Ndolé is central Africa’s ultimate surf n’ turf dish. A casserole originating from the coastal region around the town of Douala, ndolé is a variable dish made to showcase some of Cameroon’s best and most abundant homegrown ingredients. The peanut-based stew is usually paired with bittersweet ndolé leaves and can contain anything from shrimps to dried fish or ground beef. Because we’re feeling decadent, our version contains all three.
Once a special occasion dish reserved only for weddings, baptisms and the like, ndolé has risen to the status of a national dish in Cameroon.
We love the creaminess of ndolé and the invigorating mix of vegetables, fish and meat. The peanut sauce also adds a richness that is perfectly offset with a plate of plantains. We’ve never been to Cameroon, but we have it on good authority that many dishes there go down in a similar way – namely, a rich, saucy, spicy stew accompanied by a fairly neutral carb, like the thick starchy fufu or bobolo, which is fermented ground manioc or cassava wrapped in leaves.
THE DUALA – CAMEROON’S MIDDLEMEN
Cameroon – often pegged “Africa in Miniature” – is a diverse country, both geographically and culturally. Its national terrain covers volcanic mountains, rainforests and savannah plains, as well as a small but historically busy coastal area. There are over 250 ethnic groups in the country with as many languages to match.
Ndolé is attributed to one of those groups, the Duala, who live around the coast and the Wouri estuary, centered around the city of Douala. Originally the site of four tribal villages, Douala evolved into a center of commerce due to the presence of Portuguese and Dutch traders from the 16th century onwards.
The Duala were keen traders and worked well as middlemen liaising between the Europeans and the various tribespeople living in the deeper hinterlands of Cameroon. Their business started in the ivory trade, then switched to slave trading, making Douala the hub of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century.
After the Germans moved in to colonize Cameroon in 1884, the Duala shifted their role from trade – no longer an option after the abolition of slavery and German control of commerce in the country – to a more educated and privileged stratum of society. They became clerks and interpreters as well as teachers in the new missionary school system, which contributed to the spread of the Duala language in the region too.
LAND OF SHRIMPS AND PEANUTS
Cameroon is blessed with alimentary bounty. So much so, the country is even named after the teeming shrimp population in the Wouri estuary, which prompted Portuguese traders to call the river “Rio dos Camarões.” With the exception of some Portuguese imports from the New World like cassava, tomatoes, maize and hot peppers, Cameroon has generally kept its homegrown cuisine unruffled by foreign palates.
Around 70% of Cameroon’s population grow their own food or herd their own cattle. Popular crops are pineapples, bananas, and papaya, as well as plantains, yams, and sorghum. The two key ingredients of a typical Cameroonian ndolé, peanuts, and ndolé leaves, are also ubiquitous growers. Despite some claims to the contrary, peanuts – or more specifically, the Cameroonian bambara groundnuts – were not imports from the New World, and were already growing on African soil when the Portuguese arrived.
ABOUT THE RECIPE
The ndolé plant after which the dish is named, also known as bitterleaf, is hard to source outside of tropical Africa. Although it’s a tricky food to prepare that involves lots of soaking in water and baking soda to rid it of its bitter taste, its purported health benefits are numerous.
Bitterleaf is used in traditional medicine in Africa for treating malaria, hepatitis, and dysentery, and is also used by humans and chimpanzees alike as a cure for intestinal worms. Don’t fret if you can’t source any: it can be substituted for any hardy green like lacinato kale, collard greens, bok choy, taro or mustard cabbage. We opted for the similarly healthy, if not quite equally miraculous, spinach.
We decided to put meat, shrimp and dried fish in our ndolé in order to maximise the taste. However, any one of these groups can be taken out according to your dietary requirements, since it’s common to see ndolé recipes without the smoked fish and with shrimps as optional. It’s also not unheard of for vegetarians to pass on the beef aspect altogether.
PREPARING THE INGREDIENTS
Get your ingredients set up and laid out. Maximise the goodness of your dish by opting for grass-fed organic beef and wild caught shrimps wherever possible. The smoked fish can be found in Asian shops or markets. Cod is great, though in this instance we opted for smoked milkfish, which is a very good alternative. Get them boneless and crumble them up with your hands at home.
Start with the paste for the sauce: puree the roasted peanuts, chopped onions, garlic, ginger, and water in a blender.
Heat two tablespoons of olive oil in a deep pan. Start to sauté the sliced onions. As soon as they start to soften, add the shrimps. Once the shrimps are cooked, and a nice pink color, take them out of the pan and set them to one side in a bowl. Be careful not to overcook them or they’ll become dry and stringy.
Keeping the same pan warm, now add the ground beef and sear until it turns brown.
Once the beef is cooked, add the pureed peanut mixture to the pan. Mix in well.
Now add the dried shrimp and the fish flakes. Stir in.
Finally, add in the spinach leaves, mix them in and bring the whole mixture to a boil. Lower the heat, and let the pot simmer for 15-20 minutes. Keep an eye on the moisture levels, and add a bit more water if you think the mixture is starting to dry out.
Once it’s cooked, season your stew, then transfer to a serving dish and add the shrimp and onions on top. You can serve it with a side of fried plantains, or even just some rice. We think a nice warmed flatbread could be a good option too, to soak up the sauce and all the flavor of the stew.
OUR TAKE ON THE RECIPE
There’s a legend in Cameroon that says a really good ndolé must be dusted with a spell, a magic charm cast by the person making it. Ignorant as we are to the dark arts, we were even more pleased when our ndolé came out shining with no supernatural intervention.
We loved the creaminess of the peanut puree mixed in with the fishiness of the smoked fish and the dried shrimp, which really packed a flavor punch.
Like we already mentioned, we substituted ndolé leaves for spinach, and we opted for smoked milkfish instead of cod. To cut down prep time, we used pre-roasted peanuts, as raw ones would need to be soaked overnight.
Some Cameroonian recipes for Ndolé call for stew cuts of meat rather than ground beef. We decided to go with the latter to shorten cooking time and to more evenly distribute meat around the dish.
If (and most certainly when) we cook this dish again, we’re thinking of experimenting with coconut milk to create a more Asian vibe. There’s a very similar Filipino dish to ndolé called laing, which mixes taro leaves with meat and stews them in coconut cream. But for now, we’re plenty pleased with the traditional recipe too.