Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Recipe #67: Groundnut soup with chicken and Recipe #68: Ghana's benne (sesame) soup

One of the most popular recipes I'm often asked to prepare is groundnut soup (or stew). Rather than repeat that recipe here, I'll refer you to a version I provided for African Diaspora Tourism: Recipe #67: Groundnut (peanut) Soup with Chicken. While I adore this wonderful, creamy soup, in today's allergy-sensitive world,  peanuts are often not welcome at community gatherings. In such a case, sesame soup would make a wonderful substitute. I'm amazed I've never seen an online (or published) version of it anywhere.  Perhaps it has another name I'm not familiar with? Sesame, aka "benne," is originally from Africa and has a fascinating history.

Yesterday I began describing how to make the sesame soup popular in Northern Ghana. I told how we went to the market and bought our ingredients, and how labor intensive it was to prepare the guinea fowl. Today I'll simply (emphasis on simply) substitute Cornish game hens. If you can get the real thing, or pheasant, it would be even better. Or else, use a roasting chicken.

To obtain our sesame paste in Tamale we searched the local market unsuccessfully for the 2 types of sesame seeds my guides wanted, but settled on 2 other varieties. We washed the dust off, dried and toasted them, then pounded them to paste in a mortar. When I tried duplicating that process (twice) using my coffee grinder and/or blender, I was unsuccessful: I burned up the motor in my coffee grinder, and the blender, even with the addition of sesame oil, was not up to the task of grinding the seeds fine enough. Without the stamina to pound the seeds, I've substituted tahini.
 Recipe #68: Ghana's Benne (Sesame) Soup with Guinea Fowl (or Cornish game hens)

Assemble the ingredients:

1.  Fowl (I'm using 2 Cornish game hens, around 4 lbs, total)
2.  1.5 teaspoons salt, or to taste
3.  1 cup of tahini (or less if you prefer)
4.  3 - 4 cloves of garlic
5.   About  2-inch chunk of fresh peeled ginger
6.  1 onion (about 1 cup, red, if available)
7.  About  4 habanero, or other milder chile peppers, seeded and membranes removed, if desired. (When ground they should make about  1 Tablespoon of pepper paste).  Americans use milder chile peppers, remove seeds, etc.)
8.  6 small-to-medium tomatoes (or about half a large 28 oz can of tomatoes; I imagine this might also be a small can, but I never have them in the house): enough to get 1 1/2- 2 cups when blended.

To cook:

1. Prepare the fowl: Rinse (I cut off the end of the tails and the tips of the wings because I don't like them), and remove any extra fat and the loose skin (Ghanaians would not do this, but poultry in the U.S. tends to have a lot of fat under the skin). Keep the neck but discard the liver (too strong a flavor). While Ghanaians would likely use all of the fowl, our pre-cleaned varieties do not include other parts. Cut each fowl into serving pieces. For a chicken, I'd cut about 8-10 pieces. For the game hens, since I'm not making for a crowd, I'll simply quarter each one. I have a very nice butcher knife I use for whacking through the bones. Don't be timid.
2. Prepare the seasonings: 
Put the onion (chopped into large chunks), the ginger (cut into smaller chunks), the peppers (washed, the stems removed, and seeded if desired), and the peeled garlic cloves into a small container for a blender. Add just enough water (probably a tablespoon or two) to grind them into a paste. You may need to do this in several batches.
3. Put the game hen (or chicken) pieces into a large heavy pot along with a half-cup of water and the ground seasoning. Rinse out the blender container with a little more water and add that, too, along with the salt. Stir to mix and cover the pot, and heat on high heat, then reduce to medium to steam the fowl for about 10 minutes while you prepare the tomatoes.
4. If using fresh tomatoes, first drop in boiling water for a couple of minutes, then cold water, to loosen the skins and make it easy to remove them, then puree in a blender. If using canned tomatoes, simply puree, adding about half a cup of the juice from the can as well.
5. Place a strainer over the soup, and add the pureed tomatoes, straining out the seeds. (Omit this step if you don't mind the seeds.) Add a few cups of water and pour it through the strainer, too, to get the last bit of tomato in the soup. Discard the seeds. Add 2 cups of water, bring to a boil, then lower the heat to simmer and allow to cook while preparing the sesame paste.
(Here's an optional step you don't really need to do, but because I'm always looking for a smoother soup, after the soup simmers for about 10 minutes, you can remove the chicken pieces into another large pot, shaking off the seasoning, then strain the broth into the new pot with the chicken). I usually rinse out the strainer with some of the strained broth a few times, and push down on the strainer with a large spoon to get all of the liquid from the strained residue, then use a spatula to remove all the bits on the underside of the strainer, and add that to the soup as well.)
6. Since we did not toast the seeds before adding them to the soup, I've added a step: cooking the sesame paste with a cup or two of the soup's broth in a small saucepan the same way the peanut butter was treated in Recipe #67 referenced above: first, blend the tahini with a cup of the broth from the simmering soup. Heat it on the stove for 3 or 4 minutes on medium heat, until the oil begins to separate. (I read somewhere that cooking sesame makes the sesame less nutritious. Does anyone know if that's true?).
7. Hmmmmm. Here's the next step as I envisioned it, and the surprise I encountered. When the sesame oil began to rise to the top, I treated it like ground peanuts: added a couple of ladles of the soup broth to the tahini, mixed it in and stirred it into the soup. The surprise was that, unlike groundnut soup, the sesame kind of curdled and made some kind of emulsion that was NOT the way I remember it in Tamale, so I needed to add an additional step.
8. Again, I removed the chicken pieces, strained the broth into the pot with it, then blended the sesame residue in the blender. Ahah! That made it the right creaminess, so I stirred it back into the soup pot, rinsing the blender with broth from the pot, and scraping the dregs with a spatula. Yes! This should be called "Cream of Sesame Soup" or "Velvet Sesame Soup." I did have to add some more hot pepper (dried red--always easier to add than remove), and a little more blended tomato (I've adjusted the ingredients above). It's creamy, but with a subtly different flavor than groundnut ("peanut butter") soup.

I'll just make some more tuo zaafe, and then it's time to eat. BTW, if you don't plan to eat the TZ immediately, it's best to cover it with some plastic wrap (or, if it's in a wet mold, leave it there until you're ready to eat) to keep it from drying out and getting a crust on it. The top right photo shows my lunch. Very nice indeed.

Variations/Serving Suggestions: Substitute tahini for peanut butter (paste) in any groundnut soup recipe. Use tomato sauce or paste in place of fresh or canned tomatoes. Don't do all the straining and extra pureeing. Substitute vegetables for the fowl (use mushrooms, eggplant, etc.). Use less tahini for a milder, lighter flavor. Serve as a first course in a meal and garnish with parsley, grated hard-boiled egg, or minced green onions.

Whatever you do, enjoy!

P.S. If any of you know why the sesame curdled, and any fix other than straining and blending it again, let me know.


Fran said...

I should've mentioned: this soup would also go well with omo tuo (rice balls), or plain rice.

Sore said...

wow, I am intrigued by this recipe. I don't think I've ever come across sesame soup in Nigerian cooking. Is this a Hausa dish by any chance?

Fran said...

Hi, Sore: I believe it well might be a Hausa dish. At least all the words my teachers were using to describe ingredients seemed to be Hausa words.

anthia-ofo said...

I'm def going to try this recipe.I had tz in the north and loved it.Why did you say to use roasting instead of boiler chicken? Where did you get the tz? I've no idea where to get it here(UK)

Fran said...

I find that in the U.S., the broiler chickens are so soft that they taste mushy to me. The roasters are tougher and remind me more of range-fed chickens. It you look at my recipe the day before this (recipe #66, tuo zaafe), you'll see the recipe I used for the TZ. I used millet flour, but you could also use corn flour, or part cornflour and part tapioca (cassava) flour. Let me know how it comes out.

anthia-ofo said...

I see. Here we say 'boiler' for hard chicken and 'roaster' for soft. I might be able to get millet flour at the indian shops , otherwise it'll be corn flour. BTW have you ever tried cashew nut soup? My mum told me my grandfather who was a chief loved it with (all) plantain fufu. So that's another soup I want to make sometime. If you have a recipe I'll be glad of it.

LaLa said...

This looks delicious! mmmm

I'm so intrigued that you used tahini, in Tamale we always use peanut past and i find that a natural peanut paste (with no additives) in a US grocery store to be a good fit.

9jaFOODie said...

Looks yum, I will definitely try this out. thanks for sharing.

anthia-ofo said...

I've assembled my ingredients. I got some lightly roasted tahini. I noticed it has a slightly bitter aftertaste. Is this normal/ok?

Fran said...

Yes and no. The first time I made this using on my own using my own seeds (2 kinds), it was indeed bitter. But it depends on the tahini. The last time I made it (I forget whose tahini I used. I got it from our local health foods store. I could check if you like) it wasn't bitter at all. Good luck.

Fran said...

I just went and tasted some of the tahini I used. Yes, it is slightly bitter. If you're worried, try first using half the amount I used. Then you can decide what you think.

anthia-ofo said...

Ok. I made the soup. I blended the soup at the end to get it more creamy cos it separated. I used boiler(hard) chicken. I'm quite pleased with my efforts. I thought there was still that slight bitter aftertaste, but maybe I shd have used less tahini. But overall, very tasty! I will put some pics on my blog 2morrow so you can see it.

Fran said...

Thank you very much for the feedback. Regarding the slight bitter aftertaste. While I did not find mine bitter, I also believe that is one West African flavor principle that deserves a bit more attention. There is often a preference for slightly bitter flavors (as opposed, say to sweet flavors in soup and stew). I'm in the kitchen today making palaver sauce. I hope to post it in a couple of hours.

MangoBelle said...

Here is an article that might shed some light on the bitterness issue:

Fran said...

Thank you very much. What a fascinating article. I do wonder, though, why they didn't go directly to West Africa and check what sesame seeds they're using there today.

MangoBelle said...

Fran: I am glad you find the article interesting. As to why they did not consult with West Africans, it seems to me that there are two trends when discussion Southern cooking. One trend is to pretend that Africans were the the labourers but did not contribute anything significant to the cuisine. The other is to acknowlege the influence of African cooking techniques, foodstuffs and cooks on Southern food.

Unknown said...

Hi Fran,wonderful recipe....i have been looking for a recipe like this for a while. The Akans (from the middle sector of Ghana) refer to this sesame seed as werewere (w3r3-w3r3), thus werewere nkwan (werewere soup). while not particularly common(maybe cos of all the hard work that goes into preparing teh seeds)its an amazing soup...emmm, think i wld make some for myself today.