This post is about food from West Africa. But the story actually begins in the market in Les Vans, in south-east France.

This is a huge market that snakes into all corners of the town, and it includes an epic spice stall. (So epic that I forgot to photograph it. DOH. Next time, people, next time.)

Straight away, I couldn’t resist buying some sumac – it’s a meaty, umami-flavoured sort of spice that is nigh on impossible to find in French supermarkets and which goes brilliantly with tomatoes. But then I spotted that they also had some long peppers, which I’d recently seen Rick Stein using in his Indian odyssey. Finally, I spotted some yassa – which I’d never heard of before, and so bought out of sheer curiosity. Once home, I looked it up online to try to find out how on earth to use it.

Yassa is not a spice itself, but is a spice mix originating in Senegal, and it’s particularly popular in the area immediately south of Dakar. It can be bought pre-mixed online, or you can mix your own, but sources differ as to what exactly it contains. At its simplest, it must contain onions, lemon and garlic, and the lemon flavour seems particularly important. However, the Guardian’s recipe contains peppers and chillies too, and the UKTV Food version omits the red pepper, using thyme instead. A possibly more authentic spice mix comes from French spice retailer Ile Aux Epices, with their blend containing not just the traditional onions, lemon, garlic and red pepper, but also black pepper, ginger, thyme and bay.

So how do you use it? According to our good friend the internet, it’s most popularly served with chicken, but can also be served with fish. I decided that the best way forward with this would be to marinade the chosen protein in the spice mix for a couple of hours, and then dry-fry it in a griddle or frying pan. You could, though, I suppose, make a more tomato-based or cream-based sauce and then proceed as if making a curry, which would taste good but not be very traditional. This time, though, we dry-fried the chicken breasts to give the dish colour, before braising in a little bit of wine to keep the meat moist. We then served it atop a couscous, pine nut and preserved lemon salad to complement the citric flavours of the yassa:

yassaI have to admit that before encountering yassa I knew NOTHING about West African food (a very different beast to North and South African foods, I can assure you). Now, though, there’s a whole host of dishes from this region that I want to try. Here’s my top five:

  • Funkaso. This dish from Nigeria is something I stand a chance of recreating at home easily. This is just pancakes made with millet flour, butter, and sugar. It can be served as an accompaniment to a main meal, or just as a snack with honey or chutney.
  • Jollof rice. Popular across the entirety of West Africa, this one’s appealing for its versatility. Its basic ingredients are rice, tomatoes, tomato purée, onion, salt and red pepper – but beyond that, any meat or vegetable can be served with it. Spices such as nutmeg, ginger, cumin and Scotch bonnet are also often added.
  • Kedjenou. Mainly cooked along the Ivory Coast, this is a spicy stew that leaves chicken or guinea fowl to cook in its own juices in a sealed pot along with a selection of vegetables. Again, methods and flavours will vary widely, but a classic base of tomatoes, red pepper, garlic and onions seems to be used frequently. Other spices – such as thyme, ginger and bay – may be added from there.
  • Thieboudienne. Also known as ceebu jen, this is a fish dish which, like yassa, also originates from Senegal. Rice, tomatoes and onions are major components of the dish, with carrots, cabbage and cassava also being important. Again, its versatility makes it popular – any vegetables or fish can be used (although smoked fish seems to be preferred) – as well as its convenience (it’s basically a one-pot wonder).
  • Suya. A kebab-like dish of Hausa origin, it’s also known as chichinga or agashe and consists of skewered beef, fish or chicken. The key to this is yet another spice mix named tankora, which must contain powdered peanuts, ginger, paprika, onion powder, and cayenne pepper. I could see next time I’m in Les Vans if they sell the spice mix required for this celebrated Hausa street food, but the beauty of this is that I reckon I could rustle up the spice mix myself too.

Got any West African favourites of your own? Feel free to comment below 🙂 And don’t forget you still have until September 14th to enter our Hairy Bikers competition 🙂 Spread the word!