Until the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa earlier this year, my sister had been living and working in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The situation meant it was not possible for her to remain there and she was fortunate enough to be able to come home.
Six months later, Ebola continues to be a huge problem for Sierra Leone. There are many people working hard to treat those who have fallen victim to the disease, and to prevent its spread. But it’s not just those afflicted by the disease that have been affected. Trade routes have been blocked and movement restricted. Subsequently, both agriculture and mining – the two biggest employers in Sierra Leone – have been dramatically affected and people have seen their livelihoods disintegrate. At the same time food prices have soared. For a country that was still recovering from a recent civil war, this could not have come at a worse time.
In response to this, along with friends she made in Freetown, my sister has helped to organise a fundraising event that is taking place this Friday at The Russet in Hackney Downs. The evening will showcase a number of exciting contemporary West African musicians that you will be able to have a boogie to as well as contributing to a good cause. All are welcome! Proceeds will go to Power Women 232, a network of women professionals in Sierra Leone that are providing care packages to health workers and patients at Ebola treatment centres.
We were lucky enough to visit Sierra Leone earlier in the year before Ebola was even a rumour. The people had a friendliness and an energy that reminded me of the Caribbean; the history of Freetown most likely goes some way in explaining this.
As well as spending time in the capital, we were also able to visit the beaches on the Freetown peninsula, and to travel a bumpy eight hours by road to the south east of the country to visit the inland island of Tiwai – a wildlife sanctuary home to 11 primate species and over 135 species of birds. It was possible to stay on the island, but we instead opted to stay in the village of Kambama, the drop off point for most tourists. Accommodation was a basic campsite with a bucket of water for washing, an eco-toilet and the biggest millipedes I have ever seen! The ridiculously smiley kids more than made up for the bugs.
It was here in Kambama that I first tried the famous Salone groundnut soup – Sierra Leone’s national dish – a spicy, nutty concoction, more a stew than a soup, with chunks of home dried, salt cured fish. It was made out in the open by one of the ladies from the village, roasting the peanuts herself and grinding them to a paste with a used beer bottle.
Even out here in the most rural of villages, the soup was seasoned with Maggi, a popular seasoning originally from Switzerland! Back in the day this would have probably been done instead with fermented sesame seeds, or the the seeds of the African locust bean tree. Given the convenience of Maggi, it now seems that these traditional seasonings are rarely being used. Having said that, I also used a stock cube as I was unsure what I could use to replace the traditional seasonings. A Sierra Leonean colleague back in London reassured me this was now as good as traditional.
I got my recipe for groundnut soup from Patricia, an amazing lady we met and spent some time with in Freetown. I was in awe of her culinary skills and knew she would be the perfect person to turn to for groundnut soup advice. I only hope I have done her recipe justice.
A Night of Sweet Palm Whine is on at The Russet, Hackney Downs Studios, London, E8 2BT this Friday 5th December from 8pm. If you are not able to attend, but would still like to help prevent the spread of Ebola, please visit the Disasters Emergency Committe website to make a donation.
‘Salone’ Groundnut Soup (serves 2-3)
90g unsalted peanuts
2 chicken breasts OR 1 fillet dried salted fish (soaked overnight) OR meat of your choice
1 white onion
4 garlic cloves
1 red pepper
½ scotch bonnet chilli pepper (or to taste)
2 plum tomatoes
½ chicken stock cube (I used Kallo)
Pre-heat the oven to 180ºC
Place the peanuts on a baking tray and roast in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven. When cool enough to handle, place in a clean tea towel and rub gently to remove the skins. Put the nuts in a pestle and mortar (or food processor) and grind until you have a smooth paste – it will be thicker than shop bought peanut butter. Keep aside.
Chop the onion, red pepper and scotch bonnet as finely as you can, and crush the garlic.
Put 3 tablespoons of oil in a heavy based pan and place on a low heat. Add the onion, garlic, pepper and chilli to the pan and fry for 15 minutes or so, stirring occasionally until soft.
Meanwhile, add a little oil to a separate pan and cook your fish or brown your meat. Keep aside.
Grate the plum tomatoes. Discard any skin that remains in your hand. Add the pulp to the onion mix once it is soft. Turn up the heat to medium and simmer for 10-15 minutes until the tomatoes are cooked. Add some water if the mixture starts to dry out. Crumble in the half stock cube and stir.
Add some water to the peanut butter to thin it out to the consistency of a thick milkshake and add it to the vegetables. Lower the heat and stir. If you’re using chicken or any other meat, add it now. Simmer very gently for 10 minutes or until the meat is cooked through or to your liking. If you’re using fish, add it after the 10 minutes to stop it falling apart, and allow it to heat through. Add more water if necessary. The soup should be the consistency of a thick curry.
Serve with rice and enjoy!