Plantain Chips - ©

Expedition To Sierra Leone III: Desserts and Sweet Snacks

We’ve tasted (virtually) the mains and breads of Sierra Leone, and glimpsed hints of what their street food and sweets have to offer. But now it’s time to delve more deeply into this fledgling West African nation’s deserts and beverages – including a cavalcade of sweet cakes and sugary confections…

Leonean Akaras - © 196flavours.comLeonean Banana Fritters: A favourite desert and street treat. Everybody loves them.

Sierra Leone’s sweets and desserts are, in many ways, synonymous with their street foods. Seems Leoneans love to eat and run – especially their sweets. So, today we’ll take a mind-tour of the street stalls and carts of Freetown!

A quick note on terminology: Leoneans call almost every dessert/sweet on their national menu a ‘cake’. The term seems to apply to anything that sticks together in a piece just the right size to fit in your hand. But there are also some other dishes that more closely fit our western notion of ‘desert’…

On our menu today

Ginger Cake: This is more what we would call a cookie, and a unique one, at least in my experience! You need – no typo here – 2 cups of peeled, grated fresh ginger.

Leonean Ginger Cake - ©

Add to that, butter, flour, sugar, baking powder and – no typo here, either – o.5 tsp. / 2.5 ml Cayenne Pepper. That’s what makes this treat so unique!

Plantain (or Banana) Chips: Just what you’d expect (see photo, top of page). Almost-ripe plantains are cut on the bias and deep fried till they’re crispy all the way through. Folks get ’em from street vendors everywhere, and eat them by and handful. Wherever you find Leonean snacks you’ll find Plantain and/or Banana chips!

Coconut Cake: Here’s one that’s more like a cookie than a cake, as we know those concepts. Maybe a dessert bar. The recipe calls for fresh coconuts – grated.

Leonean Coconut Cakes - © Janejuma Kaikai

If you’re moved to make this sweet, chewy dessert, you can dip dry shredded coconut in hot water for a minute or so to refresh it’s natural moistness. Aside from that, you need only flour, sugar, coconut oil and a pinch of salt. Travels well in a lunch pail or wrapped in plastic in a backpack pocket.

Granat Cake: Peanut Brittle. All you need unsalted peanuts and white sugar. It’s a simple case of cooking up a caramel and tossing in the peanuts – lots of peanuts. Then you pour the molten candy out onto a baking pan lined with parchment paper and roll it out flat, using another sheet of parchment on top to avoid the stuff from sticking. When completely hardened, the brittle can be broken into chunks. Some folks divide the rolled mass into regular-shaped bars with a hot knife before allowing the candy to solidify. You can also make this simple recipe with grated or shredded coconut. A crispy and chewy treat in one!

Bennikek (Benny Cake): Very similar to Granat Cake, but made with sesame seeds. Fresh sesame seeds are toasted in a skillet and set aside to cool. A caramel is made in the same pan and the toasted seeds are stirred in.

Leonean Bennikek - © Janejuma Kaikai

Constant stirring is required to make sure the candy doesn’t burn. While Grant Cake looks more like what we call Peanut Brittle, Bennikek looks more like what we know as an energy bar.

Akaras: Fritters. The most popular variety is Banana. A simple rice flour dough is the basis for many variations, using many fruits and veggies. Our authentic recipe calls for only rice flour, ripe bananas, sugar, water and vanilla. The magic is in the frying!

Leonean Doughnuts (PufPuf): Pretty much what it says. But this recipe, from a Leonean emigrée, contains some tips and a couple of variations – including a literal twist.

Leonean Doughnuts - Puff Puff - ©

It’s a rich, yeast-raised dough, fortified with evaporated milk, butter sugar and eggs.

Notice the emphasis on deep-frying?

There are several themes that run through Leonean cuisine. One is their reliance on their holy trinity of produce: Cassavas, bananas and plantains. We’ve already demonstrated how they manage to involve rice in almost every meal, every day. And now we know that they prefer deep and shallow frying to almost every other food prep technique. As long as you’re not leery of frying, you can dive right in and try something classically Leonean tonight!

~ Maggie J.