“What is it?”, asks a Spoon Licker.
“Does it have a name?”, inquires another.
“Um, yes …it’s called What-have-you,” says I, thinking fast.
“Mommy, I mean, is this a real recipe? Or did you just make it up?”
OK. I did make it up, and that’s a real recipe, in my [cook]book. I gave up following a recipe years ago, about the same time I gave up trying to cook American dishes in Mozambique. There was no eureka moment when I suddenly discovered a latent flair for making something tasty out of unlikely combinations of ingredients. Necessity demanded flexibility, sometimes to the extreme; or more like three cups of necessity and one stick of plain orneriness.
Over the years, a fair share of recipes have circulated within the ex-pat (someone living in a country not their own) community that promise “it will taste just like the real American dish”. It rarely does. But, in a determined attempt to reproduce fish tacos that take your taste buds back to San Diego, or Chicken Delight just like Mom used to make, you head off to the imports grocery store. Your wallet better be fat because you’re going to pay well for this. Once there, you buy a particular kind of cheese at a particular kind of price. (They probably don’t have it so you’ll substitute for the closest thing, which you discover doesn’t melt.) You’ll gape at the sticker on the tiny bag of very special pasta, then notice bitsy black dots scurrying around among the morsels. The bag has been on the shelf for months so the weevils made it their home. Then there are the imported condiments, seasoning packets and box mixes that we depend upon, again, for a price. It took one day to realize I couldn’t afford the just-like-home recipes.
And then there’s the fact that buying on the local economy and inventing my own version of African dishes is simply more fun. Take mahango (millet) flour, for instance. Here in northern Namibia they cook it into a thin porridge, add sugar and it’s a filling energy drink. Or they add less water to the flour, cook it forever until it’s really stiff, then eat it with stew. That’s all fine, but there must be something else I can do with this highly nutritious grain. So, I made a cake. With butter and handfuls of dried fruit that southern Africa is known for. The cake was heavy, rich and filling.
Finally, What-have-you comes to the table because I do not ever, under any circumstance whatsoever (mostly) throw away left-overs. Even a quarter cup of gravy can be just what the soup needed. Most of my inventions happen when I take all the containers with a dab of this and a blob of that out of the fridge, empty them into a pot, add liquid if needed, and gently reheat. The ultimate reward for my culinary gymnastics comes when they ask for seconds, clean up every last bean and say, “Mommy, can you make this again?”
Not a chance.
Back to mahango. After the cake, I tried crackers. And a couple people did ask for the recipe. So I paid attention to what I was doing after about the third batch, and wrote the following instructions. But, if you’re like me, you’ll take a quick look at it and then do your own thing.
1 3/4 cups mahango (millet) flour
3/4 c. white cornmeal
1/2 tsp salt
Stir in evenly:
1 Tbs. coconut oil first, then 1 c. water
Oil generously one shallow sheet pan (1 T. coconut oil ). Spread the batter evenly in the pan, pressing into the corners and sides. Cut in squares. Sprinkle with coarse salt (optional). Bake in a very hot (400F) oven for about 15 minutes. Remove and loosen the crackers from the pan. Return the crackers to the oven, but turn it off. Leave in the oven until it is cool. They should be very dry and very crunchy.