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So I was 20 and the year was 1984, and I ate one of the most delicious things in my life.

I was young and curious and found myself in a very open-minded foreign study program in Kenya.  At the time we were in Mombasa, in the Old Town which was very old, very poor, very easy to get lost, and a completely new kind of place for me.  I’m sure my mother would have panicked had she been able to visualise my whereabouts. People I was visiting lived as families in one room, and seemed to share pretty basic kitchens with other families, and those rooms were hot and the paint was peeling and the little girls wore frilly dresses and danced and the older girls seemed just as happy and free in their Buibuis, the black head-covering garments giving them modesty. There was a fun place that men, only men, seemed to go to eat, but an American girl got to go too.  And that one place we went a bunch of times lives in my memory as a dark room with long tables and nothing on the menu but Coconut Beans and Chapatis.  That plate of food cost the equivalent of pence and remains with me as one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

Through the years I’ve tried to recreate this Swahili dish — a cuisine that represents the meeting of East African and Arab and Indian foodways–  and since the advent of internet I periodically pour over possibilities. None of them quite ever approach the beans of memory. The dish had a perfect simplicity, a balance of salt and sweet suspended in creaminess — I do not remember too many spices, and I recall it as white and brown in colour (no turmeric/curry powder-yellow), but spices would have been there, apparently, and yet were subtle.

Then there’s also the question too of what bean to use– it wasn’t quite a chick pea, certainly not a black eyed pea– and all the recipes calling for kidney beans– No!  It wasn’t a kidney bean, I am certain.

Then recently into my life came Hodmedod’s Black Badgers.  Hodmedod is an inspired company selling British grown pulses and legumes in interesting old traditional varieties. Think local, cook global?

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Their packaging is pretty beautiful too!

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Coincidentally soon after buying those Black Badgers, I stumbled upon a book in the dank cellar of a Newtown charity shop– a beat-up copy for 50p of the kind of book tourists buy on the foods of famous restaurants in Kenya.

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Now, though “Mbaazi Wa Nazi” may be widely eaten, I’m quite sure it’s also a dish that home cooks would interpret pretty individually based on what’s at hand; this isn’t rich people’s food! But the book called for “Pigeon Peas” which the most basic research related to the Black Badgers sitting on my shelf.

Whoever was making that vat of beans in the Mombasa cafe was probably super-opinated about what to do at every stage of the process, and it was his baby, that recipe, his tight ship to run. (I wonder if he’s still alive.)

This is how I made it, pretty much following the recipe in my new book.  It was delicious and simple and really didn’t taste like the beans I remember though was still quite great in its way– an easy supper to serve . I liked the extreme simplicity of the method– not even any sauteeing, just added the onion and spice powder to the mix.   And  I served it with flat breads, for which I followed this “perfect” recipe— which was nice but I wouldn’t deem perfect.  Perfect would encourage me to use whatever grains I have on hand, and have let me from my own imagination throw in some of the leftover millet sitting in a pot in the fridge.  (Discourse on “perfect’ pending…)

HOW I MADE COCONUT BEANS ATTEMPT #1

-Soak 25o grams of Black Badger Peas overnight.  Change the water, boil them until soft.
-Add a tin of coconut milk, a chopped onion, a tablespoon of any old curry powder (lazy mode).
-Two thinly sliced fresh green chillis 
-Some salt.
-Simmer until thick.  Keep simmering. The more “stewed” the better. The photo was taken prematurely.
-Please your little boy when you tell him no fork or spoon permitted, he needs to eat this with only his right hand, the left forbidden.  Tear a piece off your chapati, gather some beans, and eat.
 

I am going to continue to try to recreate my memory, kind of knowing that even if I don’t ever achieve it, I’ll still be making delicious suppers in my quest to keep reducing our family’s meat eating.  Next time I’m going to add cardamom, maybe that was the flavour I remember, and maybe a few coriander seeds.  But I don’t want to make it fancy in any way.  That’s not the point.  But pretty much nothing could really go wrong.  Beans, coconut milk, spice, salt..  YUM.

Here’s another version I found and though it sounds delicious, it doesn’t quite replicate the particular version of these beans I enjoyed so deeply.

The Black Badger beans, I must say, seem pretty central.  I’ll definitely keep using them and totally recommend them to you for those moments when you want beans that get soft but still keep their individuality.

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