Tuesday marked the very happy occasion of our dear friend Essie’s permanent immigration to the States. Since November 2007, she had been living on and off in a small city called Vilanculos, about halfway up the Mozambican coastline from its southern border with South Africa.
There, she was first a volunteer and then a project manager at African Impact, and Essie and her team helped run the organization’s pre-school, taught English, and initiated other community-oriented projects. She even helped support a few community gardens, which is how she got to witness the growing of the cassava plant, whose leaves are a key (but, luckily for us North Americans, replaceable) ingredient in Mozambique’s signature dish, matapa, a long-cooked stew made from ground cassava greens, ground peanuts, and coconut milk. Several times when Essie has returned home for a visit, she’s made matapa and invited us all over, improvising ingredients where she needs to, but always finishing with a distinct and delicious dish.
Perhaps it was my craving for matapa, or perhaps I did something right in a past life, but I was lucky beyond lucky and was able to arrange a trip to Mozambique this past September. Though Essie already had purchased her one-way, end-of-October plane tickets home, she was keen to have someone from her New York world witness the day-to-day rhythm of her Mozambican existence so that once she was back it wouldn’t seem so otherworldly. And it was different: We either walked everywhere or drove enormous vehicles equipped with four-wheel drive–no regular cars. We had to organize our schedules around when the generator was on, which was definitely not all the time–and if we’d been staying off the organization’s headquarters, we may well have been without running water or electricity at all. We ate seafood and a lot of rice. We tried to deal with a very strange collection of ex-pats, mainly from the UK and South Africa. We snorkled in octopus-filled waters.
Of course I was a newbie at all this, but since she’s been in Vilanculos, Essie has learned it all: how to drive on sand, how to make matapa, how to speak Portuguese, how to argue in Portuguese, and on and on. But good as it is, her command of Mozambican protocol is nothing compared to Chris, her boyfriend’s. Chris has lived in different parts of Mozambique and Zimbabwe for most of his life, and he has an uncanny ability to get things done when they seem entirely impossible. While I was there, he took us out on the water two days, once through nauseatingly choppy seas to this gorgeous island, nicknamed Paradise, where there was a crumbling luxury hotel built in the pre-civil war days for us to explore.
What he also knows how to do is throw a party. Essie’s birthday fell in the middle of my stay, and Chris organized a dinner at his parents’ house for a group of Essie’s friends. He served wonderful fish soup, salad, rice, bread, matapa, sweet local crab, grilled shrimp, french fries, and a chocolate cake. I brought the party hats. Eating the rich, flavorful matapa in the middle of the country of its origin, on my best friend’s birthday no less, was pretty much all I could ask for. Later, we went to Smugglers, the favored bar, and, standing on barstools, I commemorated the occasion on the ceiling (writing on the ceiling is a Smugglers’ tradition):
It’s now October 30th. Essie’s been back in New York two days, and I know it will be a hardship for her to have to substitute collards or kale when she makes me matapa. But though I’m thrilled I got to see her in her Mozambican element, I’m infinitely happier that she’s back on my soil–cassava friendly or not.
From my kitchen, where I’m welcoming Essie and Chris to New York, to yours,
Cara, THE QUARTER-LIFE COOK
Recipe by Essie
It’s nearly impossible to mess it up. The key points are just to grind everything as finely as possible and stew for up to two hours, no less than one hour. It’s also always easy to add more liquid than to remedy it if you’ve added too much liquid, so err on the side of caution and undershoot how much liquid you think you need and then adjust towards the end. I’ve written the recipe out for four people roughly, but just adjust quantities accordingly. If you really like peanuts you can add more peanuts, if you like more coconut milk you can add more of that. Ok, you get the point.
If you want to read and salivate more about matapa, check out this well-written and vivid article from a 2000 edition of Gourmet.
1 large bunch collard greens (or substitute kale, spinach, or another leafy green)
2 cloves garlic
1 3/4 cups unsalted peanuts
3/4 cup coconut milk
salt to taste
Grind the (very dry) collard greens with the cloves of garlic. Add them to a large stockpot pot with a small quantity of water, just enough to submerge all of the ground greens. Bring this to a boil and allow it to continue bubbling on medium-high heat for about twenty minutes or until paste-like.
Meanwhile, in a food processor or blender, grind the unsalted peanuts as finely as possible to get 1 1/2 cups of ground peanuts. Mix peanuts with a bit of water to form it into a paste. Add peanut paste and the coconut milk into the boiling greens and mix well.
Allow to simmer over low heat for 1-2 hours until the mixture comes together as a cohesive, thick sauce. If the matapa is looking too watery you should simmer with the lid off and it will thicken. If matapa is looking too thick you can always add a bit more water or coconut milk and then simmer with the lid on.
Serve with white rice and grilled or sauteed seafood. Put on a sarong, walk around barefoot and eat with your hands.