James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

Home is Where the Deep Fried‑Rice Flour and Mashed Bananas Are

Home is Where the Deep Fried‑Rice Flour and Mashed Bananas Are

Rice Akara in Freetown

Rice, in all its variations, is the foundation of the Sierra Leonean diet. Even when we are not eating a cooked rice dish, we find numerous other ways to sneak rice into our meals.

Cook rice flour balls, sugar and water, and you have rice pap, a popular breakfast porridge. Add rice flour to mashed bananas, mix with oil and nutmeg, and bake over hot charcoal—delicious rice bread. Add rice flour to overripe mashed bananas, mix with nutmeg and sugar, deep-fry, and voila, my breakfast favorite—rice akara.

Recently, on a rainy Saturday morning, my mother decided to make some for breakfast. This was part of her bid to get me to fall in love in with my country again since I moved back two years ago, through the medium of our often oily, fatty, spicy but mostly delicious local cuisine. I prefer falling in love with Sierra Leone again by spending most of my sunny days on the pristine beaches around the Freetown Peninsula. But so far, my mother’s plan is working.

Preparing rice akara is quick, with only a few ingredients. The rice flour is mixed with overripe bananas (the more overripe, the sweeter the result, but they shouldn’t be at the point of rotting), nutmeg, a pinch of salt, many spoonfuls of sugar—all whipped into a creamy, soft, dripping consistency, and then left in the bowl for about 20 minutes.

Cooking oil is heated. The key is to wait till the oil is so hot that smoke starts to rise from it (stay a few steps away from the frying pan) before scooping little balls from the paste and placing them into the oil. The balls are deep fried until golden brown, and then placed on old newspapers for the oil to drain.

If you’re looking for a healthy breakfast recipe, this is not it. This is pure Sierra Leonean deep-fried comfort goodness.

I was ready to take a bite in when the akara balls were fried—but it wasn’t time yet. Not until the peppery red stew that usually comes with akara is done. This stew is made with tomatoes, spices, tomato paste, onions, and hot peppers, preferably the ones from neighbouring Guinea, called Neneh Koro. Usually, there’s fried fish on the side, to go with the rice akara balls and the stew.

Sometimes fula bread (high in yeast and calories) is added to the mix if there’s enough space. The combination of the three is usually called fry-fry and, is what I call breakfast hustle food. Breakfast hustle food is often washed down with fresh cold ginger beer—the more fiery, the better. The combined zing gets you up and going—great for mornings.

That rainy morning, as I bit into the soft akara balls, fresh fula bread, the crunchy fish and the zesty stew, I was reminded why I love Sierra Leonean cuisine so much, and was thankful to be home.

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