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How to make plantains in palm oil and other authentic African dishes from The Congo Cookbook

This article first appeared in City Press.

21 May 2017

Not nearly enough people know about The Congo Cookbook, writes Charl Blignaut. It’s a staggeringly comprehensive and free online portal of authentic African recipes.

Plantains in palm oil

This dish, bananes plantain à l’huile de palme, makes use of two of the most common ingredients in central African cookery: plantains and palm oil. Other oils can be substituted, but palm oil (or at least a mix of palm oil and some other cooking oil) gives the most authentic taste and colour. Also see these similar dishes: aloco (served with grilled fish), and matoke (made with meat).

1 cup of palm oil
4 or more plantains (the best substitute is slightly green banana)
1 or 2 hot chilli peppers, cleaned and chopped (for a mild taste, use one hot pepper, left whole, so it can be removed before serving)
1 onion, chopped
Salt to taste

Heat most of the oil in a large skillet. Peel plantains. Cut plantains into disks of equal thickness. Fry the plantains in the hot oil for several minutes until they are golden brown. Remove them from the oil and place them on absorbent paper.

Heat the rest of the oil in a deep pot. Fry the peppers and onion over high heat for a few minutes, stirring often. Add the fried plantains to the peppers and onion. Add a spoonful of water, cover and simmer at a low heat for a few minutes. Salt to taste. Serve hot, alone or as a side dish.

- The Congo Cookbook

Pili-pili Sauce
An easy-to-make hot sauce. From the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, this word is used throughout tropical Africa to refer to hot red peppers, sauces made from them, and foods cooked with these peppers or sauces.

Several chili peppers (ie, hot red peppers!), cleaned and finely chopped
Juice of one lemon
A few cloves of garlic, minced
chilli pieces of parsley, minced (optional)
A few tablespoons of cooking oil
A pinch of salt

Mix all ingredients by hand or with a blender or food processor. Cook in a hot skillet for a few minutes. Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator. Serve with everything.

Instant pili-pili

Mix cayenne pepper or red pepper powder, garlic powder and onion powder with a few spoonfuls of tomato sauce.

Check out Food From Home on Facebook (foodfromhome001) to find out which green grocers they supply with plantains – the list is growing

Fried tilapia, cassava, matoke, jollof rice, fufu, kola nut, mbanga soup, egusi sauce, doro wat...

Those of us who read African literature or travel on the continent will probably know the ingredients and dishes above, and have probably eaten them and licked our fingers with glee afterwards. But not many of us South Africans cook authentic African food at home. That’s a pity because it is almost without fail healthier, simpler and more affordable than the Western food we prepare.

If you want to explore the gastronomy of Africa, we’d like to suggest you start at The Congo Cookbook. Hundreds of recipes from every African region, including 24 countries, populate this free website, a labour of love and crowdsourcing popular with African culture scholars.

All the basics are here and a lot more. It’s essentially the handbook to cooking African food, Larousse Gastronomique for Africa.

You can search the site by ingredient or country and you’ll get way more than just incredibly useable recipes.

The site – which offers a basic hardcopy book of the recipes for sale as well – is punctuated with quotes, images, observations and anecdotes about African food and cooking.

It also offers a unique set of rare historical recipes found in early texts, colonial documents and memoirs that offer never-before-seen versions.

Food is about so much more than eating. It traces a history of trade and borders, family and community and many other social histories.

The Congo Cookbook is a joy on this level. You may think you’re reading a recipe on how to make the perfect pili-pili or African hot sauce – a must in any fridge – but you’ll find yourself taking in cultural commentary like the musings of Philippe Wamba, who wrote in his book Kinship: “When my father cooked, which was admittedly not often, Congolese food reigned; he specialised in huge pots of beans and salt fish, which we ate with mounds of sticky rice or foufou, a starchy, doughy Congolese staple my brothers and I learned to love. My father’s meals always made liberal use of [pili-pili], and he would encourage us to try as much as we could stand, saying that in Congo children who couldn’t eat [pili-pili] were objects of scorn.”

Or our own culinary collision, the bunny chow: “Bunny chow is the result of an only-in-South-Africa combination of Asian curry, European bread, and South African apartheid ... Malay and Indian influences became a fixture of South African cuisine, and by the early 1900s curry restaurants were found in every South African city. An inexpensive meal was a bowl of curry served with a few slices of bread. Over time, apartheid laws were tightened to enforce strict segregation of black, coloured and white people, and many restaurants were not allowed to seat black patrons. They could sell takeaway (carry-out) food to anyone, but this was before disposable plates and bowls. An enterprising restaurateur in Durban hit upon the solution: put the curry inside the bread – the bread doing for the curry what the cone does for the ice cream. Somehow this “bread bowl” of curry came to be called bunny chow. Why? Putting curry into half a loaf of bread hardly makes it look any more like a rabbit than it did before it contained the curry. Or is it that half a loaf of bread looks like a bun? The best theory seems to be that bunny chow were first served in Durban restaurants owned by South African Indians known as Bunias or Banias (also spelt Banyas). Bunny chow became a tradition in South African takeaway food. And though the apartheid era is over, it is still a popular item, especially in Durban.”

Complex histories are dotted with very simple recipes. The difficulty will be finding the ingredients. The African food market on Rockey Street in Yeoville stocks a lot of what you’ll need and green grocers are slowly becoming more savvy about African ingredients. Fortunately, we have the internet and there are more and more importers of African ingredients popping up on Facebook.

Explore this gastronomic wonder of the interwebs at and support them by buying a print version of the book or their branded merchandise.

Click HERE for Food24's favourite collection of South African recipes.

Read more on: congo  |  african cuisine  |  recipes

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