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Burkina Faso can Teach the Rest of the World That a Soothing Atmosphere is an Important Ingredient in Every Recipe.

-By John Jacobs

Tucked into a landlocked location in West Africa, Burkina Faso is inhabited by people bound together by love of their traditions. There are many distinctive sounds across the country, like the beat of djembe drums and the soft animal noises of farm livestock, composed mostly of cattle, sheep and goats. Yet it is at mealtime that the true nature of Burkina Faso emerges. It emerges from the sound of soft laughter rising from the many courtyards and patios as people share meals consisting of popular foods made from homegrown ingredients and prepared using traditional recipes.

Historically an agricultural-based economy, the multiethnic nation has an appreciation for modern culture. For more than 40 years, Burkina Faso has hosted the pan-African film festival “Fespaco,” which boasts 100 theatres and continental talent. This is just one celebration that gives visitors a chance to join the “Burkinabè,” the correct name for the people, on those patios where you may be surprised to find many dishes with quite French sounding names.

Burkina Faso was a French colony from 1895 until 1960, so naturally French recipes were introduced. However, what emerges at mealtime is a wonderful blend of dishes representing traditional village recipes and more modern French cuisine. With 60 different ethnic and linguistic groups, the tribal recipes may vary depending on whether they came from the eastern and central regions of the Mossi, Gurmanchè, Fulbe or Tuareg, or the western and southern regions of the Bisa, Gurunsi, Lobi, Dagara, Bobo, Bwaba and Samo.

Finding Common Ground in Common Foods

Tying these many groups together at mealtime are staple foods like Tô, a very stiff paste made with corn, millet or sorghum flour. Popular sauces are served with the paste, and the particular sauce can vary from region to region. The common foundation ingredients in sauce recipes include sorrel, baobab leaves or okra. A groundnut paste that most people know as shea butter is often added. Spices and boiled-down vegetables give sauces unique flavours. Tô is cooked to an almost bread-like consistency and pieces are broken off or spooned and then dipped in the sauce. Eaten in the same fashion is Foutou (FuFu), usually made out of boiled ignames, a type of yam.

Traditionally, Burkinabè eat little meat, saving it for special ceremonies like weddings or holiday meals. When meat is served, it might very well be oven-baked pork that was purchased at one of the weekly markets. However, popular patio garden restaurants may serve fish, barbeque beef or chicken. If in Burkina Faso, you may want to try one of the national beer brands, which are Brakina and Sobbra. The more adventurous travelers interested in supporting the local economies will choose dolo, instead. Dolo is a millet beer brewed locally by a woman called a dolotière, and the beer sales provide important income for women in the rural communities. If you choose to drink non-alcoholic beverages, there is locally made gappal (soured milk) or juice made from the tamarind tree fruit.

The French influence is found in the names of commonly served dishes. Since Burkina Faso is mostly agricultural, the most popular dishes make extensive use of farm produce. They include Riz Gras, a national dish, which is rice cooked in a garlic, onion and tomato flavoured stock. Sometimes cubed chicken or beef is added, if desired. Petits Pois, green peas, are cooked in tomato sauce. French green beans, yams, okra, eggplant, sweet potatoes, onions, peppers, peanuts and tomatoes are turned into delicious, nutritious ragouts or stews, gumbos, soups and sauces. Burkinabè also eat lots of fruits, such as bananas, mangoes and grapefruits.

Low-key Dining for High-key World

Western populations relying heavily on meats, fats and sugars in their diets will be delighted by the traditional West African diet. The heavier calorie foods served in Burkina Faso tend to be those influenced by outsiders. Burkina Faso has many excellent restaurants serving both traditional foods and foods reflecting the long French occupation. In the capital city of Ouagadougou, the restaurants serve these combination meals in courtyards where you can listen to soft music and enjoy traditional African décor and artwork. Menu items include brochettes (meat or chicken sticks), Poulet de Kedjenou (simmered chicken cooked with tomatoes and peppers), Maan Nezim Nzedo (fish stew with okra, cabbage, French green beans and rice) and bean cakes.

Burkinabè recipes are healthy, partially out of necessity given the country’s rural setting, but largely because they enjoy mixing and blending vegetables and flours in ways that convert them into deliciously filling stews and sauces. There are some desserts served, like banana cake and beignets, but they do not play a central role in meals the way they do in Western countries. However, it is the way meals are served to visitors that adds a special quality to the recipes. The low-key courtyards are decorated with African masks and local flowers and plants. They may offer music and singing along with the food or simply provide a temporary spot where you can watch street life pass by as you dip Tô in a tomato and onion sauce.

The Burkinabè believe in taking the time to enjoy food. That is a lesson for people living in congested cities where food is served and eaten in a rush. Sometimes…just sometimes…you need to go ahead and let the world pass you by, because it offers a chance to really savour a meal. The people of Burkina Faso are said to smile a lot, and that includes at mealtimes when they are enjoying the foods representing the success of their farming labours. Ask yourself this: When was the last time you sat back and really enjoyed a meal without worrying about deadlines or the next chore? Chances are it has been a long, long while.

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