Traditional Bozo Recipe for African Catfish
The Slow Food Akadi Convivium in Mali has sent us a traditional Bozo recipe from the village of Sorme. The Bozo are a West African ethnic group, living mostly in Mali along the Niger River and its tributary, the Bani. The ancient origins of the Bozo are thought to date back to the Neolithic period. The Bozo are famous for their fishing, and spend most of the day on the river in pirogues. Their totem animal is the bull: The body represents the river and the horns represent the fishing pirogues. The Bozo people are linked to the Dogon ethnic group, and while the groups never intermarry and constantly make jokes about each other, they traditionally help each other in times of need.
A Legend from Mali
Sorme is a village in the Mopti region of Mali. Katio Ganè Tiawo was the first Bozo inhabitant of Sorme to start fishing. With supernatural powers he had inherited from his parents, he struck up close relationships with the demons of the water that flowed from the village of Coundou Badjé down to Sorme. Thanks to this close alliance with the water spirits, he became very powerful, earning the nickname Tiawo, meaning hippopotamus. He conquered all the Bozo fishermen in the area, finally becoming master of the waters. Nothing could be fished without Tiawo’s authorization. All the fishers had to take an oath, promising to set aside part of their catchfor the master of the waters and his descendants. To this day all the Bozo fishers in the area from Coundou Badjé to Sorme respect the oath their ancestors made to Tiawo, believing that otherwise they risk being cursed with poor fishing, disease and early death.
1. The Fish
- common name: African catfish (Clarias gariepinus)
- local name: manogo (in Bambara)
- characteristics: omnivorous freshwater fish, native to the Nile and Niger rivers, the African catfish has been introduced to almost all of Africa (with the exception of the Maghreb) and to Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
The meaty fish can reach up to a meter long and it is caught and eaten in large quantities in West Africa. The catfish reproduces during the rainy season, between June and December, in the flooded river deltas. It should not be fished nor bought if it is not at least 60 centimeters long.
When smoked, the fish is called tiécouroulien in Mali, literally “curved man,” because of its shape. According to ancient belief, anyone who eats unsmoked catfish, regularly drinks fresh milk and sleeps in moonlight will get leprosy. This explains why the Fula and Songhai people (bearing in mind how they live) historically would not eat catfish, and still today these ethnic groups are not very fond of the fish.
The catfish are traditionally caught by women and children towards the end of the rainy season, as the waters are gradually starting to recede (October).
2. The Recipe
- ½ tsp baking soda (sodium bicarbonate)
- 700 g (1½ lb) fresh catfish fillets (or any meaty, freshwater fish fillets)
- 1 tsp ground sumbala (strongly scented spice used in West Africa, usually made from néré seeds)
- 1 tsp dried chili flakes
- 350 g (12½ oz) millet flour
- Put ½ liter (2 cups) of water in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
- Dissolve the baking soda in 250 ml (1 cup) of cold water and use the solution to wash the catfish to remove any stickiness.
- Rinse the fish several times and cut it into large chunks.
- Place the fish in the boiling water along with a pinch of salt, the sumbala and the chili flakes.
- Leave to cook for 15 minutes over medium heat.
- Place the millet flour in a gourd or a bowl and slowly begin adding water (about 8-10 tablespoons in total) while mixing until a dough is formed.
- Shape the dough into small balls.
- Add the balls to the pan with the fish, and adjust salt to taste.
- Leave to cook over very low heat for 15-20 minutes.
- Check that the dumplings are cooked and adjust the salt.
Note: The cooking water should not completely evaporate, so the fish chunks do not fall apart and so the remaining cooking liquid serves as a sauce.