This is Not a Hamburger

By Lindsay Sterling

I recently had the pleasure of cooking with a woman from Burundi in Eastern Africa. The minced cassava leaves in the bottom of her large pot looked like a wad of grass clippings removed from the inside of a lawn mower. As they heated up on the stove with water, they smelled like a health-nut’s green smoothie. Into the minced greens, my teacher, Mia Ntahobari, submerged cubed eggplant, diced green pepper, onions, leeks, oil, and a couple pieces of bone-in goat meat. Over the course of the next three hours, she also added tomato paste, goat broth, garlic, bay leaves, pepper and peanut butter. The final dish, called sombe [pronounced SahmBAY] in her native Kirundi, looked like cooked collard greens, only minced up more finely.

My kids aren’t going to like this, I was thinking. Then she said, “My kids don’t like vegetables either, but they like sombe.” Her kids are four, six, eleven, and thirteen years old now. They have been in Maine for three months since arriving from Burundi. She worries that it will be hard for them to make friends at school because of the language barrier and differences in life experience. They’ve lived through unspeakable tragedies resulting from the lack of a justice system in Burundi.

The cooked greens were one of four components in her favorite meal. “Sombe,” she explained, “Is a meal all people [in Burundi] eat regularly with beans everyday.” She used canary beans, which were large and light yellow when dried and turned tan, plump and creamy once cooked.

The third component of the meal, fried bone-in chunks of goat meat in red sauce, is popular throughout Burundi. She suspects Burundians prefer goat because it’s less expensive to raise than beef. First she boiled the goat meat in water. Then she strained out the broth and shallow-fried the goat pieces with onions, curry powder, and dried basil. Once the goat pieces were nice and crispy brown on the outside, she added tomato paste and the reserved goat broth to the make a smooth, dark, red sauce around the goat pieces. I thought the goat was delicious. A little tough, but fun to eat off the bone. It was not strong like lamb. The flavor of the meat was mild, a lot like beef. 

Her husband taught me how to make the bugali that brings the dish all together. It’s made of corn flour cooked with water and molded into cake. To eat the meal, Burundians break of a piece of bugali from a communal cake, and then use it as an edible scoop for the greens, beans, or goat from their own dish. No forks or spoons were used at all. There was literal finger licking. Though the goat and cassava leaves did make the meal seem foreign to me, I found it to be rich, soft, warm, and comforting. I liked it even more after I took Mia’s advice and added a couple drops of ultra hot sauce, called Akabanka oil.

A week later, after finding goat meat, corn flour, canary beans, and cassava leaves at her friend’s store, (Ebenezer, 654 Congress St, Portland, ME) and cooking the meal a second time, I liked it even more. My seven-year-old and husband cleaned their plates. My nine-year-old wasn’t in the mood for adventure. Hot sauce lovers have to try the Akabanga oil. It’s unlike any hot sauce in the U.S. Two drops’ll do ya.