An expression my mother used to denote a faraway place was “Timbuktu.” It’s strange to think of Timbuktu, on the southern edge of the Sahara in West Africa, as cosmopolitan but in a curious way it is because the potpourri of people there mirrors the rest of Mali, a country with more than 30 ethnic groups and languages. The recent takeover of Timbuktu by Islamic extremists accompanied with the coup d’état against Mali’s fragile democracy has been disheartening. It brought back wonderful memories of my visit in 2005.
The population of Timbuktu is predominantly Songhay and Touareg and the town itself was not only a geographic oasis but an oasis of calm and friendly people. When I was researching my book “Some Like It Hot,” I had come across a famous Songhay dish called tuvasu (or tukasu). I did not know much about the Songhay, who live mostly in neighboring Niger, and all I knew about this dish was that it was a recette difficile mais succulente! (“a difficult recipe, but succulent!”).
Breaking the tourist pattern in Mali
During one of our little pow-wows to plot our daily affairs with Youssouf, our Bambara guide who accompanied my companions David and Steven and me throughout Mali, and Haliss, our Touareg guide in Timbuktu, I inquired about tuvasu.
Youssouf had been pleased that I ate local food, as he called it, without ever a cringe of the nose, as opposed to expecting tourist food as is most common among Western travelers. Haliss said he would have to arrange it, since no local restaurant served it, and restaurants are entirely for tourists in Mali as people are too poor to be eating out. In any case, it’s a dish prepared for special occasions and wouldn’t have appeared on a menu anyway.
Haliss arranged for a local restaurant, the Poulet d’Or, to make it for us. The tuvasu had to be preordered because it takes several hours to prepare. Restaurant was a very fancy name for a hole in the wall that had all the ambiance of an auto body shop. This is where we would have our tuvasu. Poulet d’Or had a dirt floor and consisted of two large rooms with one table in each. The white paint on the walls was chipped. There was one picture on the wall, and the room was lit by one fluorescent bulb and was dusty and dingy. The table was set with glass salad plates and a multicolored tablecloth of red, green, white, and blue strips with little red and yellow squares and dots in the center. We ordered apple soda, a locally produced bottled drink of which we had grown quite fond. We ordered water too, which one always does in the desert. Youssouf and our Dogon driver Siddiqi joined us, though Siddiqi only spoke Dogon and Bambara.
Our hosts first brought out a salad of tomatoes, boiled potatoes, onion slices, fresh chile slices, green bell peppers, and parsley on lettuce, with a creamy vinaigrette dressing. I had no idea if this salad was Songhay, but I suspected not; it seemed French to me, but I didn’t care because I was famished and this was an incredibly good salad and we ate it with Touareg bread.
Finally, a mystery solved
Then came the famously unknown Songhay tuvasu. I had spent the day talking my companions into eating this stuff, convincing them that it was an extraordinary dish and unique and you couldn’t leave Mali without having tried it. I made that all up. Even though I had asked for it with some authority, I actually didn’t have a clue what it was until it arrived at the table. Even then I wasn’t sure what we were about to eat.
Two large platters arrived. In one a mound of very red sauce covered pieces of mutton that had been stewed for many hours in peanut oil, water, tomatoes, onion, and “12 spices” our cook told us. The cook was Songhay and spoke broken Bambara with Youssouf who translated. But the cook didn’t know the names of the spices in Bambara. I never did get exactly what the 12 were, but we did figure out that salt, black pepper, chile powder, aniseed, cinnamon, garlic, cloves, coriander seed, bay leaf, and ground baobab were 10 of them. The mutton ragoût is braised until the liquid is much reduced and saucy and unctuous and glistening a brilliant fire-engine red. I knew from experience that that meant they must have used a lot of tomato paste, maybe up to a half pound. There were also chopped dates and fresh tomatoes and fresh chiles in the ragoût as well.
The other platter contained grapefruit-size spongy bread dumplings with the consistency and texture of angel food cake covered with a little of the sauce. These dumplings were steamed as they sat on top of the mutton in an hermetically sealed cauldron. These huge dumplings were taken out as the mutton continued to cook. We spooned the spicy mutton sauce over the dumplings and ate. There were six of these Pantagruelian dumplings and all five of us very hungry guys could only eat three of them.
The mutton fell off the bone and the sauce and dumplings were very heavy and rib-sticking, but very satisfying. In fact, it was the type of delicious food that you keep shoveling into your mouth long after you’re full. We left more than sated with the fondest memories and hope that Timbuktu returns to its admittedly wacky normalcy.
Top photo: Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali. Credit: iStockphoto.com