es, it is July. And while you were probably expecting a patriotic recipe like Red, White and Blueberry Liberty Bars (not a real thing), I regret to inform you that I am still not back to my regularly scheduled patriotism. I’m trying. But lately, each day seems to bring more disappointment. So, I continue with my series on the traditional foods of the countries targeted in Trump’s travel ban. It is my hope that, by understanding these countries better, we can view their citizens with compassion, and not consternation.
This month’s focus is Sudan, the largest nation in Africa. It encompasses a staggeringly huge area three times the size of Texas, bordering Egypt, the Red Sea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Central African Republic, Chad and Libya. It is properly referred to as the Republic of Sudan (and sometimes North Sudan, as South Sudan won independence in 2011). The Nile runs the length of the country, which helps explain why the region has always been tumultuous. At the end of the Bronze Age around 1200 B.C., it became home to the Kingdom of Kush, replete with dynastic pharaohs, pyramids and high art. But a desire for control of the Nile lured the Assyrians, the Byzantine Greeks (who brought Christianity), the Arabs (who brought Islam), the Ottomans (who rolled it into Egypt) and the Europeans — Belgian, French, Italians and eventually the British (who proclaimed it a crown colony).
Sudanese forces played an important role in the African Campaign of World War II, and four years after the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the first independent Sudanese government was established. But since then, modernization, inept governments, military coups, Islamic fundamentalist groups, drought, flood and genocide have devastated the country.
Unsurprisingly, given its history, Sudan’s people are a mix of Arab, Egyptian, Nubian and pre-Islamic indigenous tribes. This cultural mix, as in other portions of Africa, plays out in the exotic cuisine of this region. Early traders introduced spices, red peppers and garlic, which play a big part in Sudanese cooking. And Sudan shares many culinary traditions with its neighbors. For instance, as in adjacent countries, flatbread is a staple element of every meal. In Sudan, the most common flatbread is kissra — a big, flat spongy pancake like Ethiopian injera or Somali anjera. Loose dough made from sorghum (also called dura), wheat or corn is fermented overnight for a sour taste, then fried into flat pancakes.
Sudan is so huge that it contains several distinct climate zones, and each has a unique culinary tradition. In the dry western regions, pastoral tribes still herd cattle and goats in the dry months and grow cereal crops in the wet ones. There, dairy is a main source of nourishment. Tropical areas to the east are known for the banana dish called moukhbaza, in which green bananas are boiled and mashed, then topped with green chile and olive oil. Where rivers and lakes dot the landscape to south, fish is the primary food. Peanuts are a common ingredient all over, both as a crunchy element in stews, and ground into butter.
Stew (mullah) is the most common meal, with each region determining what the pot contains. The national dish of Sudan is ful medames, a fava bean stew that has been widely exported across the continent. Meat and fish are dried for use in stews, and many contain offal, because, as in many pastoral cultures, nothing goes to waste. Popular stews generally contain the Sudanese spice mix ni’aimiya, dried okra, yogurt and the Sudanese white cheese gibna bayda.
It is said that the ancient Nubians were the first to cultivate wheat — a fact of which the Sudanese are rightly proud. This might explain why porridge holds such an important place at their table, always served alongside stews. Throughout North Africa, the porridge aseeda (sometimes referred to as “jelly bread”) is common at special occasions. But in Sudan it’s an everyday staple. A thin batter of wheat, sorghum or other available flour is fermented overnight, then boiled with additional water into a thick porridge. It is then poured into a deep bowl and cooled until firm (similar to the way polenta can be molded before frying). The bowl is unmolded onto a platter, and the gelatinous orb is surrounded by savory mullah. Aseeda is also eaten at breakfast, served with honey or butter.
There are a few traditional desserts, like ful sudani, a peanut macaroon clearly of European descent, and a Turkish-style, syrup-soaked semolina cake called bisbosa. There is officially no alcohol, but there are several interesting drinks, including a bright red hibiscus tea.
If you’re looking to try some of these Sudanese delights, there are several notable Sudanese communities in the U.S., most impressively in Portland, Maine. That city has made it their business to welcome refugees. Sudanese started arriving in the 1990s to escape civil war. But as genocide ripped through Darfur, Portland became a destination of choice for tribes from all over the county. In support of their new residents, the city officially divested from Sudan in 2006.
Remarkably, though Sudan generates refugees, a large portion of its current population is itself made up of refugees from neighboring African countries, most of whom reside in slums on the outskirts of the capital, Khartoum. There you will also find some of the 3 million internally displaced Sudanese (fleeing civil war and genocide). Although there are people trying to help, relief organizations have difficulty getting access to the affected areas.
Yeah, it’s messed up. But it’s no fault of the refugees. Americans in 2017 should realize more than anyone else that a government’s policies do not necessarily reflect the will of its people. The people of Sudan have a rich and vibrant history worth seeking out. Unfortunately, unless you have a Sudanese friend who cooks, you may have to travel to Maine to find it. Sudanese restaurants are far less common in Los Angeles than are restaurants featuring other African cuisines, and that’s too bad. The most common Sudanese dish available to us is their version of falafel — hardly unique by SoCal standards. But wait — the Sudanese falafel is actually different and, in a way, it perfectly represents their country. All these countries share traditions, but each one has been able to add its unique stamp, especially when it comes to food.
And maybe that is my point. We all eat a lot of the same stuff. And we all have to eat. Why can’t food be the bridge between cultures? Let’s start with the things we have in common, rather than the things that are weird and different.
Plus, if we let the Sudanese into our country, we can finally get to the bottom of jelly bread.
Tamiya (Sudanese Falafel)
The brilliance of the Sudanese falafel is its use of bean. Fava beans are the standard, but like most great cooks, you use what you can get. You must use only dried beans in this recipe to achieve proper texture.
3 cups dried fava bean, red lentils or black-eye peas, soaked in water overnight (do not use canned beans!)
1 large white onion, diced
¼ cup chopped garlic
¼ cup fresh dill, sliced
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon red chili flakes
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ cup water
Pulverize soaked beans, onion, garlic and dill to a coarse paste. Transfer to a bowl, add flour, chili flakes, salt, pepper, water and baking powder, and mix in. Add more water or flour as needed to create a paste that can be formed into a patty.
Heat oil to 350°. Drop patties into hot oil, and cook until golden brown on each side. Serve in flatbread with salad and yogurt and tahini dip.
Sudanese Yogurt and Tahini Dip
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small green chile pepper(such as a jalapeño), minced
¼ cup Italian parsley leaves, chopped
½ cup tahini
Juice of 2 lemons
1 cup plain Greek-style yogurt
Sea salt and black pepper to taste
1 cup gibna bayda or feta cheese, crumbled
1. Mix together garlic, chile, parsley and tahini. Add lemon juice and yogurt, and blend well, then season with salt and pepper. Fold in the cheese last, being sure to leave some chunks for texture. Leave at room temperature for up to 3 hours to meld flavors, then serve, or refrigerate to store.
Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.