You made it past Monday. Insecure AND Game of Thrones are back on air. Team USA’s about to be rocking gold medals at the Forum in just eleven short years. These are all causes for celebration. But there’s one reason in particular you’ve earned yourself some delicious rice and fried dough between now and Sunday night. And that’s that today is Beninese Independence Day.
Benin – the “drumstick-shaped” West African country nestled between Nigeria and Togo – is The Business. We’re talking about the former Kingdom of Dahomey, and home of the actual Amazons. Look it up, it’s not debated; Wonder Woman should have looked like Serena Williams.
Like so many countries wrestling with the trauma of colonialism, the road post-independence for Benin would be rocky and (naturally) interspersed with communism, but after nearly sixty years as a colony of France and two as an autonomous republic, August 1st, 1960, ushered in one serious reason to party, and to feast: independence.
1960 was an especially lit year for independence on the African continent. By the time Benin got in on the action, six countries had already raised their flags, and ten more would go on to do so before the end of the year. I’m telling you that Benin declared their independence on a Monday and by Sunday, three more countries had joined them. Even the word “unprecedented” seems to fall short of aptly descriptive here.
Since that time, August 1st has been observed as a national holiday in Benin. It’s different than the Fourth of July in the States, with certain festivities unique to the day, (although fireworks do take place in the bigger cities). Rather, for your typical Beninese, it’s a lot like Christmas and other major holidays, celebrated with family, at home, with similar foods. And no one’s mad at that, cuz Beninese Holiday Food is off the chain.
Two of the most popular items served at near every holiday in Benin (and the two personal favorites of this blog) are doko and Riz au Gras. AKA fried dough and delicious rice AKA You’re Welcome, Let’s Do This.
Doko – abbreviated from yovo doko, or “white dough” – is a lot like my Naija people’s puff puff. Dare I say, like beignets-meets-hushpuppies on steroids. They are neither light nor fancy. Like most things Rum & Biscuits loves, they have just enough crackle on a golden brown crust before giving way to dense, sweet, chewy-ass white dough.
Unlike many of their fried dough ball counterparts, the sweetness and richness is built in – add powdered sugar or syrup at your own peril.
Riz au Gras
Riz au gras – literally “fatty rice” – has Nigerian (and Ghanaian [I know better than to pick favs]) parallels, too, with jollof rice. Both/all are tomato-based, long grain rices with a healthy dose of bouillon and heavy on the onion and garlic. Different recipes will put their own stank on it, with curries or peppers or veggies or what have you, but my favorite – my mother-in-law’s – is right to the point, and HUGE in flavor.
There’s a method to the decadence of both dishes. Lest we forget, Benin is both a very Catholic country and one that like so many on the continent has certainly experienced stretches of financial hardship. For nations all over the world and throughout time, economy encouraged reliance on cheap, long-shelf-life foods like flour, sugar, salt, and rice; Catholicism’s Holy Month of Lent, meanwhile, gave everyone a need to use up all their animal fat in a rush, and deep-frying was an easy, delicious way to do it. This is how Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) came about, plus how we get a lot of bangin’ fried foods we still enjoy to this day.
The first Beninese Independence Day I celebrated was the first I could once I knew about it: 2012, around thirty days after meeting my future wife, whose family is from Benin. Coincidentally, on the same day, I was exiting a terrible long-term living situation, and entering into a new exciting relationship phase with said then-girlfriend-now-wife. I hadn’t even met her parents by that point, so my traditional food game was lacking, but I mashed cassava into fufu in a mortar like a total badass, and baked a cake that I iced with Beninese Flag colors. Gave her a handmade card of Keith Sweat singing to the two of us. You know. It was a special day.
Wildly, five years later in 2017, this day marks my brother’s first day as a New Yorker, having relocated for school/work after a lifetime in Oregon. For me, B.I.D. is like that. Something magic and momentous always seems to happen, even for someone so new to the holiday. And with some recipes from the Moms-in-Law finally in the chamber, these days traditional food is the most proactive way I can connect to that magic.
With that, I pass along these gems in the hopes they give you maximum magic as well. That said, plan for minimum activity afterwards. They are party starters designed for week-long parties 😉
Riz au Gras Recipe
- 3 oz tomato paste
- 1 whole medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
- 1 whole garlic bulb, roughly chopped
- 2 tsp black pepper
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp Goya Sazonador Total seasoned salt
- 2 tbsp Maggi Chicken Bouillon Powder
- 1/3 cup oil
- 3 1/4 cups water
- 1 1/4 cup chicken stock
- 2 cups white long grain rice, rinsed
1. In a large pot, combine tomato paste, onion, garlic, black pepper, garlic powder, seasoned salt, chicken bouillon, and oil
2. Place pot on medium heat, cover, and allow to fry on medium for 2-3 minutes.
3. Add 1 3/4 cups of the water to the pot, stir, cover, and allow to boil for 3-4 more minutes
4. Add the rest of the water and the chicken stock, stir, cover, and allow to boil for 15 minutes on medium heat. Add any additional bouillon, pepper, garlic powder or seasoned salt to taste.
5. Add rice to pot, making sure the liquid covers the rice.
6. Cover mouth of pot with aluminum foil and lid. Reduce heat to medium-low. Allow to cook for 10 minutes.
7. Remove lid and foil and stir rice with spoon, making sure to scrape along the bottom of the pot to ensure rice is not sticking and burning.
8. Cover again with lid and foil and cook an additional 10 minutes or until liquid is gone.
Now rice pahty done, we’ve got fried friends on deck. Apologies in advance that there aren’t as many in-progress photos with this recipe. Making doko isn’t as scary as it looks, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t messy. Not easy to snap the pic with dough hands.
- 2 packets active dry yeast
- 3 cups warm water
- 1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 6 cups bread flour
- 48 oz canola oil (for frying)
- 2 cups water
1. In a large mixing bowl (or cooking pot if you’re O.G.), combine yeast, water, and 2 tbsp on sugar. Allow to sit for 5 minutes.
2. Add remaining sugar, salt, and one cup flour. Mix thoroughly (by hand if you’re O.G.)
3. Continue incorporating remaining flour one cup at a time.
4. Mix thoroughly until yeast bubbles are visible and dough has reached a wet, sticky consistency somewhere between a pancake batter and bread dough.
5. Cover with aluminum foil and tight fitting lid and allow to rest for 60 minutes in a warm place. If you’re an O.G., wrap in a towel and place on the floor. The towel will keep the dough warm and active, but I have no idea what the floor does.
6. In a large pot, add oil and heat to between 360 and 380 degrees. The O.G.s do not use oil thermometers for this – you can test the heat with a scrap of dough or intuition – but I am, much, much more comfortable with one and highly recommend it. If you’re in the market for one, they’re often sold as “candy thermometers”
7. Remove cover from dough. Station dough and 2 cups water adjacent to oil pot.
8. Use water to wet hand before scooping dough into palm and shaking in tight circular motion until dough has formed a rough ball shape approximately the size of a large egg. Don’t worry if strands of dough continue to stick between fingers.
9. Add ball gently to oil. You can slowly and safely spin or “strum” any lingering dough strands that stick to your fingers on top of the dough as it cooks to avoid misshaping or “tails”
10. Repeat steps 8 and 9 for between 6 and 12 doko, depending on pot size and bravery. My mother-in-law will fill the pot until the entire pot is filled, but this is way too intimidating for me. Each doko needs considerable attention.
11. With a slotted spoon (O.G. version) or chopsticks (New School), rotate each doko frequently* (about every 10 seconds) until a deep, hazelnut brown color is achieved. This will take about 2-3 minutes on each side in 380 degree oil.
12. Move fully cooked doko to strainer or paper towel to cool and to allow excess oil to be released before moving to separate tray or bowl.
13. Start party.
*Note on Step 11: frequent flipping is key because if unevenly fried, the undercooked side will perpetually flip to the top. If you run into a stubborn one that refuses to rotate, use the spoon or chopsticks to hold the undercooked side beneath the oil for around 20 seconds and try again. If all else fails, per my mother-in-law, do your best and when you get to Step 12, place the doko in the strainer/paper towel undercooked side down. Everything gon’ be fine, don’t worry. Mawu na wa zoh ton: God will do the best job.
And that’ll do it! If you’ve made it this far you’ve realized and/or always appreciated that some of the best food in the world – and African food in particular – has a fairly straightforward formula: (time + love) x 7 = the stuff of dreams. Yes, even the simple recipes are waiting games, and it can be intimidating when so many little details make such a big difference, but getting it right isn’t important. If you’re a (mostly) young person without kids yet, like me, you gon’ give or toss most of it anyway cuz recipes feed six even after I cut them in half.
The important thing is celebrating – especially time, and love, and attention to detail. If you aint ready for deep-frying, hell, make a Keith Sweat card for your boo, or you know, your equivalent! The fact that it’s Tuesday in the middle of beach season that we definitely aren’t getting work off for only makes it that much more perfect, (though I def recommend waiting until the weekend before cooking these – no shade, my wife’s mom is doing it, too).
Sometimes taking the time to try something extraordinary, and to connect with the people that matter most to us, even when we have no idea what we’re doing – that’s how we let the magic into our lives. And, if I may be so bold, it’s one excellent way to honor our own independence, and that of all nations.
…Mais surtout pour la République du Béniiiiiin BR-BR-BR-BR-BR-BRRRHHHH!!!