What does life look like in a country recovering from genocide? The novel Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, which is the current Cook the Books selection, offers a fictionalized glimpse of life in Rwanda after the events of 1994.
The protagonist, Angel Tungaraza, has moved from Tanzania with her husband, Pius, who works at the local university, and their five orphan grandchildren. The family lives in an apartment complex with other foreigners, who have moved to Rwanda to help with reconstruction after the genocide.
Angel's home-based business baking and decorating cakes (torte) puts her in contact with various people, locals and foreigners, and she takes advantage of her somewhat special status to influence events to remake the world into what she thinks is a better place.
As Parkin writes from first-hand experience (she spent two years in Rwanda counselling women and girls who had survived the genocide), some of the stories offer a powerful commentary to images I had from the events in Rwanda and also the HIV-infection epidemics in many African countries. The most haunting one for me is that of Françoise, whose husband and first child were killed during the genocide. Here she talks about surviving:
Let me tell you something about surviving, Angel. People talk about surviving as if it's always a good thing; like it's some kind of a blessing. But ask around amongst survivors, and you'll find that many will admit that survival is not always the better choice. There are many of us who wish every day that we had not survived. Do you think I feel blessed to live in this house with the ghosts of everyone who was killed here? Do you think I feel blessed to go in and out through that gate where my husband and my child were killed? Do you think I feel blessed to see what I saw that night every time I close my eyes and try to sleep? [...] Do you think I feel blessed in any way at all, Angel?
While the reader may not always agree with the way Angel goes about "fixing" the world, it is difficult to be hard on her, given her good intentions. In parallel to her activity on behalf of others, she is also trying to understand and accept what happened to her son and daughter, especially the latter, from whom she was rather estranged before her death.
The part that did not work for me in the book was actually the cake image, and that has to do with my dislike for overly sweet foods. Angel shrouds all her cakes in frosting (glassa) and a frosted cake to me is something nice to look at, but not to eat. Hence, what I get is that Angel's world, notwithstanding her efforts to make it a better place, is like a frosted cake: overly sweet (stucchevole, in Italian) and only for show, without real flavor. It is not a hope-inspiring metaphor, though maybe that is as the author intended — I would like to ask her.
Rather serendipitously, about the time I was working on the recipe for this post, I had the chance to purchase three baskets made by women in the Mufindi district of Tanzania, Angel's homeland. They are beautiful and made me want to meet the women who make them and see them at work. There is another connection to the novel, as the basket weavers are HIV-positive women, who support themselves and their family with their art. In the book, we learn about a clinic where young HIV-positive women learn to sew.
The novel describes Angel preparing dinner a few times, but the dishes mentioned did not sound particularly appealing. A small cookbook in my hands provided the inspiration I needed: The Cashew Cookbook, Recipes from The Gambia and Senegal. (The cookbook is available in pdf from the page referenced.) The recipe booklet is the result of a development project aimed at helping cashew farmers in that region in western Africa. The short video shows, among other things, that cashews (anacardi) can be used to make more than the snack we are familiar with.
I know that The Gambia is quite far from Rwanda and Tanzania, but the dish Chicken in Cashew and Coconut Curry (by Vineyard Restaurant) inspired me and this is what I present here. What intrigued me in the recipe is the mix of spices and the use of cashews to make a paste for the sauce. I borrowed that but married it with my strained roasted tomatoes rather than coconut milk. I also made the dish vegetarian, by using locally grown organic canario beans instead of chicken. (However, I also made my version with chicken and it turned out really nice.)
I like the idea of strained roasted tomatoes, a rather Italian ingredient, paired with a mix of spices that is quite foreign to produce an aromatic sauce in which beans sparkle. The cashews contribute their delicate nutty flavor and crunchy texture.
Another personal addition was the use of carrots and baby turnips to increase the vegetable component and add two refreshing flavors. The result, when served over cooked whole grains, in my case purple prairie barley (orzo), is a complete dish that completely satisfies the palate.
- 1 cup / 200 g / 7 oz. canario or cannellini beans or other beans of choice that are good for stews [see below how to cook beans with aromatics]
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (cannella)
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin (cumino)
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric (curcuma)
- 1 teaspoon ground coriander (coriandolo)
- 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper (pepe nero)
- A generous pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup / 70 g raw unsalted broken or split cashew nuts
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced lengthwise (I used a Rossa di Milano onion)
- 2 carrots, grated using the extra-coarse side of your grater
- 2 small turnips, grated using the extra-coarse side of your grater
- 1 one-inch / 2.5 cm piece fresh ginger, finely grated
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 cup strained roasted tomatoes
- Fine sea salt, to taste
- 1/3 cup /50 g cashews in larger pieces (see Note below)
- 1/4 cup / 60 ml fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped
Note: I purchased raw cashew pieces (rather than whole) and selected smaller pieces to grind for the sauce and larger pieces to toast for the topping.
How to cook dry beans
The way I cook beans for further use comes from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison (Beans with Aromatics). After soaking a cup of dry beans for several hours or overnight in enough water to cover them by about an inch (I use four cups), empty the whole bowl into a saucepan and add
- A small onion (or half of a medium one), quartered
- A bay leaf
- One large or two small cloves of garlic, sliced
- A few sprigs of fresh parsley
- A couple of leaves of sage, optional
Bring the water to a lively boil quickly, and keep it there for five minutes, then turn down the heat and let the beans simmer, covered, until they are tender, but possibly a few minutes from being completely cooked: they will finish cooking in the sauce. How long this takes depends on the type of beans and their freshness. Let them cool in their broth, then remove the aromatics and discard them. Let the beans rest in their cooking broth until ready to use.
How to prepare the sauce
Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Dry roast the ground spices (cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, coriander and pepper) and pepper flakes for 1 minute. Let the spices cool down, then add them to the broken cashews and place in a food processor. Grind to a fine paste. Do not rinse the skillet.
Heat oil in large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and stir to coat. Turn the heat down to medium-low. After a couple of minutes, add the carrots, turnips and ginger and stir. After a couple of minutes, add the garlic and stir.
Cook the vegetables on gentle heat until tender, stirring often.
How to finish the dish
Drain the beans and measure 1/2 cup / 120 ml of the cooking liquid.
Turn up the heat to medium-low and add the cashew paste. Stir well, then add the beans and continue to stir for a minute.
Add the strained roasted tomatoes and reserved bean cooking liquid and stir well. Bring the sauce to a boil. Turn down the heat to low. Cover the skillet and simmer until the beans are well cooked and the sauce has thickened a bit.
In the meantime, dry roast cashew pieces in the small skillet previously used for the spices.
When the beans are ready, adjust salt, then add toasted cashews and parsley.
Give a final stir and serve immediately over cooked whole grains of choice.
Both the bean and the chicken version of this dish were a smashing success. I am certainly glad that I have a nice stash of strained roasted tomatoes in the freezer, because I know I will be making this curry again and again.
This is also my contribution to My Legume Love Affair #66, the current edition of the popular, legume-centered event created by Susan, The Well-Seasoned Cook, now organized by Lisa of Lisa's Kitchen, and hosted this month by Simona of briciole (that is, me).
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the curry di fagioli con pomodoro e anacardi audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.]