By Lindsay Sterling
Over green smoothies upstairs at the Public Market House in Portland, Maine, I asked Iman Lipumba, a 22-year-old photographer and writer from Tanzania, if she’d teach me how to cook her favorite dish from home.
“I don’t really know how to cook,” she confessed. “In Tanzania, it’s common for most middle class, working families to have a cook. For someone to come every day and cook, clean, and do laundry, you would pay the equivalent of $30 a month.”
Iman’s family’s housekeeper, Celina, grew up in a rural village where she had to walk an hour and a half to school. When Celina’s father left her family with no income, she quit school to make money as a live-in housekeeper in the city of Dar es Salaam. Iman’s family is encouraging her to finish high school while working.
When Iman was growing up in Tanzania, she did spend some time helping her housekeeper in the kitchen. “Making coconut milk used to be my job,” Iman recalled. “I used a mbuzi. It’s like a short stool you sit on. At the edge of it is a circular piece of metal with sharp edges and you use it to scrape the coconut meat out of the coconut. Then you soak the coconut [meat] in water, massage it with your hands, and let it sit for a couple hours before you strain it.”
Iman and I decided to learn together how to cook two of her family’s regular dishes by using a new cookbook that had crossed my desk: A Taste of Tanzania: Modern Swahili Recipes from the West, by Miriam R. Kinunda. “Green bananas and beef is a staple,” Iman said, paging through the cookbook in her West End apartment kitchen. “We’d eat it at least once a week. It is a regional specialty in northern Tanzania where my mom is from.” We also decided to make pumpkin with cardamom and coconut milk.
Kelly green bananas were surprisingly easy to find at the supermarket. No such luck with Tanzanian pumpkin. Miriam Kinunda thankfully noted in her recipe: “I find that pumpkins in America are very mushy, so I use banana-squash or kabocha squash instead, which is almost as starchy as the Tanzanian pumpkins.” We ended up using blue hubbard squash, which worked great. Butternut would have been great, too.
Iman and I peeled the squash, cleaned out the seeds, and cut the flesh into chunks about an inch wide. In a large pot we cooked the onions with ginger and cardamom and then added coconut milk, water, and the squash. We cooked it with the lid on until the squash was tender. Before I took a bite, Iman noted that people at home sprinkle cinnamon on top as a condiment. The result was creamy, sweet, and delicious.
For the beef and bananas, we boiled bite-sized pieces of beef until tender. In a separate large pot we sautéed onions with black pepper, cumin, fresh ginger, turmeric, garlic, and cilantro. We added tomato paste, and fresh tomatoes, and let them cook down until they disappeared. Then we added coconut milk, beef broth, cooked beef, and segments of peeled green banana. The meal was comparable to meat and potato stew, but with a creamy, peppery sauce. The green bananas were not banana-y or sweet at all. They tasted like fingerling potatoes, so much so that you could fool someone. I’m looking forward to doing just that. Banana-phobes, look out.
To see Iman’s documentary about her family's housekeeper, Celina, visit http://www.imanlipumba.com/celina.