It started so pleasantly. It was still early morning and I was taking it easy, both hands on the steering wheel and foot lightly on the accelerator. I enjoy this type of road trip. The job is done and I was heading home, so there was no hurry, no stress and lots of interesting scenery to take in.
Just outside Rundu I noticed that the magunis started coming into season. I always buy some to take home, so I slowed down even more to scan the produce on display. They have to be a bright, deep orange colour or else they are no good. I spotted a deserted table with those very same bright, deep orange magunis – just what I was looking for.
As I got out of the vehicle, I saw that there were also bright red beans and some dull greyish kernels. Mmmm … interesting.
The child that came running from the nearby village could not have been older than ten, maybe twelve years. I could see her smile from about fifty meters away.
“I want some magunis, are these fully ripe?” I asked. She grabbed them and started shaking them. “No problem, I’ll give you the best, sir. How many do you want?”
“Twenty, please, if you have that many”.
I watched as she carefully picked through her stock, looking at the colour of each and giving them a shake. Every one that met her discerning standard was put into my bag, the rest remained on the table. With my magunis in the bag I shifted my focus to the remaining produce.
“Are these eefukwa?” I asked pointing to what looked like beans. “Yes”, she smiled, “but we call them Nongomene”. I immediately bought a tin full, and another tin full of the dull grey kernels that turned out to be marula kernels.
Back home and in the kitchen, I skinned the beans, and placed them in a bowl of water to soak before heading for bed. And that, right there, closing my eyes and drifting off to sleep, was the last calm and peaceful moment I had in the presence of these beans.
In the presence of new ingredients a cook has to ponder a number of important questions. What to make? What to add? For how long? In what manner? To what effect? But perhaps most important of all: how?
I admit, I have had, up to that point of putting the eefukwa in the pressure cooker, no experience with these beautiful bright red artifacts, that has as many names are there are cultural groups growing them.
From my research I know eefukwa are Bambara nuts (Vigna subterranean) and that it is the third most important legume in semi-arid Africa. So, a lot of people cook and eat Bambara nuts – I am not going this route alone. That is comforting.
I also know these nuts – actually, like the peanut, Bambara nuts are legumes not nuts – grow in soil conditions where no other self-respecting legume would set root. Therefore, they are hardy and drought resistant– that should have been a vital clue. Yet, like a true romantic, I choose to ignore it.
Instead I reveled in the fact that they are nutritious – low in fat (5%) and high in proteins (18%) and carbohydrates (65%). They are grown mainly as intercrop with millet, maize, sorghum, yams and cassava.
I contemplated all this information whilst adding 3 cups of soaked Bambara nuts into my pressure cooker. In only a few minutes it gets to full pressure, and I get the chance to peruse a few African cookbooks for recipe ideas. I should not have been surprised. Ten cookbooks, eight of which has the word “best” next to “African” in their titles, and not a single recipe. It seems that not only is the Bambara nut one of Africa’s most common, yet most “forgotten” crops, few African chefs, if any, warrant it with a recipe. Dorah Sitole’s book of recipes “From Cape to Cairo” brings no luck, nor can I find anything in Sandra Amoako’s “Akwaaba: A taste of Ghana”.
After 30 minutes, I depressurized the cooker, and ladle a large spoonful of hot Bambara into my mouth.
I can feel the blisters form on my tongue. It is excruciating. But I continue. This time I employ my teeth, which till then could deal with most that I’d thrown their way till now.
But not this time, no sir. I might as well have bitten into a slice of Grootfontein’s meteorite. To prevent further damage to my precious, personal eating utensils, I deposit the lot into the kitchen bin.
This time, I approached the pressure cooker with much less concern over the wellbeing of these rock hard artifacts. I added fresh water and cranked up the temperature. With the cooker back to full pressure, I retire – blisters and all – to seek solace on the Internet.
Other than a video clip showing a young West African woman droning on for ten minutes about how she missed her family and how hard it is to get proper Bambara nuts in the USA, there is nothing. Zippo! Zilch! Nada!
I struggle to make it through the ten minutes of watching her cook beans on a stovetop. It takes four hours she said. It is difficult to say “f&@kit” with painful pockets of water the size of 50 cent pieces wobbling on your tongue, but I did. A lot.
After another hour, I completed the ritual of depressurizing the pot once more. This time, I carefully removed a few beans and rinsed them under cold water. Other than a wrinkled skin, there was almost no progress. More swearing with a swollen tongue. More fresh water, more heat and more pressure. Still no recipe.
I went to bed that night with hard, still inedible beans in the pot, and a lot of turmoil in my head. I got little sleep as I continued to ponder the best way to cook beans. I made sure I followed all recommended steps – no salt or acid as this toughens the beans. A little bi-carb of soda as it is supposed to make them softer (and help with embarrassing flatulence!).
The next morning I waited until everyone was gone. Rinsed them once more and added more fresh water. I made sure I had enough to do and more than enough to drink. I was digging in for the long haul with every hard-assed fiber in my body. If fact, I might have even been a little happy as I listened to the whistle of the pressure cooker. Then, it all went quiet. Just like Gochas on a Sunday. Not even a breeze blowing.
Quietly I inspected the kitchen. The stove was still on, but there was no heat. I tried the remaining cook tops – nothing. I would do better trying to heat the cooker with a cigarette lighter.
After about 15 minutes of close inspection and agitated swearing – by now I had already consumed twice my daily dose of blood pressure pills – I discovered that I had run out of electricity. What else on God’s beautiful earth could go wrong?
It took another hour and half to get the beans soft, by which time I was ready to admit defeat. Is this why it is a “forgotten” crop?
Eating them is a whole lot easier than cooking them. I used my Bambara nuts to make lovely vegetable fritters. If there is anyone out there, who knows how to cook these beans in much less than about four hours, I would be very thankful to hear from you. Honestly, I would.