Gabonese Jew Brings Tastes of Africa to Shabbat Table

Recipe: Chicken Mafe, a flavorful West African dish.

Aliya Bertout started an Instagram account to share her culinary creations. (Courtesy)

For most of my life, I’ve been surrounded by Jewish people. I was born in Libreville, the capital of Gabon, in Central Africa, and moved to France at age 10. My best friend growing up in France, who remains my best friend to this day, is Jewish. Later, I was in a relationship with a Jewish man, and that’s when I discovered more about the laws and culture.

After we split, I thought a lot about my own identity and where I’m headed in life. It was 2013, and a friend of mine told me about a community in Paris called Adat Shalom. I went to services on a Friday night and found the community to be really welcoming and vibrant. The dynamic was so powerful and so engaging; it was definitely a new world for me. I decided to attend Torah and Hebrew classes and go through the conversion process.

Judaism brought me a lot of answers to the questions that I had. Everything we go through in life, the people in the Torah went through. I love the fact that we go with the seasons. This cycle allows us to regenerate ourselves. It’s really beautiful. After the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in 2015, I decided to leave France and go to a place where it’s easier to be Jewish. I moved first to Crown Heights, and now I live in Los Angeles.

One of my passions is cooking, and lately I’ve been experimenting with mixing African and Jewish foods. Since the pandemic began, I created an Instagram account to share my creations. Below is the recipe for one of my favorite West African dishes to prepare on Shabbat. Bon appétit!

Chicken Mafe (MAH-fey) à la Bertout

Ingredients

1 chicken, cut into 12 pieces
1 tsilanidimilahy or habanero pepper
½ tsp Korarima Ethiopian cardamom (optional)
2 tsp grains of paradise or black pepper
6 tbsp ginger, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
2 cups vegetable oil
1½ cups raw peanuts or all-natural peanut butter
3 cups onion, chopped
1 tbsp thyme
¼ cup tomato paste
2 cups chicken stock or water
3 medium tomatoes, chopped
¼ green cabbage, chopped into 1-inch cubes
6 medium carrots, chopped into matchsticks
1 sweet potato chopped into 1-inch cubes
1 yuca/cassava chopped into 1-inch cubes (if unavailable use a second sweet potato)
6 okra
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Remove skin from chicken pieces, discard, and place pieces in a bowl. Grind chile pepper, cardamom, and pepper, and add to the bowl along with garlic and ginger. Mix well and let sit 15 minutes.
  2. Heat oil in a large pot on medium-high. Drain the chicken pieces and set the marinade aside. Brown chicken on all sides without cooking all the way through. Keep in mind that the breast pieces will require less time than the legs and thighs.
  3. Set aside the chicken and reserve ½ cup cooking oil for later.
  4. If using whole peanuts, fry them in the oil until golden brown. Spread on a paper towel and drain well. Set aside.
  5. Return the reserved cooking oil to the pot along with the chopped onions and reserved marinade. Sauté on medium until the onions are falling apart.
  6. Add the thyme, salt and pepper, and tomato paste. Sauté a few minutes, stirring regularly, until the oil begins to redden.
  7. Add tomatoes, yuca, and stock and simmer for 15 minutes.
  8. Place the peanuts in a food processor and purée into a chunky butter. Add to the pot and stir for 2-3 minutes to incorporate it thoroughly and it’s smooth.
  9. Add the cabbage, sweet potato, and okra to the sauce and simmer for 10 minutes more.
  10. Add the chicken pieces and cook for 10 minutes more. Incorporate lime juice. Simmer at least 15 minutes before serving.

Aliyah Bertout works as an office manager for a French company. She is also a poet, and at Xenotheque 2020 she read a poem she wrote in her grandmother’s native tongue of Obamba.

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