African politicians often have a playful turn of phrase. The former president of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, was dubbed 'the cabbage' by his political opponents. There is nothing to suggest that the founding president of Malawi, Hastings Banda, was called 'the kidney bean' by the political opposition but he could’ve been. For banda/bhanda is the word for the kidney bean in the Malawian language of chichewa.
Many culinary cultures vaunt their prowess with the kidney bean; it is of course a prized ingredient in Mexican and Cajun cuisine too. But prepared in the Indian-African manner, as a spicy curry-like stew and served with basmati rice ('bhat', in the Gujarati language of western India), it is wonderful: as warming and satisfying as a chilli, and perfect autumnal food.
The Indian population in Malawi was never as big as in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania or South Africa. Yet there was a small diaspora; like elsewhere in Africa, Indians were brought over by British colonial administrators in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to settle and, amongst other things, construct the first railway line between Malawi and Mozambique. Indians brought with them their cooking as well as their labour, using the African staples they found around them as ingredients in their curries. 'Bhanda and bhat' became a favourite amongst Malawi’s Gujarati diaspora. The term itself -- half Chichewa, half Guajarati -- epitomises the wonderfully mongrel nature of Indian-African food.
While it is most commonly served with rice, there are variations. For black Africans, a less spiced version might be paired with cornmeal mash. My mother’s eldest sister left Malawi when she married and moved to Mozambique. Thanks to the Portuguese influence there she grew up eating bhanda as a ‘sizzler’ – she would spread a little pungent garlic chutney on the bottom of a cast iron (or clay) skillet and bake it in the oven until ferociously hot. Then the kidney bean stew would be spooned on, with home-made potato chips on the side, and then just a little drizzle of vinegar to make the sizzling sound effect. It would be brought to the table like a fizzling firecracker, to the excited whoops and shouts of my cousins and I. It was, to us kids, as thrilling as a Diwali firework display.
This is my mother’s recipe for 'bhanda and bhat'. She always uses dried kidney beans, soaked overnight, but you can substitute tinned if you prefer.
- 1kg dried kidney beans, soaked in a bowl of water overnight, or 5 x 400g tins
- 1 tablespoon sunflower oil
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 ¼ tablespoon cumin seeds
- pinch of asafoetida
- A few curry leaves
- 1 dried red chilli
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- thumb of ginger (about 2 inches), peeled and grated
- 3 cloves of garlic, crushed or grated
- 1 teaspoon each of ground chilli and turmeric
- 1 teaspoon each of salt and mixed ground cumin and coriander
- 1 x 600g bottle of passata, or 1.5 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
- 500 ml water
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon jaggery or sugar
- 400g basmati rice
- 1 teaspoon garam masala
- A big handful of chopped coriander, plus extra to finish
1. If using dried, soaked kidney beans, drain them and discard the soaking water, rinse and put them in a pan covered with fresh, cold water. Bring to the boil and boil rapidly for 10 minutes (this is important to eliminate the toxins in the raw beans), then turn down to a simmer for around 20-30 minutes, until tender.
2. Meanwhile, in a dry pan, toast 1 tablespoon of the cumin seeds until fragrant and then grind in a pestle and mortar. Keep to one side.
3. In a large heavy based pan over a medium heat, warm the oil for a few seconds. Add the mustard seeds and the ¼ tablespoon of cumin seeds, the asafoetida, curry leaves and the dried red chilli. Once the spices start to sizzle and pop add the chopped onion and, when slightly softened, add the ginger and garlic. Fry for about 5 minutes.
4. Add the beans to the pan, along with the cooking liquor (or the liquid from the tins) and all of the remaining ingredients, apart from the roasted and ground cumin, the rice, garam masala and coriander, and let the mixture cook gently for around 20 minutes until it resembles a thick stew.
5. Cook the rice in boiling salted water until just tender and drain (or use a rice cooker).
6. Taste the bhanda and add a little more salt if needed, along with more water if it is becoming dry – the gravy should be loose enough to properly moisten the rice. Finally, add the roasted ground cumin, garam masala and most of the chopped coriander.
7. Serve with rice alongside, the rest of the fresh coriander sprinkled on top, and soothing reassurances to all that there is plenty more for seconds.