeria’s oil. (Check my Algeria month for more on their war for independence.)

The need for a new source of oil brought Gabon squarely to the middle of France’s neo-colonial attention. As with other former colonies, France aimed for a stable and friendly government in Gabon – they supported the first Gabonese president, Léon M’ba, including directly intervening militarily to stop a coup, and then supported Omar Bongo‘s one-party rule after M’ba’s death, as well as ensuring Ali Bongo’s smooth transition to power after his father’s death. France still runs Camp de Gaulle, an active military base in Libreville, which was installed in order to stop the first coup.

There’s a couple great articles in English on this -“Gabon and the Enduring Legacies of France’s Françafrique System in Francophone Africa” and “Françafrique: A brief history of a scandalous word, plus this brief news report in French on Gabon and Françafrique:

If you understand French, I’d strongly strongly recommend the 2010 documentary film, Françafrique, which includes testimonies from many involved in French Africa in the 60s and 70s, including French political chiefs and oil executives. It’s available on Youtube, but embedding is disabled so I can’t post here. It focuses particularly on Gabon, opening with French presidents’ Chirac and Sarkozy (sitting at the time) attending Omar Bongo’s funeral in 2009. Gabon’s oil, timber, and uranium, make it immensely valuable to France, and the documentary really lays bare the amount of influence France has had over the country and how much wealth France continues to extract.

This isn’t just a relic of history from a bygone era – in 2010, details surfaced through Wikileaks of Gabonese officials embezzling funds from the Bank of Central African States and donating to the two main French political parties – led by Chirac and Sarkozy.

GABON: Arielle T ft. Shan’L – L’aveu

A really intense music video with a twist from a few years back by two great Gabonese pop singers – Arielle T and Shan’L. (Warning: music video features sexual assault.)

Shan’L has become one of the hottest pop stars in West / Central Africa, with really smooth jams, great music videos, and a running theme of romantic betrayal and relationship struggles. I really love the polyrhythms and traditional instruments underlying the driving vocals in Okekè:

GABON: Iporo

Iporo is a Gabonese dish of cassava leaves cooked with fish. Like many recipes, there’s a million variations, and no one “true” recipe. I’m going to be basing my recipe off Africa Up’s En Cuisine (in French), but I’ll be using some red palm oil when I fry the onion, upping the garlic, and adding a hot pepper, as in this recipe from the town of Port-Gentil (also in French). Other recipes add dried shrimp, use smoked or salted fish, or use sauce graine – a premade sauce from palm nuts.

This is a lovely blend of flavours – the long cooking time softens the cassava leaves, but adding in the the fried fish and onions at the end keeps them crisp and flavourful. The peanut butter melds really well with the red palm oil and adds richness. Most recipes I looked at use either one or the other (I think it’s regional), but they’re pretty tasty together. The cassava leaves are nice and spicy, as I used a ghost pepper, and I’m serving them with another part of the plant – a side of mashed cassava root.

If you’d like another African cassava leaf recipe, check out matapa from Mozambique.

GABON: Podcasts

Kongou Falls, one of the fastest flowing waterfalls in the world – Source

A good mix of podcasts from and about Gabon, both in English and French.

WNYC Studios Radiolab: Breaking Bongo (En) – Probably one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to in a while, because it really got me thinking about a serious ethical grey area in politics and media. New York-based journalists interview democracy activists and political opponents of the Bongo regime in the Gabonese diaspora. The podcast gives a great background to the contested 2016 election, where Bongo almost lost to opponent Jean Ping were it not for one province’s rigged vote, the violence and crackdown following the election, Bongo’s health crisis in 2019 and the New Year’s greeting video, the attempted coup, and how the activists try to oppose the government from afar. However, where it gets very very interesting, is that the activists are increasingly turning to dubious methods – starting unfounded rumours of Bongo’s death, doctoring reports, creating “Fake News” – in order to create further confusion and undermine Bongo’s rule. The journalists ask some of the really hard questions here – this was a movement that started out providing truthful reporting and pushing for openness and democracy; is it not threatening its own reliability and legitimacy by resorting to these methods? But at the same time, when the regime is willing to use the same tools, as well as violence, wrongful detention, and censorship to crush you, do you not do everything in your power to fight them?

Institut Français Gabon: Le podcast du Mardi (Fr) – Short podcasts by the local Institut Français (a French organization that supports French culture and language study around the world) interviewing Gabonese personalities and thinkers. I listened to Toutes les opinions sont-elles tolérables? (Are all opinions tolerable?) about Spinoza, and the limits of opinions, facts, and the truth. I also listened to an interview with Chérine from Chey Libreville, a Gabonese influencer (I shared her post about traditional weddings here). Chey speaks about social media, sharing Gabon with the wider world, developing online shopping in Gabon, and the challenges she’s faced with being a full-time blogger, especially since she is a one-woman operation.

Africa in my Kitchen: Gabon – Odika (En) – I probably should have listened to this podcast before my disastrous attempt at odika chicken. The podcast covers Gabonese cuisine, and gets into cooking with odika. The hosts, Ijeoma and Yemi (who are both of Nigerian origin) are split on cooking with odika/ogbono – it’s apparently a very “acquired taste” and texture, even when fresh.

Le Grand RDV: Gabon: Et de trois pour Ali Bongo? Que peut l’opposition? (Fr) – A recent episode from Africa Radio’s podcast series on current events on the continent. Gabonese civil society leaders from various sides of the political spectrum debate if Ali Bongo could or should run for a third time in the upcoming 2023 presidential election. There’s a mix of supporters and critics, and they touch on his capacity after his stroke, why his ministers are trial ballooning him running right now, who would run instead if he could not, and the (weak) state of Gabonese democracy.

Ckilsenpensent : les réactions à la future adhésion du Gabon au Commonwealth (Fr) – Gabon announced that it plans to join the Commonwealth this year. It wouldn’t be the first country with no connections to the British Empire to join – I looked at why Mozambique joined, and Rwanda and Cameroon have also come on board (former Portuguese, Belgian, and French colonies, respectively). However, there’s been debate on if this is just a way to gain distance from France, and if this is just switching one former-colonial relationship for another. This podcast from Info241 is vox-pops from the Gabonese public, with many people framing this as a language question – does this signal a larger turn to the Anglosphere and will it involve dropping French in favour of English to take advantage of business opportunities?

GABON: J-Rio – ALOUK / Traditional weddings

Not just a heartwarming and upbeat jam by singer J-Rio, but also a cool intro to wedding traditions from Gabon. There’s a few different styles of weddings in Gabon, some people have a “civil” wedding, which is similar to Western weddings – bride wearing white, the couple exchanging vows, usually officiated by a judge or Christian priest.

The other main style of wedding is “traditional” or “customary” (like in the above music video) – blue is a much more common wedding colour, but there are lots of beautiful colour combinations and patterns, usually coordinated for the whole family. There’s a great rundown on traditional Gabonese wedding outfits at D&D Clothing.

For a traditional wedding, the ceremony involves the groom and his family gathering up symbolic items for a dowry from a list provided by the bride’s family. The bride will then take a “ticket” of the dowry, place it at her father’s feet and ask for his blessing. Once the ticket is accepted and the blessing is given, the bride is seated on her mother-in-law’s knee and the marriage is official.

The bride usually carries a basket for the ticket, traditional fans to obscure her face, and other wedding symbols (especially in Fang traditional weddings, who are about a quarter of Gabon’s population). There’s also fun traditions like setting up “tolls” between the two families, where members of the other family must throw money to pass. Gabonese blogger Chérine has some beautiful pics from her own wedding at her site Chey Libreville, with an article (in French) about cross-cultural weddings and how to blend different traditions.

GABON: (A failed attempt at) odika chicken with fufu

This recipe looked so good, and yet, I totally messed it up – I didn’t check the quality of my ingredients. I was looking to make odika chicken from this great looking recipe at Madd Cooking (in French). Odika, also called wild mango, African mango, or ogbono, is the kernel of a plant that only grows in Central Africa – it’s used in Nigerian, Cameroonian, and Gabonese cuisine. It’s supposed to give a rich, cocoa flavour and thickens stews. However, if it’s been stored too long, it spoils and takes on a strong soapy flavour.

I probably should have looked that up first.

Instead, I bought a package of ground odika that had been shipped to Canada from Nigeria and then placed on the back shelf of a grocery store for enough time to gather dust. When they say spoiled odika smells soapy when cooked, they don’t mean just a little bit soapy. They mean powerful, chemical, “back of a laundromat” scent, almost like lye (it reminded me of lutfisk, and that’s not good). I should have pulled back and saved the remaining ingredients once the smell filled up my kitchen, but I thought that maybe the soapy smell would cook off if I saw the whole recipe through.

It did not. I had all my windows open (even though it was -10C), all fans going, and a heavy hand with the air freshener. Even then, I still gave it a taste test – the soapy flavour is still there, though not as strong as the smell. It’s a shame, because otherwise this recipe would be tasty, everything else seems like it works great.

I did make some instant plantain fufu to accompany it, and that turned out not bad. It’s a good arm workout, making sure it’s well beaten, but it’s a great texture. It’s stickier and stretchier than pap/xima, with a satisfying carb-y taste like whipped potatoes (you use fufu to scoop up some of the main dish with your fingers). So there’s that at least!

I want to take another kick at this, but don’t know if I’d be able to find fresh enough odika. In Gabon they often process and preserve odika into dika bread, which can be grated and has a longer shelf life. I haven’t been able to find any in my local African grocery stores – it may be available in Montreal, where there’s a large French African community, if it’s available in Canada at all.

Dika bread – Source

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO: Trinidadian Patois / French Creole

Trinidad and Tobago has two commonly spoken English-based creole languages – Trinidadian Creole (see the trailer for Green Days by the River) and Tobagoan Creole. However, there is a third creole language spoken in the country as well, Trinidadian French Creole, or Trinidadian Patois.

Unlike Tobago, Trinidad was never under French control, but the French patois developed as a lingua franca under Spanish rule, as Spain encouraged Catholics to settle on Trinidad – many slaveholders as well as free people of colour came from the French Caribbean during the French Revolution. French Creole was actually the main language spoken on the island for the 19th century until English and English Creole displaced it.

While there’s still French influence in the English Creole languages, French Creole today is mainly centred around the village of Paramin, in the mountains north of Port of Spain. While it is used in casual conversation and for Dimanche Gras – the Sunday mass before Carnival (see above video) – it is an endangered language. However, there are efforts underway to preserve it and share it with younger generations.

Here’s an interesting report on the language from a French channel – there’s no English subtitles, but Creole is subtitled in French. Haitian Creole speakers in the comments all note that it’s very close to their language and that it’s mutually intelligible.

I’d also recommend falling down the Wikipedia hole on Creole languages in general – how they differ from pidgin languages, how they develop, the history of recognizing creole languages, and even the language surrounding the language.

THAILAND: Larb moo

I poked through my local library for some Thai cookbooks, and only one of them was written by a chef from Thailand – Anchalee Tiaree, who runs the restaurant Puong Thong with her mother in Chiang Mai. The cookbook is in French, focuses mainly on central Thai cuisine, and boy, there’s some good looking stuff in here.

I’m going to try out the larb moo (pronounced more like “laap”) – it sounds right up my alley. It’s ground pork, poached in bouillon, then sauteed with red and green onion, shallots, parsley, cilantro, mint, lime, Thai fish sauce and khao khua – toasted rice powder. I’m using both chili flakes and some pickled green thai chilies for extra heat.

Wow! Poaching the meat in broth really gives it a nice tenderness, and the flavours from the onions, fish sauce, mint and lime really knock it out of the park. I really love the khao khua, it’s got a great toasty flavour and texture – I’m going to see what other recipes I can use it in. I’m sold on larb, definitely going into the “make again” recipe folder.