Flounder with tomato and onion

Zoe is that friend that I can live vicariously through. She’s always full of adventurous stories from all the countries she’s been to and all the villages she has lived in. I always look forward to her e-mails about the different lifestyles she witnesses and the people she befriends along the way. Of course, I’m always more interested in the food related parts, so when Zoe got back to the states this time, we got together for some Congolese cooking. Please welcome Zoe:

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Zoe So:

When I was a young’un, my parents would make me eat my pizza crusts by using  this tired old guilt tactic: “There are starving children in Africa.” Fifteen years later, as I was about to leave the country to do volunteer work in Senegal, my cousin used similar strategies on her six-year-old daughter: “If you don’t finish your food, I’m going to send you to visit Auntie Zoe in Africa where you won’t have anything to eat.”  The first time my parents received a picture of me as a volunteer in Senegal, their reaction was: “Wow, you’ve gained a lot of weight! How is that possible? There’s food in your village?!”

These days, “African food” is no longer considered an automatic oxymoron in the dining world. Ethiopian restaurants have gone mainsteam ethnic in many American cities, and are especially prevalent in Washington, DC. Merkato 55, Marcus Samuelsson’s attempt at “Africa meets Meatpacking,” opened to much fanfare in New York City in the spring of 2008. (Merkato 55 has since been re-packaged as the pan- Mediterranean restaurant Le 55).

Despite its recent exposure, sub-Saharan African cuisine remains a bit of a mystery in the international food scene compared to other ethnic foods. Unlike Asian food, for example, African foods’ regional differences and local nuances are not common knowledge. Jess and Lon suggested I give a few more details about what I eat on my next trip to the continent.   In a lucky twist of events, I recently took an unexpected trip to re-visit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Once again, I put on a few pounds.

The DRC is roughly the size of Western Europe and borders nine countries, including ones in central, eastern and southern Africa.  Reflecting the country’s many landscapes and regional influences, Congolese cuisine is quite diverse.

Here is one of my favorite dishes from Western Congolese cuisine.  It’s lighter than most other typical fare in the region.

Liboké ya mbisi

(Lingala. English translation : Bundle of fish)

The Congo River is the second longest in Africa, after the Nile. Read: Delicious and abundant fish. The best river fish I’ve had while in the DRC comes from Bandunduville, a small sleepy provincial capital. There I once found an informal backyard restaurant, run by the daughter of a famous Congolese singer, which served a  miso flavored fish plate. Go figure.

Liboke is a traditional preparation of fish (or meat) popular around the Congo River basin. Around lunchtime in Kinshasa, the overcrowded capital of the DRC, entrepreneurial ladies can often be seen walking along the streets with a basket or basin full of these banana leaf bundles balanced atop their heads. It’s usually accompanied by a cassava based starch, such as fufu or chikwangue.

bundles of fish
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Hi, it’s Jessica, I’m back to tell you about the recipe:

With a few guidelines from congocookbook.com (where you can find other Congolese recipes) and Zoe’s experiences, we came up with a recipe that you can easily try here. You can find frozen banana leaves at Spanish grocers. (We had a pack from Goya, also available online.) You can also try using any type of fish you like. Freshwater fish would be most authentic, but I couldn’t find any that day so we used flounder and it seems that a delicate fish works well in this light preparation that reminds me of en papillote, a French technique of cooking in parchment paper. Here the banana leaves offer a lovely scent though.

banana leaves

Liboke ya Mbisi (Bundle of Fish)
~3 servings

  • 1/2 cup onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped tomato
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • pinch of cayenne
  • 12 ounces flounder fillet
  • 1 (16oz) package banana leaves
  • oven safe string
  • salt and pepper to taste

Instructions -

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

2. In a medium sized bowl, stir together onion, tomato, lemon juice, olive oil, cayenne, salt and pepper.

3. Cut fish into pieces (about 1″ x 3″). Toss with onion/tomato mixture. Set aside for 15 minutes.

marinating flounder

4. If banana leaves are stiff, run hot water over them to soften. You want to lay out a piece large enough to bundle up as shown in the picture. There should be 3 layers of banana leaves. Divide the fish into 3 separate bundles and tie them up. Place them in an oven-safe dish. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until fish is cooked through.

wrapping flounder with banana leaveswrapping flounder with banana leaves 3
wrapping flounder with banana leaves 4
wrapping flounder with banana leaves 6
wrapping flounder with banana leaves 7
wrapping flounder with banana leaves 8
bundle of fish

5. Serve by cutting the bundle right below the string. Serve immediately.

cut and serve bundle of fish

Each bundle is an individual portion. Pull back the leaves  for a tropical scented fish stew with very tender fish and just a little broth. It’s light and elegant.

Flounder in banana leaves 2

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