Sunday, 22 March 2015

Meal 53. Sierra Leonean Cassava Leaf Plassas, Fried Plantain and Banana Akara

Sheka dishing out the prepared food
The host for this meal is my friend Sheka, who is half Sierra Leonean, half Scottish and a bit of a ‘global soul’, having lived all over the place, from Iran, Thailand and Zambia to Denmark and the UK. He has been present as a guest at the two previous meals (Tunisian and Lebanese) and could not let me leave the country without a local entry for the blog. His mum, Yabome, has been chartered to do the cooking and I arrive at Sheka’s house expecting to find her adding the finishing touches to the meal in the kitchen. But no, she has left already. All the food is there, neatly delivered in Tupperware, ready for Sheka to dish out to a small group of invitees…he laughingly explains that this type of delegating is very typical, “part of the culture” and that Yabome herself probably also had help with the preparation.

The meal served is quintessentially Sierra Leonean as the local staple is rice with a stew, called plassas (the word is apparently a contraction of 'palaver sauce'). At my work, we eat a rotation of plassas: groundnut, cassava leaf, potato leaf or bean stew with white rice. I am curious to see if Yabome’s cassava leaf plassas is superior. Indeed it is, filled with big chunks of succulent beef. The side dishes are also very typical; fried plantain and banana akara (a kind of fritter made with rice flour) served with fish sauce. The combination of fishy and sweet is not very common in Western cooking, but it works very well.

Charmingly presented on an authentic 'shuku blay' mat
The stew we are eating tonight was Sheka’s favourite while growing up, but now he prefers potato leaf, routinely asking for that to be prepared the first day he is back in the country. When he (occasionally) does cook Sierra Leonean food himself while entertaining British friends, he normally opts for groundnut stew, as even novices to African cuisine enjoy that. Though a lot of the dishes mentioned are common in other parts of West Africa, he says Sierra Leoneans are comparatively “big on pepper”, they like their stews to be quite spicy. As well, the rice that accompanies the stew is so important that most people feel you have not truly eaten if you have not had any rice. This is also the case in Indonesia, where my mother’s family is from. I tell Sheka that my grandmother taught me to eat rice only with a spoon, and we have a laugh at our shared disdain of people who prefer a fork. Though a lot of Sierra Leoneans eat with their hands (this is called mondo), many travel with their own spoon. In Sheka’s household almost everybody has their personal spoon too.

Rice with cassava leaf. In back: akara, fish sauce, plantain
Potato and cassava leaf are often consumed, in plassas, but most people do not eat many other vegetables. Lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, carrots etc. are all produced locally and for sale at roadside stands. However, they are seen as food for rich people. Sheka tells me one day an aggrieved lady came to his mother’s house, and at one point shouted at her: “Isn’t it true that you eat salad?!” This can be translated as “Admit you are a middle class and westernized, not a real Sierra Leonean like me!”

Related to this lack of love for vegetables is the confusingly named ‘African salad’ found on the menu of some local restaurants. Newly arrived visitors might order this and be unpleasantly surprised when a dish arrives that consists of tinned sardines, luncheon meat (Spam), baked beans and mayonnaise. Not really a salad, and not all that African!