If you usually read this blog for the vicarious thrills but find the dishes featured here too complex to attempt yourself, today’s recipe is for you! After crossing heaven and earth for last week‘s extravaganza, I opted for a recipe this week that could hardly be simpler. Our country today is another very small one, but this time nestled in the curve that West Africa makes when it juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. In akkra funfun, beans, onions and a few other odds and ends come together for a cheap, tasty and simple snack food–which, incidentally, seems to be exactly the kind of food that the Beninese excel in.
Benin initially seemed like another country for which it was difficult to find a compelling and unique dish. As far as main dishes and staples go, it has a lot in common with other countries in the region–I’d already cooked chicken stewed in palm oil with fufu for Angola, for example. Beef or chicken stewed in peanut sauce is another biggie, but so many countries and Central and West Africa feature this dish in some form or another that I knew it would come my way again in the course of this project.
It does turn out, however, that the Beninese–or at least the Yoruba people who live in southeastern Benin and southwestern Nigera–are, as one book puts it,
notorious snackers. They are also legendary merchants. Markets and snacking come together perfectly, as one offers ample opportunity for the other.
The Yoruba’s compatriots, the Hausa, seem to have a similar history of trading. I love the idea that markets play such a role in the life of these communities that their foods have evolved to be as simple, easy-to-prepare and portable as possible. And snack food invariably means FRIED. One big go-to snack food is the Hausa’s kuli-kuli, or deep-fried balls of crushed peanuts. Another is the Yoruba’s akkra funfun, today’s recipe. In Yoruba, akkra funfun literally means ‘white bean cake’, and that’s exactly what it is. The Nigerian variant used black-eyed peas, but in Benin all-white beans are the main ingredient. These are mixed with onions, cayenne pepper and salt, then fried in a mixture of peanut and palm oil. Slavery spread this dish to all over the ‘New World’, as our trusty source again explains:
In Brazil, the akkra has been transformed into acarajé – a black-eyed pea fritter that is not only Bahia’s quintessential finger food but also the ritual offering made to Yansan, the goddess of tempests in the Candomble religion. In the French Antilles, akkra becomes accras de morue, made from salted codfish that has been fried in a batter…In Barbados, the African waste-not-want-not theory of cooking comes together with akkra to produce pumpkin accra, yet another twist on this traditional snack.
Akkra has found favour so far and wide that I was looking forward to trying it, even if deep-fried isn’t usually my thing. But there were quite a few hurdles to overcome first. For a start, I was suspicious that beans alone could bind and hold their shape when fried in oil, and my first attempt to make these (rather disastrously) proved me right. After throwing one frying pan of oily bean mush straight in the bin, I decided to add an egg and a little flour. Voila – perfect fritters! None of the recipes I found online call for these ingredients, so I’d be curious to know whether the Beninese don’t use binding agents either – and, if so, how they get their fritters to stay in one piece! In any case, that’s the only major adjustment I’ve made to the basic recipe.
What Did I Need?
Makes around 16 medium-size fritters:
- 1 small onion, finely minced
- one standard (200g) can of white beans, or half a cup of beans soaked overnight
- one large egg
- 1/3 cup of flour
- salt to taste
- cayenne pepper to taste
- oil for frying (peanut oil, palm oil or a combination of the two make for a more authentic flavour)
How Did I Do It?
- Blend the beans, cayenne pepper and salt together until they form a smooth, firm paste.
- Add the minced onion, egg and flour to the bean paste and stir to mix well.
- Add enough oil to a saucepan or wok to reach one or two centimetres up the side, and heat until hot enough to sizzle when a little batter is dropped in.
- Drop tablespoons of the mixture into the hot oil and fry in batches on both sides until golden. Drain cooked fritters on a paper towel.
- Sprinkle with extra cayenne pepper and serve hot.
As is so often the case with this blog, my initial skepticism was overcome by the tastiness of the result. For starters, I couldn’t believe how crispy and golden these beauties were when they emerged from the hot oil. I think part of it was due to the red palm oil. I’d used a lot of palm oil in my Angolan recipe, and found it a little overwhelming. In this more modest amount (I’d gone 50/50 on palm oil and sunflower oil), it actually lent the finish product a flavour that was subtle and quite good.
This meant that the flavour of the beans still shone through nicely, complemented by the prominent aroma of freshly fried onions. In a bid to eat less richly for this blog, my plan was actually to try one or two fritters and then let Joe polish them off – but I ended up scarfing at least twice that!
Joe was a fan too. Through a mouthful of hot bean fritter, he exclaimed:
So palm oil can be tasty!
Continuing our run of the world’s lesser-known countries, next week I’ll be covering the Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan. Tune in for cheese curry (!) that’s so spicy you’ll forget that most of us are neck-deep in winter!