One of the unexpected pleasures of this project has been the joy of weekend visits to ethnic markets. Portland is hardly a multicultural utopia, but it has its share of great, friendly ethnic grocers who stock hard-to-find ingredients – usually at prices way lower than I could expect to find online.
The first stop I make on any food-searching journey is Willamette Week‘s Market Guide, a must-bookmark site to review before any cooking adventure in the Portland region. That’s where I started with my Gabonese mission, trying to figure out the most likely spot to track down palmnut soup concentrate so I could make poulet nyembwe.
I’ve been curious about palmnut base since I first read about African cuisine. As a native of the Mojave Desert, I always held the fruit of the palm tree in high regard. Now that I’ve moved to the Pacific Northwest, annual trips to the China Ranch Date Farm near Death Valley have been replaced by annual visits to their website.
So I set out, a couple of weekends ago, on a quest to find the palmnut soup base – sauce graine – that is a key to a successful dish of poulet nyembwe.
The first stop was the Awash Market in Portland’s Eliot neighborhood. This was more based on location than pragmatism – an Ethiopian market might not have what I need, but I would have had to drive past it anyway to try my most likely target, so I stopped in. Families chatted on the street outside, and another in the entrance of the convenience store-Ethiopian market hybrid.
I didn’t find my palmnut concentrate, but I did come across some fresh-made injera – great news for someone who loves a good doro wat, but doesn’t necessarily like to plan out 2-3 days in advance by leaving some injera starter out to ferment.
Defeated but undaunted, I set out to my next stop, the Caribbean Spice Market in the Cully neighborhood. I’ve been in here before, on my still-not-completed quest to find conch for the Bahamas dish, and knew I had a good shot of finding my quarry there.
Sure enough, the market had four varieties of palmnut soup base. I bought two cans, and grabbed a couple of (pricey) cans of ackee for the upcoming Jamaican dish, and headed home.
Here was a dish I could handle. As much as I’m glad to have an excuse to cut down on my curry consumption, chicken-with-sauce-over-rice is a tried-and-true combination, and I was glad to have it back in my life. The palmnut soup base did, indeed, have a flavor similar to dates, sweeter than I expected but still somewhat savory. It also had a slightly gritty texture, like eating bits of sand, something that was more noticeable when re-heating the leftovers. I’ll attribute that – for now – to the specific brand of palmnut we used and not to the inherent qualities of the product.
My recipe was primarily sourced from the Congo Cookbook online, with some tweaks on my end.
Palm oil for frying
- 1.5 lb chicken breast, cut into bite sized pieces
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 2 tomatoes, chopped
- 2 cups chopped okra
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 poblano pepper, chopped
- salt, black pepper to taste
- Two cups palmnut soup base
- 1/2 cup chicken broth
- 1/2 cup milk
Chop the onion, tomatoes, okra, garlic and pepper. Set aside.
- Cut up the chicken, then fry in palm oil. Remove and set aside.
- Add vegetables and sautee until cooked. Deglaze with broth and milk, then add palmnut soup base and mix well.
- Add chicken and simmer for one hour. After 40 minutes, start making rice.
- Drain off oil that has floated to top, and serve over rice.