#1 Niger: Finishing First in Something

Niger is one of those truly tragic countries. They rank dead last (pun intended) in the 2006 Human Development Index. Also, they remain anonymous to most Westerners, except Joe Wilson and his wife (what was her name?). If most Americans can’t pick Iraq out on a map, good luck having them identify where Niger is (hint: it’s above Nigeria). Niger, thus, has it tragic in two ways: it’s poor and divided on the one hand, and it doesn’t wield any of the star-country-power that the Sudan, Ethiopia or the DRC does.

The flag of Niger is, we believe, indicative of the country's understated nature.

Is it India? Is it Japan? Ireland maybe? No, it's Niger!

Physically, it is neatly landlocked in one of the poorest regions of the world and if that wasn’t enough, it was also blessed with a part of the Sahara desert and a part of the Sahel desert (remember, only one “s” in desert because you want it less than dessert!). This is a country that only the French could have created.

Like most of its neighbors, Niger is home to a wide range of ethnic groups slapped together during the colonial era. The Hausa are the largest ethnic group, representing more than half of the total population. The Djerma (also, Zerma, Zarma and a sub-grouping of the Sonhai) are the second largest ethnic group representing about a quarter of the total of the population. The remaining 25% are nomads or Arabs.

The dominant ethnic group in Niger, the Hausa, has a much larger representation in Nigeria (about four times as large). The Djerma, on the other hand, are most heavily represented in Niger, though they still remain the minority. Thus, one ethnic group, the Hausa, is the little brother to the Hausa in Nigeria, while the other ethnic group, the Djerma, is perpetually the minority.

Thus, the idea of “Niger” becomes problematic. It is hard to imagine any strong sense of nationalism emerging within the country, and even harder to imagine that nationalism being embodied in a national dish. There is no American apple pie, no Vietnamese pho bo, and no Scottish haggis. We are left with distinct ethnic identities and no national identity. We are left with the remnants of colonialism.

This identity-group potpourri made choosing dishes to cook from Niger simple: one Hausa, one Djerma and one nomadic (we chose the Tuareg). We made Hausa kabobs (Suya), Djerma stew and Tuareg sand-biscuits (they’re actually called taguella). To drink: the only thing to tie these three disparate identity groups together, a French Chateau Le Pey.

Oh, and for dessert: yellow-cake.

Hausa Suya

We found the Suya recipe in the online “Congo Cookbook” which notes that they are a delicacy in Nigeria. Attempting to represent Niger through food, this might have been a problem. However, because it is a recipe that is explicitly of the Hausa ethnic group, we believed it would be appropriate to adopt for our purposes.


A generous handful of roasted peanuts, crushed
A teabags worth of cayenne pepper
Half a teabag worth of powdered ginger
A thimble of salt
A couple of cloves of garlic
A pound and a half of meat cut into chunks the size of a walnut
A couple of plump, but firm tomatoes
One large yellow onion


Kabob sticks
A blunt object (or mortar and pestle)
Heat source


Taking any blunt and heavy object and crush the peanuts as finely as possible. We used a meat tenderizer which worked well. The meat tenderizer would have also been useful for the very tough stew meat that we used for these kabobs. We would highly suggest buying a better cut of meat (unless you are really into well defined jaw muscles). Mix the crushed peanuts with the dry spices and toss, roll, rub or otherwise coat the meat. Cut the tomatoes and onions into kabob-friendly chunks and alternate them with the meat on a set of skewers. We got the Suya on the grill just as the sun was setting (nothing like after dark grilling), but when they came off of the fire and into the light we discovered that many weren’t done. We ate those that were cooked well, and finished the rest under the broiler in the kitchen.

Djerma Stew

We owe our stew recipe to the fine work of the American missionary team working with the Djerma people in Niger. We’re sure it will be a comfort for them to know that even if they prove unable to bring the light of God to the Muslim Djerma, they have spread the palate of the heathen near and far through the power of the Internet tubes. It’s nice to know what those who are going to hell like to eat.


Half an onion, chopped
A small amount of oil
4 to 5 cloves of garlic, minced
A small jar of diced tomatoes
A couple of pinches of dried thyme
A palm full of curry powder
3 bullion cubes
A glob of peanut butter the size of a tea cup


A pot
A heat source
A spoon


Heat the oil in a pot, we used a heavy dutch oven. Cook the onions and garlic until translucent. Throw in the tomatoes, the thyme, the curry powder, the bullion cubes and enough water to give it a soupy consistency. This was originally a meat stew, but we discarded the meat, added chopped up carrots, potatoes and sweet potatoes and made it a vegetable dish. Once the veggies were tender we removed a cup of liquid from the stew and mixed in the peanut butter. This was then added to the stew and simmered until thick.

Serve hot in bowls. Serve accompanied with utensils.

Tuareg Sand-Biscuits (Taguella)

We did not approach looking for recipes from nomadic groups living within Niger with much hope. Actually, we believed the whole endeavor was hopeless. However, after fully underestimating the efficacy of our Public Broadcasting Service, we stumbled across a very hip looking website that provided detailed instructions as to how one could make Tuareg Taguella.

The website offers helpful tips for making sand-biscuits and offers this explanation of Tuareg eating habits:

Tuareg cuisine is as austere as its desert surroundings. Meat is a rarity. Milk and milk products from camels and goats are the norm. Camel’s milk with dried dates or a millet porridge with a butter sauce are typical dishes. Couscous is reserved for special occasions.

One of the most popular Tuareg foods is taguella, a thick crèpe eaten with a sauce of butter or dried tomatoes and onions. It is usually served with green tea.

Yum. A thick crèpe. We thought these nomads had a good thing and we were excited to begin our exploration into the Heart of Culinary Darkness.

The instructions from PBS continued:

2.2 lbs. of millet flour, coarsely sifted
Roughly 9 oz. of water
Large pinch of salt
Large enamel bowl

The webpage continues with instructions for how to create this desert crèpe, including such culinary mainstays as:

Dig a low, shallow hole in the desert. Build a low fire from wood and charcoal in the hole.

Scrape the surface with a plant stalk hot from the fire to keep the surface clean from sand.

To check the dough’s temperature, poke it with a stick.

To get rid of the sand, shake the bread or sprinkle it with water.

My favorite line was the one about the stick.

We generally followed the instructions provided by PBS, but altered them to suit a non-desert climate.


A 2 lb bag of millet flour.
A jar full of water
A large pinch of salt


A bowl
A shovel
Hard wood charcoal
A charcoal chimney
A stick
A flame source


We dug a hole in the back yard, just large enough to burry a number of small creatures side by side. It took about 5 shovels of dirt to make the hole adequately large. We then bought two bags of sand from the Home Despot Depot. Place both bags in the hole and dig out a space for burning charcoal.

You have now transformed a part of your back yard into the Sahel desert. Be sure to carry adequate water.

Next, get your hard wood charcoal burning, but don’t use any lighter fluid. We used a charcoal chimney, which works by starting a newspaper fire under the charcoal that eventually creates a lovely bed of burning embers.

Place the embers in your miniature Sahel desert. Let them burn for a bit. This is a good time to escape the rigors of the desert and step back inside your home to create the Taguella.

Place the millet flour into a bowl. Good luck finding millet flour. We live in a major US city and found only one store that carried the product. Mix the flour with the water and the salt until it forms dough. The consistency of the dough is much coarser than dough made with wheat flour. The millet dough also tends to tear and break apart easily.

Form the dough into disks the width of a large coaster and the height of the first two joints of your pinky. From our 2 lbs of dough, we formed five disks. Let these sit for a bit, as they tend to solidify slightly with time as water evaporates.

Leave the comfort of your home and venture back out into the desert. Once there, situate a stick above the fire so that it can get quite hot. Also, maneuver your embers so that they form a large, flat bed, with many embers on the side to pile on top of your sand-biscuits.

Once your stick is hot and your embers are ready, place your sand-biscuits on the embers. The PBS instructions said to scald the tops of the biscuits with the hot stick to keep sand from sticking to them. We did this with much success, though it seemed ridiculous at the time. After charring the tops of our biscuits with the stick, we covered them with the remaining embers.

Next, sit back and wait. They took about 15-20 minutes to cook and we followed the PBS instructions and poked them with a stick (the same stick) to see when they were adequately firm.

Remove them from the fire when they are firm and place them on a serving dish. Serve warm with stew, kabobs and French wine.


For desert, enjoy this simple Yellow-Cake recipe.


*Note: Rachel did not participate in this review. She also took the camera to her friend's wedding not understanding the full importance of this food experiment.

The kabobs were excellent and the rub was a culinary revelation. We would cook them again in a heartbeat using the same seasoning along with the tomatoes and onions. The only thing we would change would be the use of stew meat. While the meat was purchased with good intention, stew meat is not designed for barbequing and it was insufferably tough. Additionally, the cooking of the kabobs was not entirely consistent as it happened in complete darkness.

Score: 3.5 Globes
We give the kabobs 3.5 Globes, the lower score resulting from tough meat and inconsistent barbequing. This dish could easily merit a much higher score with a better cut of meat and better cooking.

The stew was also quite good. It was nicely creamy and the peanut flavor was not overpowering. Also, if seasoned correctly, the thyme, curry and cayenne created a savory/spicy blend that was very satisfying. It would be a bit boring as a stand-alone dish, but worked nicely alongside the spicy kabobs.

Score: 3 Globes
We give the stew 3 Globes. While it was unexciting, it did have a very nice, creamy texture and flavor that nicely complemented the kabobs.

The sand biscuits were appalling. We brought them inside when they were warm, just off the fire. They looked tolerable and we thought they might have too much of a smoky, charred flavor, but we were wrong. They had a very subtle smoky flavor which was tolerable, but the texture was simply awful. They tasted like a warm, slightly hardened mixture of baking powder and chalk. They crumbled into powder when you bit into them and it took a lot of effort to actually work up a sufficient amount of saliva to allow them to go down the hatch. I don’t know if we cooked them incorrectly or what, but the product that came out of our miniature version of the Sahel was just bad.

Surprisingly, if you look back at the PBS website, the dish was given a full 4 stars out of 5. We speculated that the 15 Tuareg members with computers and a wifi connection were spamming the site to artificially boost the rating.

Interestingly, the stick method for burning the tops of the biscuits was very effective.

Score: ½ Globe I give the Taureg Sand-Biscuits a ½ Globe because they were inedible. No wonder millet flour is so hard to find.

In the end, I believe that we did a good job of representing the country of Niger through food and drink. The Hausa, Djerma and Tuareg dishes were all nicely tied together by the French wine. Onto another country and a brief respite from West Africa.

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