July 22, 2011

An African Eggplant Exposition

               “I have never seen these before in my life!” I myself have uttered these words several times in reference to new vegetables I’m encountering through ECV research but today it is Patricia Amegashie who is perplexed by the small, smooth fruits I’ve just produced from my bag. What is slightly ironic about this situation is that Patricia is not the student in this scenario; she is the teacher! We stare at the dozen green African eggplants sitting on the counter, exchange confused looks, and burst into laughter. It’s not the most confidence-inducing start to a cooking lesson when neither instructor nor student recognizes the lesson’s central ingredient. “Well… let’s just go ahead as planned and see what happens,” Patricia suggests. This sounds good to me. If there’s one thing I can say for sure about learning to prepare new foods it’s that uncertainty in the process is half of what makes it fun! 

                So how is it that I have gotten myself into a situation where I am learning to prepare a variety of African eggplant that neither I nor Patricia have ever seen? So far during my research in Guelph grocery stores I have yet to find African eggplants available. As a result, while I was aware that African eggplants have been identified as a highly preferred vegetable amoungst Afro-Caribbean Canadians I was not entirely sure what these eggplants looked like. Patricia, who is originally from Ghana, had generously agreed to teach me how to prepare a Ghanaian recipe using African eggplant if I were able to locate it. On a trip to Toronto one of the ECVOntario team members found the eggplants in a Chinese grocery store. Although they were being sold under the label ‘Thai eggplants’ my coworker recognized and confirmed that this variety of eggplant is also consumed throughout Nigeria. Differential labeling of ethno-cultural vegetables (ECVs) is often evidence of cross-cultural vegetable preferences. However, while my Nigerian colleagues identified these eggplants as ‘African eggplants’, my Ghanaian hostess was expecting me to procure a much different variety. While the eggplants I brought to Patricia’s were green and looked like smaller versions of miniature pumpkins she was envisioning the cream-colored, oval ‘garden eggs’ common to Ghana. I was reminded, not for the first time, how easy and how erroneous it is to underestimate African diversity and was grateful that Patricia wanted to forge on with our lesson in spite of this initial mishap.

                For our eggplant cooking lesson that afternoon Patricia suggested that we make two versions of a popular stew: one using the African eggplants and more traditional Ghanaian ingredients and a ‘Canadianized’ version using ingredients more readily available in local stores. She had already prepared the smoked mackerel we would be using by placing the fish, whole, on a baking sheet lined with paper towel and baking it in the oven heated to 350° for an hour. This was done to remove excess oil from the fish in order to improve its taste and texture for our stew. She had also pre-prepared a seasoning paste made of several cloves of garlic, a two inch slice of ginger root, dried Ghanaian chili peppers and several chopped shallots which have been combined in a blender. Having collected together all of the necessary ingredients we were ready to prepare the stews.

                 We began preparing the Ghanian eggplant stew by preparing the eggplants themselves. Patricia explained that she would be using the dozen small African eggplants I brought along in one stew and about half a dozen fist-sized dark purple Indian eggplants in the other. Indian eggplants are easily accessible locally and are therefore often used in substitution for African varieties. The limited availability of several ECVs preferred by Afro-Caribbean Canadians often results in a greater acculturation of this population’s food choices compared to other Canadian immigrant populations. We washed the eggplants, quartered them and set them to boil in pots of water on the stovetop for about 10 minutes until they were soft. While they boiled, Patricia placed two large frying pans on burners heated on medium heat. To one she added enough vegetable oil to coat the bottom of the pan. To the other she added the same amount of palm oil for a more authentic preparation of our stew. Into both pans she added two sliced shallots, frying for several minutes before adding two pureed tomatoes and a heaping teaspoon of tomato paste to thicken the base of our stew. Both pans also received a generous ladling of the spicy paste Patricia had already blended together. As the tomato base started to bubble and thicken Patricia stirred in shredded pieces of smoked mackerel into one pan and added a smoked fish head into the other. Sensing my apprehension about the fish Patricia reassured me that I would not be eating the fish head and that it will be removed once it’s smoky, salty flavor is released into the stew. I’m now starting to recognize, correctly, that this stew is a different regional variation of the egusi stew I learned to make with Rosetta. Patricia confirmed this as she added about a cup of group egusi seed paste to our fish head stew. 

                No stranger to culinary multi-tasking, Patricia left the tomato mixture to simmer and switched her attention back to the eggplants. I assisted her to peel the outer skin off both varieties of eggplant by hand after they had been drained and cooled. It was immediately apparent that the fleshier Indian eggplants would add a much different texture to our stew than the seedier African eggplant variety. Patricia explained that an earthenware tool similar to a large pestle and mortar is used throughout Ghana to mash the eggplants into a thick paste for this dish. She let me try my hand at this mashing technique on the Indian eggplant in her own earthenware but suggested we use a blender for the seedy African variety so that our stew would not taste gritty. 
In spite of its granular texture the African eggplant was slightly sweet and pleasant tasting I discover after sneaking a sample. We added the mashed Indian eggplant to the shredded mackerel pan and the African eggplant to the pan with the fish head.  Patricia sprinkled a crumbled Maggi cube into the pan without egusi but our other pan has been well seasoned by the fish head and does not require additional flavouring. After removing the fish head and any accompanying bones from the pan we spooned the stew onto a plate of rice. Lunch is served!

Although both versions of our stew are seasoned with fish I wouldn’t describe either version as ‘fishy’. The eggplant and tomato mixture absorbs a smoky, salty flavor which is punctuated with a pepper-y heat from the chili and garlic seasoning paste. I am grateful to Patricia for showing me how to prepare this dish and am equally appreciative  that she has answered my many inquiries as to where she is able to access the traditional ingredients for Ghanaian dishes. Similar to other Afro-Canadians whom I have spoken with, Patricia pointed out that it is often difficult to find quality African produce even in specialty Afro-Caribbean groceries. The long distances that produce such as African eggplants typically travels before reaching grocery stores negatively impacts the freshness of these products. For as long as new Canadians continue to cook traditional dishes which incorporate global tastes there will exist many opportunities for Canadian producers to attend to these diverse preferences with fresh, locally grown produce. 

Stacie Irwin - ECVOntario Research Assistant, University of Guelph. 2011
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July 11, 2011

Okra: Many Names, Many Uses

            Whether you call it bhindi, lady fingers, bamya, gumbo or okra, the edible green seed pods increasingly available in Canadian grocery stores have as many different uses as they do names. Although many Canadian consumers have had little exposure to okra it has been consumed widely in warmer regions of the world for centuries. Believed to have originated in Ethiopia, initial okra cultivation began in Egypt and soon spread throughout Africa, the Middle East and Southern Asia. This warm weather loving crop made its way to the Americas in the 1700s during the slave trade and it has since become a staple in Cajun and Louisiana Creole cooking throughout the Southern United States. Fortunately, recipes to prepare okra are as diverse as the cultural groups who regularly incorporate this vegetable into their diets.  
                Admittedly, most of the Canadians I know are a little perplexed by okra. As it is a tender crop that requires hot temperatures and an absence of frost okra is not widely cultivated in Canada. Covered in tiny hairs and full of small, white seeds it is often not immediately appealing to those without experience preparing it. Its allure tends to decrease further still once it is learned that the okra secretes ‘slime’ when cooked in with water.  ‘Sliminess’, prized by some, tends not to be an endearing quality for a vegetable to have by most Canadians' standards. Yet okra is a nutritious, low calorie source of dietary fiber, foliate, as well as vitamins A, C and B6. In addition to these nutritional benefits it is a highly versatile cooking ingredient. It is only in recent years that okra has become more widely available in mainstream supermarkets in Canada spurred by demand from South Asian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants. Fortunately for an inexperienced okra consumer like myself there are a plethora of recipes and cooking techniques available to either minimize or capitalize on okra’s unique gelatinous properties.   
                Common methods of preparing okra include stir-frying, deep-frying or adding to curries or stews. African preparations of okra vary between these main forms of cooking, often incorporating combinations of tomatoes, onions and spices. Deep fried okra that has been sliced and battered in cornmeal is popular throughout the Southern United States, though okra is also well known as an ingredient in gumbo stew to which it lends its name.[1] Okra’s gelatinous properties act as thickening agents in stews such as gumbo and its mild flavour is said to compliment various seafood ingredients.[2] Conversely, stir-frying okra can minimize its internal gumminess. For my first okra-preparation experience I have enlisted the assistance of friend whose Indian family has shared a simple okra stir-fry recipe with me.

                While the appearance of okra in mainstream Canadian supermarkets may not have caused much of a stir among Canadians of European decent, you can bet that Indian-Canadians have noticed this change. As one of the most highly preferred vegetables consumed by the South Asian population okra’s increasing availability is seen as a small triumph for new Canadians of South Asian descent who remember a time just a few years ago that it was very difficult to access this key ingredient. “I still remember the day my dad called me a couple of years ago just to tell me that they were selling okra in the produce section of our local grocery store” my friend laughed as we chatted about popular Indian okra dishes. She suggested I try an easy okra stir fry recipe that her mom frequently prepares. Her instructions went as follows:
Okra Fry (Serves 4)

- Cooking Oil
- 2 red onions, finely diced
- 1 tbsp cumin
- 2 tbsp ginger, finely grated
- green chili: amount according to personal taste
- 2 gloves of garlic
- 2 pounds of okra
- salt to taste

1. Add 1 tbsp cumin in cooking oil in frying pan set on medium heat. When the cumin begins to turn red add the diced garlic, ginger and green chili to the pan. As the garlic is turning red add diced onions.

2. Once the onions become translucent add okra that has been cut in half inch rounds. Stir and add 1/2 a tsp of masala powder and salt to taste.

3. Remove from heat when the okra has softened. Serve!

                Not only was this recipe quick and simple to prepare, I was also pleasantly surprised by its taste. As I had never eaten okra before I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I took my first bite. The okra slices were slightly crisp and spicy, far from the slimy mess that I had assumed they might turn into. With so many opportunities to prepare okra incorporating global tastes it is unfortunate that there are so few opportunities to eat fresh okra that is produced locally. Canadian okra production at present is generally limited to small scale producers who bring their knowledge of okra production with them to Canada. As the South Asian population in cities such as Brampton continues to grow, Ontario horticultural producers should explore the new marketing opportunities that increased demand for okra and other ECV crops present. Personally, with so many other okra recipes out there to try, I am certain that my relationship with okra has just begun! 

Stacie Irwin - Undergraduate Research Assistant, ECVOntario team 2011

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