Kathryn, one of our Gambian Experts, reviews her experience of 'Cooking With Ida', a popular excursion which offers a great insight into Gambian life.
One of my favourite excursions on offer in The Gambia has to be 'Cooking with Ida'. in fact I loved it so much the first time I've done it twice.
Our host, Ida Cham-Njie, originally from The Gambia, studied hotel tourism and catering management in Twickenham in the UK before returning to her homeland in 1989. After working at a number of hotels including the Senegambia Hotel and Mandina Lodges at Makasutu, she started running cookery courses from her home in Brufut with the desire to preserve and promote her culture.
Here's my experience of a morning...
Cooking with Ida
On arrival at Ida's home the first thing we do is to pick out some colourful clothes from a rail of traditional outfits. I have always found Gambians love to see visitors embrace their culture in this way so I too select a beautiful bright green ensemble, including a matching head wrap that Ida helps me tie in a traditional fashion.
Tanji Fishing Village
Then we are off to market...
Few people in The Gambia have access to electricity let alone a fridge so it is common for women to shop at least once a day at the local market. We go to Tanji fish market where all our senses are overloaded with the sights, sounds and smells. Women buy and sell the fish, while the men bring in the latest catch in their colourful pirogues, the traditional painted wooden boats. Ida selects the freshest looking fish and decides based on this what we are going to cook that day. She picks out a john dory fish and a red snapper to make fish benachin, a popular local dish you'll see on many menus.
Benachin, which is usually fish based can also be cooked with chicken, literally means one pot. Ida leaves the fish with the sellers to scale and gut while we look for the other ingredients we will need including tomatoes, carrots, spring onions, sweet potatoes, onions, aubergine, cassava, bitter tomatoes and butternut squash.
Back in Ida’s courtyard we grab a seat and gather round to prepare the vegetables, many of which are left whole rather than chopped so that they are easy to scoop out and place on top of the finished dish for serving. Others are pounded together in a large wooden bowl. A smaller bowl and a gourd are used to mash up the chillies and garlic which will be used to make a chilli sauce. This would normally go into the main dish but as some of us may not be used to spicy food it is prepared as a separate sauce. The vegetables are cooked in a large pot over a charcoal fire and as the pot is stirred a delicious aroma fills the air but we are told it will take 2 ½ hours before it is ready.
While we wait Ida teaches us the traditional game of wuri bringing out the competitive streak in all of us and before you know it we have a mini wuri tournament taking place. Sitting in the dappled shade of Ida’s courtyard I feel quite envious of this out door life style.
Dinner is served
Our tummies are rumbling as we all sit down on a rug in the courtyard. As is the tradition we are not given plates but all eat out of a communal bowl, which looks and smells delightful. We have no skill at rolling the food into small balls with our fingers as the locals would so I’m pleased to say we were allowed spoons. I think the verdict is unanimous. Fish benachin is delicious.
This Home Cookery Course costs £45 per person and runs Mondays throughout the year and also on Thursdays during winter, although it may not be available during Ramadan.
Also available is the new excursion 'Come Dine with Ida' - an evening of Gambian food and entertainment which costs £30 per person.
This is a fabulous way to get to know Gambian culture. Not only is Ida a great cook, she's great company too and throughout the day she will no doubt share with you many interesting anecdotes about Gambian life.