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My trip to Brixton market last weekend yielded some beautiful vegetables including these amazing okra and scotch bonnet chilies. I can buy okra easily enough in Brighton, but it is often over-large and/or a bit blackened around the edges. But in Brixton market there were vast bins of young, small okra with nary a mark on them. I know okra is a divisive vegetable: while American Southerners tend to love it, people from other places find its sliminess offputting. (Even Southerners often deep fry it to dry it out.) I, however, embrace the gloop. I find the texture of okra to be completely alluring and I love using it in Indian bhindi masala and in Southeast Asian curries.

My favourite use of okra, though, is in the Senegalese casserole mafé. Mafé is a Wolof groundnut stew that is usually made with lamb but can be done in various versions with beef, chicken, fish, or just vegetables. The vegetables also seem to be fairly open but I always make it with okra and cabbage. Something about the combination of okra, peanuts, tomatoes and hot citrusy chilies is really addictive and I make this dish quite a lot. I remember an episode of Top Chef in which the judges found the combination of peanut sauce and tomatoes to be weird. On the contrary, the combination is fantastic and what’s more easy to do with store-cupboard ingredients…

Most versions of this dish include meat, but it would be very easy to make a vegetarian (and also vegan) version using only the vegetables.

Senegalese chicken mafé

  • 4-6 chicken pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 4 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • 1 tin of tomatoes (or 6 fresh tomatoes plus a spoonful of tomato paste)
  • 1/4 cup smooth peanut butter
  • 1 scotch bonnet chili
  • 2 large handfuls okra
  • 1/2 a green cabbage, sliced into chunks
  • 1 sweet potato or 2 carrots, cubed
  • oil, salt, pepper

First, season the chicken pieces well with salt and pepper and brown in a large frying pan with a lid, or a big pot. Put them aside and use the same pan to fry the onion until it is slightly browned, then add garlic. Sauté for a few seconds then add tomatoes. Cook over a medium heat until the tomatoes break down. Meanwhile, put the peanut butter in a bowl and add about 1/2 cup of water. Whisk until you have a smooth paste. Once the tomatoes are good and saucy, add the peanut paste and mix well.

Next, put the chicken back in, along with your scotch bonnet, cut in half. (If you want it less spicy, just poke a couple of holes in the chili with a knife but leave it whole.) Add a bit more salt and pepper and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Stir relatively often, as the peanuts make the sauce stick.

Next, add your cubed sweet potato or carrot and cook for 15-20 mins. Then add okra and sliced cabbage. Stir carefully and cook for another 15-20 mins, until everything is cooked and soft. Be especially careful to stir at this stage, as you want to prevent the sauce from sticking but also keep the vegetables from breaking up. You can add more water if things seem to be drying out.

Before serving, season with more salt (this will be very variable depending on how sweet your peanut butter is) and remove the chili.

Serves 4.

I don’t go to New York to eat American food, nor do I spend my time in London eating British food, but somehow I feel like I’m expected to eat French food in Paris. Probably it’s because Paris is at once the self-conscious centre of French haut cuisine and a cultural cliché of bistros and steak frites. We often think of the city as the bastion of a certain kind of French culinary experience that matches perfectly with a tourist itinerary of museums, churches and architecture. In the same way that we expect to eat (delicious) Roman food in Rome, we imagine Parisian food to be an integral part of travelling to Paris. But if the cliché is familiar, it’s also both limiting and not so pleasurable. Maybe I’ve been unlucky, but whereas I’ve never eaten a bad plate of food in Rome, I’ve had a good deal of mediocre bistro food in Paris. Meat dishes heavy on the butter but light on flavour, insipid salads of overcooked vegetables, decently cooked classics that just fail to excite the imagination: eating French food in Paris can seem like a faintly embarrassing exercise in unsuccessful nostalgia.

I’m sure there is amazing modern French food out there, but just as any self-respecting visitor to Paris sees beyond the tourist circuit, I don’t think you can’t get a proper feel for the city by eating only ‘national’ food. I’ve come to think of Paris eating as less like Rome and more like London, where the city’s postcolonial and cosmopolitan cultures make for a plethora of cheap and delicious cafes and restaurants that get you out of the soulless grind of the tourist trail. I’m far from an expert on Paris: I’ve never lived there and I mostly go for weekends or short trips. But I do have a nose for exciting food in unlikely places. So this isn’t an insider’s guide to Paris eating but some itineraries of a tourist who can’t keep to the proper routes. Where do you go when you can’t face ‘French food’?

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