Bonjour! This weekend we returned to the francophone world with a globetrotting visit to the Republic of Benin, a small country located on the southern coast of West Africa. While the territory was for centuries the Kingdom of Dahomey, it fell under French control during the colonial era until regaining its independence in 1960. Today, Benin is the only country in the world to recognize voodoo as an official religion, although much of the population is Christian or Muslim. All in all, we were looking forward to a weekend of fine art, lively music, and—of course—good food.
On Saturday morning, our weekend began rather unexpectedly when we awoke to a sudden downburst of rain just before dawn. This may not be so uncommon at this time of year in Benin, as thunderstorms were forecast in the weekend weather report for Porto-Novo, the country’s capital city. Jess prepared a tasty breakfast of fried green plantains folded into an omlette:
Although Jess had found the recipe in a document about “Food and Cooking in Benin,” we soon realized that its author was talking about an entirely different country! Benin only became Benin in 1975, when the Republic of Dahomey renamed itself after the Bight of Benin, a nearby bay, in order to be more inclusive of its various ethnic constituencies. The Bight of Benin, however, was named after the famous Benin Kingdom, a region now located next door in Nigeria. The culture of the Benin Kingdom survives today in the part of Nigeria surrounding Benin City, and it was this cuisine that the author of the document describes. This wasn’t the last time that we’d run into some Benin/Benin confusion this weekend, however, and we decided that the two regions were close enough that somebody in the Republic of Benin might eat a plantain omlette for breakfast, too.
Later that morning, we watched a short video introduction to Benin that I had discovered on Youtube:
The film showed us some of the country’s major cities and historic sites as well as its beautiful natural landscapes—though because it had been produced by the Ministry of Tourism, it didn’t mention any of the economic problems facing this very poor country. While on the subject of traveling to Benin, we also watched a short interview with a Mormon missionary who had spent some time in the country.
Later in the afternoon, we walked around the corner to the 2015 Cambridge Arts River Festival, where a West African performing ensemble called Benkadi Drum & Dance was set to perform. The performance included (as you might expect) drumming, dancing, and even a sing-along.
After returning to our apartment, which still smelled pleasantly of the atassi and dja from lunch, we enjoyed a couple of the yellow “champagne” mangos that I had picked up for a dollar each at Whole Foods the day before. Mangos are a popular fruit in Benin.
I began preparing dinner a couple of hours ahead of time because I knew that both of the French-language recipes I’d found would take some time to complete. Working from a collection of recipes posted on this website, I set out to cook both the ragoût d’igname (yam stew) and a double batch of gnonmblin (a sticky concoction made with kidney beans). Perhaps the most unfamiliar part of the process was chopping and peeling a pair of real African yams:
Covered in a thick bark, these monstrous root vegetables are in a completely different botanic family from what Americans call “yams,” which are actually just sweet potatoes. While ours were imported from Africa, other varieties are popular in the Caribbean and in other parts of Latin America. After searching for them without success in H-Mart, Whole Foods, Harvest, and Trader Joe’s, I finally found these in Tropical Foods, a supermarket in Roxbury.
In the end, both of the recipes seemed to work well. You can see Jess sampling the yam stew above, and a lump of the gnonmblin below.
After dinner, we watched an exciting documentary about a famous singer from Benin called Angélique Kidjo: The Amazon (2003). Here’s the opening scene:
That morning, we headed to the Museum of Fine Arts to view the modest African art collection, which featured a beautiful new gallery dedicated to objects from the Benin Kingdom (now Nigeria) plus a larger gallery that included several objects from our true destination—the Republic of Benin. After locating an intricate voodoo alter from the city of Ouidah, on which were perched many small metal figures, we also spotted a wooden mask called a gelede.
Voodo, despite its eerie reputation in the U.S., is a benevolent and respected religion in West Africa. The figures on the alter above are probably revered ancestors—not bewitched enemies. In the museum’s musical instruments gallery, we also found a Beninoise double gong:
This is a metallic instrument that sounds when struck with a stick. Before leaving the museum, we also couldn’t help exploring the breathkating special exhibition of works by Hokusai, the famous Japanese artist, even though it had nothing to do with Benin.
For dinner on Sunday evening, we dug into some more of Jess’s atassi and dja, this time accompanied by a bit of my yam stew. We listened to Angélique Kidjo’s album Eve while we ate. After several months’ hiatus from our globetrotting project, it felt nice to get back in the swing of things with a country that is so rich in artistic, musical, and culinary treasures.