Sudanese cuisine with Omer Eltigani
and his recipe for agashé

Spices in Sudan

Sudan

When Sudan makes the news, it’s usually to report on its long history of civil war and conflict. However, its vast size and location means that an abundance of cultures and culinary influences combine to create some fantastic dishes, which are relatively unknown. Its position between Saudi Arabia and central and eastern parts of Africa has meant that many West African Muslims traversed the country on their way to Mecca and while some only passed through, others permanently settled. One of the cuisine’s highlights is skewered meat dipped in a feisty mixture of spices and dry-roasted peanuts. This is food writer Omer Eltigani’s favourite snack, and one of the dishes in his forthcoming book ‘The Sudanese Kitchen’.

What was the food that you grew up eating?
“We grew up eating a lot of different things, but there’s one thing that sticks in my head: rugag. They’re a bit like cornflakes, but rather than store-bought you’d get them homemade. They are the same size as cornflakes, but aren’t as bumpy – they’re fully flat. You do eat them in the same way; you can add some milk, sugar or cinnamon. We had them at night though, like a late-night snack. It reminds me of being at home, with my brothers and all my cousins.

“It’s common in Sudan for parents to raise their kids in their parents’ houses. To share a big house with the entire family, rather than have individual families live in separate houses. For us, this changed when my parents (both doctors) found work in London. We relocated when I was 6.

“My mother is a great cook, but she wouldn’t cook anything else but Sudanese food. Salads, potatoes with minced meat and many different stews. A common one was an okra stew, where we as kids wouldn’t actually eat the okra. We just ate the sauce – the okra was too gooey for our liking.”

What made you want to publish a book on Sudanese cuisine?
“It all started as a hobby, really, and I didn’t realise the importance of it until I was in the middle of it. Initially I followed my parents’ path and studied pharmacy, but in university I really missed my mother’s food. I would get tired of student meals or the restaurants around the campus, so I started collecting her recipes and making them. When people found out about this, more and more people wanted these recipes too and I soon realised there was a rather big market for Sudanese cuisine (and knowledge thereof).

“If you looked online, you couldn’t really find any info about Sudanese food back then. I realised that Sudanese food in general hasn’t really been documented or recorded. That’s such a shame for a country as culturally rich as Sudan. Such a valuable part of our culture should be accessible to others in the rest of the world. I found funding for the project and hope to finish the book in the end of 2021.”

What was your most surprising finding?
“Mushrooms are not part of Sudanese cuisine at all, but I discovered a dish in Damazine, in the Blue Nile region of southern Sudan: wild mushrooms cooked in tomato sauce. That was quite unexpected and probably the only or one of the very few mushroom dishes in the country.”

Dried okra

Instagram.com/sudanesekitchen

"A really interesting ingredient that I haven’t found in other cuisines is dried okra."

Omer Eltigani

So which ingredients that are more common do you like to work with?
“Something really interesting that I haven’t found in other cuisines is dried okra. It’s dried and ground into a powder. We use it in a lot of our stews here, and it’s primarily used as a binding agent. When you mix it with liquid in a stew, for example, it thickens the consistency. It doesn’t enhance the flavour, but it allows the texture to be more easily lifted by a piece of bread, for example.

“I love nigella seeds - also called black onion seeds or black cumin - for baking, especially biscuits. They’re very aromatic and lovely in sweet dishes. I also use them in a spicy yoghurt dip called mish. It’s essentially Sudanese white cheese (quite strong and feta-like), mixed with yoghurt, garlic and chillies. It’s just a really good dip.”

And dishes, which ones do you think stand out?
“There’s this dish called fattah dhula. It’s basically a marinated roast lamb shank. It’s usually topped with a tomatoey, garlicky sauce and served on a bed of rice and bread. The rice and bread have been soaked in the broth that the shank has been boiled in. It’s incredibly rich, meaty, carby and filling. Delicious. Especially accompanied by a spicy peanut dip.

“Speaking of peanuts – there are a lot of those in Sudan. The Arabic word for peanuts translates to ‘Sudanese beans’, which just goes to show how common it is here. It’s so good with meats.

“Another dish worth mentioning is rijla. It’s made from purslane, a leaf vegetable a bit similar to spinach. You start with onions, meat and a bit of water to create a broth. You add red lentils and then the finely chopped purslane. It’s cooked together with some tomato paste, garlic and some spices. Purslane is hard to find in London unfortunately, and limited to the spring/early summer as well.”

Sudanese wedding food

Instagram.com/sudanesekitchen

How would you define Sudanese cuisine?
“We like a lot of stews. But otherwise it’s hard to say what’s essential because Sudanese food is a combination of many different cuisines. There are many influences from West Africa, mostly because of pilgrimages to Mecca from the Islamic parts of West Africa. It meant that many Nigerians and Nigeriens, among others, came through Sudan and left their traces. Preservation was a key characteristic of the cuisine that they brought. They made leaf stews for example because the ingredients were easy to carry over long distances.

“That then fused with Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean influences. That meant more mezzes, salads and spices were brought to us by Arab and Persian trading routes. It’s also a cuisine that can be enjoyed by everyone – Sudanese food can easily be made vegan or vegetarian.

“But what I see as typical for our cuisine is the community feeling. We never eat alone, we share all plates, and eating with your hands is a very intimate experience. It’s a beautiful thing that I haven’t really found elsewhere in my travels. Food is a way of life – it’s uniting and it’s about having peace with the people around you. There’s this special intimacy and bond that’s connected between people when they’re having food, and that’s an important part of our culture.”

Sudan has gone through many rough periods, but looked to be on the right track when dictator Omar al-Bashir got overthrown in 2019. How has the country developed since then?
“Not much has happened. It’s worse rather than better. There was a lot of optimism. The economy wasn’t great by any means, but this year [2020 at the time of writing] has been worse and the economy is deteriorating. Corona plays a role in this, but it’s not the only factor. The dollar became extremely expensive and many things in Sudan tripled in cost. The average person finds it difficult to make ends meet.

Pyramids of Meroë

“The government must be doing something, but there hasn’t been a whole deal of development. Real change in Sudan will take decades to accomplish. We’re going to have to hold tight and unfortunately, those on the lower end of the socio-economic ladder will continue to struggle.”

Does this struggle include famine as well?
“I wouldn’t say there’s ‘full famine’. That usually happens when there’s a big drought in a certain area and the food chain has been destabilised. It’s not necessarily that there’s a lack of actual food but the food, like cheap ingredients or easy-to-access foods, has become more expensive. The food is still there, though. Luckily, Sudanese people wouldn’t allow each other to starve. That’s part of our culture and nature, to look out for fellow citizens, especially for those who find it difficult to get by.”

With the risk of extremely simplifying a complicated and long-running conflict: the predominantly Black South split from the Arab north in 2011.
“For me it’s a sad subject; I wish they had never split. In my heart, I wish we could be one country again and I hope this sentiment is shared by the majority of the South Sudanese. They’ve been given the opportunity in a recent referendum, but I think that one was still very much based on the Arab racism that they were experiencing from the previous government, which they had every right to object to. But the majority of the Sudanese people don’t think that way. Especially young people - we’re trying to embrace the idea of the multi-ethnic identity of Sudan. The Arab supremacy that was part of the previous government – we’re hoping to get rid of that in the next generations. I hope we can unite again.

“I would love to travel there but get mixed reviews. Some people say: it’s fine! Others say you might be seen as a fairer skin Sudanese person who’s part of the problem, or part of the reason why South Sudan is not doing well, but I really have faith. There are many South Sudanese here in the capital, because there’s more work and livelihood here than in the South and we get along really well.

“In terms of the cuisine – I’ve tried to research but it’s not my place to do so right now.”

Sudanese sailors sharing a meal.

Hugo Bernatzik, 1930

"what I see as typical for our cuisine is the community feeling. We never eat alone, we share all plates, and eating with your hands is a very intimate experience."

Omer Eltigani

Are there many differences between other Sudanese regions?
“Definitely. They’re mostly based on the geographical make-up of the region or the people that occupy the area. The north is dry with the river Nile running all the way through it, as a life source for the region. Fish is popular for that reason. One dish that I like in particular is called faseekh.

“The fish is caught in the Nile, gutted, cleaned and buried in salt for a few days up to a week. You remove the fish from the salt and are left with cured fish that’s already safe to eat but you then remove the excess salt, and add the fish to a stew based on peanuts, lime and spices. It’s delicious and such a delicacy. But I won’t lie – it does have quite a funk.

“Western Sudan – Dafur – has a history of being a separate sultanate. They had a sultan up until the end of the 18th century when the Brits came. That region has a really rich food culture, because they would provide the sultan with rare delicacies such as different types of prepared meats or special drinks.

Fisherman on the Nile, Sudan

Fisherman on the Nile, Sudan

“They have a dish of dried hibiscus, for which they don’t use the flowers but the leaves. I haven’t found a similar dish elsewhere in the country. Another stew they have is with baobab, which is unusual because we normally use it for a drink, for juice. They get very creative and make stews with it. Quite fascinating.”

If people were to travel to Sudan, where should they go?
“Everywhere! But I would recommend Port Sudan in particular. It’s a city on the Red Sea coast and has some of the world’s best deep-sea and scuba diving. It’s a lovely city with a nice breeze.

“Khartoum, the capital, is not recommended unless you’ve got friends to visit or another good reason to step by. Because of the hardships the country has been going under, a lot of people have been forced to move to the capital – just to survive and make ends meet. That means it’s densely packed, intense and crazy now. It used to be easy-going but now it’s a mess.

“If you like drier, sandier places, I can recommend the north. There are some nice islands on the Nile River – the Kissinger Islands are beautiful. Western Sudan has amazing places too, such as Nyala and Al Fashir. Generally, people are really hospitable. It’s safe to travel here and highly recommended.”

Agashe

The Dish

The dish that you picked is called agashé. What is it?
“Skewers of marinated meat coated in a spicy peanut powder and grilled on the barbecue. It’s very popular as a street food nowadays. It has an interesting history; agashé’s godfather is suya, from Nigeria. Suya came here through Nigeria, Niger and Chad, to eventually end up here in Sudan to become what it is today. It’s slightly different in terms of spices, but the concept is the same – a spicy peanut meat dish. It became our national dish of sorts.”

How do you prepare agashé?
“The traditional way of doing it is actually quite complex. You fire up some coals and arrange the coals in a circle on a bed of sand. You then start placing the skewers, facing upwards but slightly tilted towards the coals so that one side of the skewer is cooking. You essentially make a circle around the coals, and once you’ve come full circle it’s time to turn the first one, to cook the other side. You keep doing this until all of them are cooked. It’s a showpiece really.

“But it’s not necessary, flavour-wise. I’ve tried it both ways, on a barbecue and using the traditional pit, and the taste is the same. It’s not worth the trouble of making this fire pit situation. It looks extremely cool though.”

The Ingredients

Spicemix
500 g
peanuts, ideally dry roast
1 or 2 tbsp
chilli powder
1 tbsp
ground coriander
1 tbsp
garlic powder
1 tbsp
onion powder
1 tbsp
ground ginger
2 tsp
ground cumin
2 tsp
salt
1 tsp
black pepper
1 tsp
allspice
1/2 tsp
ground cinnamon
1/2 tbsp
ground grains of selim (optional)
2 tsp
ground galangal (optional)
1 tsp
nutmeg (optional)
1/2 tsp
ground cardamom (optional)
1/2 tsp
ground cloves (optional)
Agashé
1
lime, juiced
3 or 4 tbsp
vinegar
3 or 4
garlic cloves, crushed
1
fresh green or red chilli, chopped
1 tbsp
salt
2 tbsp
olive oil
1 to 1.5 kg
boneless chicken breasts, cut into 5 cm square pieces
8 to 10
wooden skewers
Side dip
2
limes, juiced
1
onion, finely chopped
4 to 5 tbsp
agashé spice mix
1 tbsp
olive oil
Spicemix
3 cups
peanuts, ideally dry roast
1 or 2 tbsp
chilli powder
1 tbsp
ground coriander
1 tbsp
garlic powder
1 tbsp
onion powder
1 tbsp
ground ginger
2 tsp
ground cumin
2 tsp
salt
1 tsp
black pepper
1 tsp
allspice
1/2 tsp
ground cinnamon
0.5 tbsp
ground grains of selim (optional)
2 tsp
ground galangal (optional)
1 tsp
nutmeg (optional)
1/2 tsp
ground cardamom (optional)
1/2 tsp
ground cloves (optional)
Agashé
1
lime, juiced
3 or 4 tbsp
vinegar
3 or 4
garlic cloves, crushed
1
fresh green or red chilli, chopped
1 tbsp
salt
2 tbsp
olive oil
3 lbs
boneless chicken breasts, cut into 5 cm square pieces
8 to 10
wooden skewers
Side dip
2
limes, juiced
1
onion, finely chopped
4 to 5 tbsp
agashé spice mix
1 tbsp
olive oil

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 2 hours (including marinating) | Yield: 8 to 10 skewers | Category: starter

For the side dip

  1. Mix the ingredients for the side dip and set aside.

For the agashé

  1. Blend the dry roast peanuts into a fine powder using a food processor then transfer into a bowl. Pulse the peanuts on a low setting to keep them a fine powder. If you find the peanut powder to be oily, dry between kitchen towels to remove the excess oil. Add the remaining spices of the agashé spice mix and mix thoroughly. This can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
  2. Pound the chicken strips with a meat tenderiser to about 2 cm/almost 1" thick. Prepare the marinade in a container large enough to fit the chicken in a single layer. Mix lime juice, vinegar, garlic, chilli, salt, and olive oil. Mix the tenderized chicken into the marinade and leave for at least 1 hour.
  3. Soak the wooden meat skewers in water until ready to skewer, this stops them from splitting.
  4. Pour the agashé spice mixture onto a large tray or long plate which can easily hold a few skewers. After marination, skewer 4 to 5 marinated chicken pieces onto each soaked skewer, evenly brush with oil then roll the chicken skewers into the agashé spice mix until evenly covered. Stack to one side for cooking.
  5. Prepare and heat a charcoal barbecue until hot; hold a hand above to check the heat for a second. It should be very hot. Brush the skewers with oil or a non-stock spray once more then place on the charcoal grill and turn the skewers over every 3 to 4 minutes or until golden brown on all sides and cooked throughout, taking between 10 to 15 minutes total per skewer. The spicy peanut layer should be cooked onto the meat which should be dry and crispy on the outside, and soft or medium on the inside.
  6. Serve straight away with the accompanying dip.
< Palestinian Chicken musakhan Peruvian Ceviche >