Like the French who colonized the Ivory Coast, residents of this cosmopolitan West African country take eating extremely seriously. And nowhere is the favored pastime practiced better as an art than in the maquis, the open-air cafes that are like a marriage between a Parisian bistro and an African village kitchen.
Many a friendship and business deal have been hatched in their informal open-air terraces, where diners eat and catch the breezes after a sweltering humid day.
Scattered along the big boulevards of modern office blocks and residential side streets, the cafes cook up dishes that are a meeting of both worlds. They serve French-style fried potatoes and crusty baguettes, flavorful rice dishes resembling paella, and stews that could be from Provence but for the ingredients - palm oil, bush rat, cassava, and plantains.
The maquis is more than just a restaurant, it is a lifestyle. Ivorians like to dine out in the evening. Even those who earn low salaries will frequent their local cafe.
"People like coming here because it is a place to relax after work, and they can stay a long time," says Ken Kouasse, owner of the Maquis de Senat located on a busy boulevard. "Everyone comes - diplomats, businessmen, ordinary people. The food is traditional, cheap, and good."
On the high end, maquis deviate from the traditional menu, with heavy French cream sauces and steaks. The more modest ones are sometimes little more than a collection of plastic benches and tables spilling out onto the sidewalk. A bar of soap and water is brought to the table in a plastic bucket from the outdoor tap so diners can wash their hands.
The most popular dishes are the most simple ones: chicken or fish grilled over hot coals and then topped with sauteed tomatoes and onions.
The hearty fare always features Kedgenou, a stew cooked slowly over low heat that could be called the national dish of the Ivory Coast. It is made with snails, fish, guinea fowl, or chicken, depending on one's tastes and what is available in the market that day.
Jollof rice, another West African delicacy, is like a paella with various meats and vegetables mixed into savory rice. Also popular are chicken in groundnut (peanut) soup, Thcep (Senegalese fried rice) and Chicken Yassa, a poultry dish from Senegal, which can also be made with guinea hen.
No meat dish would be complete without some sort of starch to soak up the sauce. Favorites are couscous made from cassava or Foutou, a sort of porridge concocted from ground cassava or plantain and molded into a ball. It is the staple for people across West Africa. Alloco - deep-fried plantain chopped into bite-size pieces - and frites (French fries) go especially well with grilled brochettes.
The custom is to have soup at lunch and a more substantial meal in the evening. Soup, however, can be an elaborate dish, involving snails, eggplant, or the beaver-like bush rat.
Dessert is generally simple - fresh fruits such as pineapple, mango, sweet bananas, or oranges.
Maquis traditionally serve only midday and evening meals but some are now beginning to open early for breakfast - including croissants and pastries made from the rich chocolate that's grown in the area.
Mr. Kouasse says he personally does not choose what will be on the day's menu, leaving the decision instead to the platoon of women toiling in the steaming kitchen who go to the market daily to seek what is fresh.
Maquis owners say business started out slowly but has grown immeasurably during the past decade as standards improved. A new professionalism has set in, widening the net of clientele to people who only used to go to restaurants.
Kouasse, who started his business three years ago, says popularity of his cafe led him to open a second one down the road. On a busy evening, he somehow fits 150 people, many spilling out into the pavement.
The clientele is an eclectic mix of family, friends, and the well-heeled bourgeoisie dressed in the latest Parisian fashions. Some drop by everyday, just to touch base.
Kouasse said he is contemplating varying the menu a bit and expanding the repertoire, but it will be carefully thought out.
"We do not and will not serve hamburgers," he says emphatically. "The maquis are for traditional dishes and should stay that way."
(Traditional Ivory Coast stew)
1 whole chicken, chopped into pieces, including giblets (or buy chicken already cut up)
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of 1 lemon
1 red cayenne pepper, chopped (or 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper)
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium onions, minced
4 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped
Rub the chicken with the salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Place chicken, remaining juice, and other ingredients in a terra cotta cooker or casserole dish, covering tightly to prevent steam from coming out. Do not add water; ingredients should stew in their own juices. Cook over medium-high heat until it reaches a boil and then cook for about half an hour over low heat. Serve with foutou (see recipe below) or rice.
This starchy mash accompanies stews and heavy gravies. It is usually made with yams, cassava, or plantains. Jessica Harris in her book "Iron Pots and Wooden Spoons" (Atheneum, 1989) recommends using the white potato as a substitute.
6 large white potatoes, peeled
3 tablespoons rice flour, sifted
Salt and black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon warm water
Boil the potatoes until tender, then drain and mash them. Stir in the rice flour, salt and pepper, whipping the potatoes until the mixture is smooth and the rice flour and seasonings are evenly distributed throughout. You may have to add a bit of warm water to make the mixture smooth. Serves 4 to 6.
There are many variations of this paella-like dish served across West Africa with all types of meat. The Africa News Cookbook (edited by Tami Hultman, Penguin, London, 1985) recommends the following version:
3 large peeled and mashed tomatoes
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 large onions, one chopped, one sliced
1/4 cup peanut oil
1 chile pepper or 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 pound lamb, cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and pepper to taste
2 cups of vegetables - carrots, green pepper, chopped string beans, or peas
1 cup dry rice, cooked
Combine the tomatoes and tomato paste and set aside. Saute the sliced onion with 1 tablespoon oil until brown (about 3 minutes). Blend the sliced onion and chile in a blender or food processor until it forms a paste. Set aside. In a heavy skillet over medium heat, fry chopped onion in remaining oil until golden. Add garlic, then meat, stirring frequently until cubes are browned on all sides. Reduce heat to simmer and stir in the tomato sauce. Add the onion/chile paste, salt, pepper and about a cup of water. Add vegetables. Stir well and simmer over low heat about 45 minutes, or until meat is cooked. Mix with rice. Serves 4.