My Citizens, I had originally planned out a series of 6 posts spanning the length and breadth of the African continent in this latest themed run of recipes here on TFD – but fate had other plans! One of My oldest friends is Sergeant First Class Mike M., a dear friend going back almost 40 years to when we were mutual actors in our High School troupe! 😀
Mike is a straight shooter – both literally AND figuratively, having served his whole career in the U.S. Army – and was in fact stationed all over the world! When he found out I was planning this African series, he reminded Me that he was once posted to the East African country of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and that I NEEDED to share this recipe!
I am, of course, honor-bound to address this petition, and was in fact horrified to realize I have in fact MISSED posting a recipe from this very ancient and proud country. As such, I have expanded my series to a total of 7, and am beyond excited to share this delicious recipe that Mike has been raving about…but first, some history of Djibouti!
Djibouti, (officially the Republic of Djibouti), is a country in the Horn of Africa, bordered by Somalia to the south, Ethiopia to the southwest, Eritrea in the north, and the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to the east. The country has an area of 23,200 km2 (8,958 sq mi). In antiquity, the territory (with Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somaliland), was part of the Land of Punt.
Nearby Zeila, now in Somaliland, was the seat of the medieval Adal and Ifat Sultanates. In the late 19th century, the colony of French Somaliland was established following treaties signed by the ruling Dir Somali sultans with the French. It was renamed the French Territory of the Afars and the Issas in 1967.
A decade later, the Djiboutian people voted for independence. This officially marked the establishment of the Republic of Djibouti, named after its capital city. The new state joined the United Nations, but in the early 1990s, tensions over government representation led to armed conflict, ending in a power-sharing agreement in 2000.
Djibouti’s strategic location by the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which separates the Gulf of Aden from the Red Sea and controls the approaches to the Suez Canal, has made it a VERY desirable location for foreign military bases. Djibouti is near some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, controlling access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.
It serves as a key refueling and trans-shipment center, and the principal maritime port for imports from and exports to neighboring Ethiopia. A burgeoning commercial hub, the nation is the site of various foreign military bases (which is one of the reasons why Mike was actually stationed there).
Camp Lemonnier was abandoned by the French and later leased to the United States Central Command in September 2002. The lease was renewed in 2014 for another 20 years. The country also hosts the only overseas Chinese support base and the only overseas Japanese military base. The Italians also have a key supply base located in Djibouti.
The hosting of foreign military bases is in point-of-fact an important part of Djibouti’s economy. The United States pays $63 million a year to rent Camp Lemonnier, France and Japan each pay about $30 million a year, and China pays $20 million a year. The lease payments added up to more than 5% of Djibouti’s GDP of US$2.3 billion in 2017.
Beyond its strategic importance, Djibouti is a multi-ethnic nation with a population of over 920,000 (the smallest in mainland Africa). French and Arabic are the country’s two official languages, Afar and Somali are national languages. About 94% adhere to Islam, which is the official religion and has been predominant in the region for 1000+ years.
The Somalis and Afar make up the two largest ethnic groups, with the former comprising the majority of the population. Both speak a language of the Cushitic branch of the Afroasiatic languages. The country is named for its capital, the City of Djibouti.
The etymology of the name is disputed and several theories and legends exist regarding its origin, varying based on ethnicity. One theory derives it from the Afar word ‘gabouti’, meaning ‘plate’, possibly referring to the geographical features of the area.
Another connects it to ‘gabood’, meaning ‘upland/plateau. Djibouti could also mean ‘Land of Tehuti’ or ‘Land of Thoth’ (Egyptian: Djehuti/ Djehuty), after the Egyptian God of writing and magic (this, for the record, is what the Egyptologist-oriented historian that ALONE is TFD believes to be the actual origin story for the name!).
The Djibouti area has been inhabited continuously since the Neolithic period and even earlier. According to linguists, the first Afroasiatic-speaking populations lived here and scholars propose that the Afroasiatic language family in fact developed in the area comprising modern-day Djibouti, with its speakers subsequently dispersing from there.
Cut stones dated about 3 million years old have been collected in the area of Lake Abbe. In the Gobaad plain (between Dikhil and Lake Abbe), the remains of a Palaeoloxodon recki elephant were also discovered, visibly butchered using basalt tools found nearby. These remains date from approximately 1.4 million years BCE!!!
Up to 4000 BCE, the region benefited from a climate very different from the one it knows today and probably close to the Mediterranean climate. The water resources were numerous with lakes in Gobaad, lakes Assal and Abbé larger and resembling real bodies of water. The humans therefore lived by gathering, fishing and hunting.
The region was populated by a very rich range of fauna: felines, buffaloes, elephants, rhinos, etc., as evidenced, for example, by the bestiary of cave paintings at Balho. In the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE, nomads settled around the lakes and practiced both fishing and cattle breeding.
By 1500 BCE, the climate was already beginning to change, with sources of fresh water becoming more scarce. Engravings show dromedaries (animal of arid zones), some of which are ridden by armed warriors. The sedentary people now returned to a nomadic life.
Together with northern Ethiopia, Somaliland, Eritrea and the Red Sea coast of Sudan, Djibouti is considered the most likely location of the territory known to the Ancient Egyptians as Punt (or Ta Netjeru, meaning ‘God’s Land’). The first mention of the Land of Punt dates to the 25th century BCE.
The Puntites were a nation of people who had close relations with Ancient Egypt during the reign of the 5th dynasty Pharaoh Sahure and the 18th dynasty Queen Hatshepsut. According to the temple murals at Deir el-Bahari, the Land of Punt was ruled at that time by King Parahu and Queen Ati.
Needless to say – this place has some SERIOUS history behind it, and quite a bit of culture as well!
A lot of Djibouti’s original art is passed on and preserved orally, mainly through song. Many examples of Islamic, Ottoman, and French influences can also be noted in the local buildings, which contain plasterwork, carefully constructed motifs, and calligraphy.
Djibouti has a long tradition of poetry. Several well-developed Somali forms of verse include the gabay, jiifto, geeraar, wiglo, ‘buraanbur, beercade, afarey and guuraw. The gabay (epic poem) has the most complex length and meter, often exceeding 100 lines.
It is considered the mark of poetic attainment when a young poet is able to compose such verse, and is regarded as the height of poetry. Groups of memorizers and reciters (hafidayaal) traditionally propagated the well-developed art form.
Poems revolve around several main themes, including baroorodiiq (elegy), amaan (praise), jacayl (romance), guhaadin (diatribe), digasho (gloating) and guubaabo (guidance). The baroorodiiq is composed to commemorate the death of a prominent poet or figure.
The Afar are familiar with the ginnili, a kind of warrior-poet and diviner, and have a rich oral tradition of folk stories. They also have an extensive repertoire of battle songs.
Additionally, Djibouti has a long tradition of Islamic literature. Among the most prominent historical works is the medieval Futuh Al-Habash by Shihāb al-Dīn, which chronicles the Adal Sultanate army’s conquest of Abyssinia during the 16th century. In recent years, politicians and intellectuals have all penned reflections on the country.
Djiboutian cuisine is a mixture of Somali, Afar, Yemeni, and French cuisine, with some additional South Asian (especially Indian) culinary influences. The Yemeni influence is particularly strong, as it is very close by – just across the Bab al-Manda strait in fact!
As such, grilled Yemeni fish, known as mukbasa (today’s recipe, in fact!), which are opened in half and often cooked in tandoori-style ovens, are a local delicacy. Spicy dishes come in many variations, from the traditional fah-fah or soupe djiboutienne (spicy boiled beef soup), to the yetakelt wet (spicy mixed vegetable stew).
Mukbasa is extremely popular in the country, as this picture of one of Djibouti’s most popular restaurants (which specializes in mukbasa) amply demonstrates! FYI – the use of red henna dye in the beard is very common amongst older men in the horn of Africa – they believe that the Prophet Muhammad dyed his beard red to cover up grey hairs!
As noted in this excellent (excerpted) article from africanews.com:
“It’s a recipe imported from Yemen that we adopted, and it is part of our eating habits,” Abu Bakr Musa, a former TV presenter, said while waiting for his plate. Restaurant owner Omar Hamdani attributes his restaurant’s continued popularity to his grandfather’s “world-famous” recipe, nearly a century after he emigrated to Djibouti from Yemen.
Not much has changed in Shi Hamdani since then, except for the addition of a second floor. Its walls are decorated with traditional ceramics, and there is a small dining hall for women who like to eat alone. Yemenis are the third largest ethnic group in Djibouti; migration and trade between the two countries have existed for thousands of years.
But in recent years, their shared history has taken a tragic turn as thousands of Yemenis cross the Bab al-Mandab Strait in search of sanctuary in Djibouti, escaping the war that has wracked their country since 2014.
After fleeing from Sanaa (TFD note – this is Yemen’s capital city) to Djibouti, Amin, 45, said: “When I am in this restaurant, I eat in it surrounded by my countrymen, I feel fine, because everything I had in Yemen is here.”
Making mukbasa is actually not all that difficult, and the flavors are beyond vibrant – ranging from spicy (both in heat and flavor) aa well as sweet and smoky from the use of hardwood grilling at high heat to cook the fish. Once you have tried My especial blend of Yemeni hawaij (spice) for fish, you will indeed swoon at the sheer sorcery of My spice skill!
The French influence is seen strongly in the use of both olive AND walnut oil to flavor the fish, while the Horn of Africa is amply evident in the use of injera (the Ethiopian fermented pancake/bread) to flavor the banana puree that is a hallmark side dish of mukbasa (and is also the NAME of that side dish as well!). India brings in the chapati!
You will need a few unique spices to make this dish, but fear not – they are just variants of spices you already have in your pantry! For example, I spec the true Indian coriander seed, which is football-shaped as opposed to spherical and is FAR more flavorful than its North African cousin. You can buy it from Amazon here, plus Maldon sea salt here.
I also prefer to use Ethiopian wild turmeric as it has a far more intense flavor – you can grab it from here. A little fruity, sweet and hot Aleppo pepper flakes are apropos for this regional recipe and can be easily purchased from here. Hickory wood chips are a necessity if made outdoors, or you can just use hickory liquid smoke if making it inside.
Citizens, I really owe Mike for bringing this fantastic mukbasa recipe to My attention, so that I can thus share it with the entirety of the 50,000+ members of TFD Nation! I, the Supreme Leader of those who name themselves gastronomic revolutionaries, urge you to pass beyond the limits of food mundanity to this next dimension of flavor!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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