Back in the day, when I was attending Swarthmore College in the Philadelphia suburbs that “City of Brotherly Love” held an International Festival featuring informational displays from the 70 some countries of origin of the city’s population. On a lower level of the convention area, each of the countries also had a food booth. One could buy tickets at the entrance and then spend them purchasing a world’s worth of main dishes and “afters” treats, far more than any one person could sample in multiple sittings.

Together with two classmates, I visited the festival with an open mind and an empty stomach. Knowing we could not try everything, my friends and I settled on a category of food – “a filling with some sort of pastry wrapping” – and went from table to table dividing three ways our sampling of whatever each country offered that fit our definition. We found a food to fit the category at every table except the Russian one. There we had to accept a slice of an open-topped fish pie as the closest option to our category. The ladies serving us explained that they were unable to make perogi (if you’re Jewish you’d call them kreplach) properly in the limited cooking space, and so did not try to do it. We ate Mexican tamales, German meat dumplings, French beignets, Chinese eggrolls, Vietnamese vegetable rolls, Greek spanakopita and a host of other tasty treats, some sweet, many savory, all enhanced with a wide variety of spices.

I am certain, even many years later, that we did not encounter what my Cameroonians friends call koki (pronounced like the French coquilles but nothing whatsoever akin as a food). I’m certain, because I helped to prepare, and was taught how to make, koki yesterday. The French homophone is a seafood. The Cameroonian dish would fit within my Philadelphia definition.

Koki begins with an arduous process of rolling black eyed peas between the palms, to loosen and remove the skin holding together the two halves of the dry pea. The halves are then dropped into a basin of water, and allowed to soak overnight. Any flakes of remaining skin float to the top to be skimmed off. The soaked peas are blended together with a small amount of water, onion and habanero peppers making a thin paste. Meanwhile fresh taro leaves are cut into strips, and large plantain banana leaves are soaked to make them flexible. The taro strips are folded into the pea batter, and all of it is poured onto the banana leaves which have been shaped into a bowl. Red palm oil which has been heated, so it will pour easily, is stirred into the packet which is then tied up and placed into a tall pot to be boiled and steamed for at least an hour, long enough to assure that the taro leaves are cooked to softness.

The koki is usually served with boiled, ripe plantain so that the sweetness of the banana contrasts delightfully with the hot spicy taste of the koki. When I commented that koki has the texture of a tamale, I was told that it can be made, like tamales, with a corn-based meal instead of the pureed beans.

I shared with my co-cooks an account of my first experience making tamales – the group of 6 of us sitting around a table, picking up soaked corn husks, plastering them with masa (corn meal paste) on top of which we placed a scoop of pulled pork cooked down to softness in red chile, before rolling the husks and tying off both ends with a shred of corn husk. Over the course of a couple hours, the six of us made more than 10 dozen pork tamales and about half again as many that were filled with corn and squash which had been cooked with fresh green chile. All the tamales were then steamed, in batches, in a huge kettle.

Unlike koki, tamales tolerate being frozen for later use. Preparation of both foods by traditional methods is time-consuming, an opportunity for the cooks (almost always women) to socialize and catch up on family news or, in my case yesterday, to learn by doing in the time-honored way that traditions are passed down from generation to generation.

My experience yesterday was a sort of time reversal, since the woman teaching me – Flora – is much younger than I am. She commented that few of her friends still prepare the peas in the traditional way, and that she would not expect me to spend the necessary time doing so in future. She offered to provide me with peas ready to be ground for the koki. I deeply appreciate the offer, knowing just how much time is involved in peeling the peas. In a corner of my being, however, I feel that I’m betraying a tradition if I don’t complete the entire process, start to finish, as it has been taught over generations.

I have my own special recipes, passed down from grandparents, which I occasionally prepare for guests. None fit my Philadelphia definition – until now. Food often unites us. Think families around a supper table, neighbors gathering for a pot luck, or a community putting together a meal for thousands, as happens each year on Labor Day weekend, when the small village of Wagon Mound, NM celebrates Bean Day. With the addition of koki to my repertoire of traditionally prepared meals, I will be uniting western Africa with the Middle East, eastern Europe and the western United States, adding to and carrying on long-established culinary traditions.

What a delightful, tasty responsibility!

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2 Responses to “Koki”

  1. chelawriter Says:

    Guess we’ll have to figure out a way for the products of my love of cooking to reach you for tasting. Fed Ex care packages?

  2. Cheryl @ Artzzle Says:

    Alas, although I love to eat . . . I hate to cook. This will not be another common ground for us. Glad to have you posting again! Congrats on your recent life adjustment 🙂

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