Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Tanzania Tuesday #16

Recipe for Mchicha wa Nazi: A Tanzanian Spinach, Coconut, and Peanut Curry

In honor of World Vegetarian Month, I've decided to branch out a little and post a couple of Tanzanian recipes here on the blog.

As you probably know, Wil is the chef here at Camp Wil-Sun, but I've been trying to cook more often. (And by more often, I mean "once or twice a month"....) But given my unexpected time off (cough), I've actually been cooking pretty regularly, and trying some new things. Let's just say that this recipe is the newest of the new things I have ever tried.

Mchicha is the Swahili word for "amaranth greens" -- though in the west spinach is commonly substituted. Which is good, because I had never heard of amaranth before. Here's what I learned:
Edible Amaranth grows very well in warm climates. This fast-growing vegetable can be harvested 30 days after sowing, by the cut-and-grow-again method. Seeds are very small and will germinate best at temperature above 65 F under dark conditions. Thin plants during the growth if necessary and thinnings can be eaten. Edible young leaves and stems are cooked like spinach. The amaranth family has many groups of plants found in various regions in the world. Soft texture and tender leaves are excellent for stir-fry and soup. -- Evergreen Seeds
photo of edible amaranth from Evergreen Seeds - you can buy seeds there, too

Given that most recipes I could find online just called for spinach, I figured I could do the same. (I do wonder, however, if our awesome Asian grocery stores around here might carry amaranth greens? I'll do some sleuthing and report back.)

I assembled the ingredients... spinach, a tomato, an onion, some peanut butter, some butter, some curry powder, and ... WHAT IS THAT IN THE LOWER RIGHT OF THE PICTURE????

Good heavens. IT'S A COCONUT. The Swahili word for coconut is "nazi". Just gonna leave that there.

Let me come clean. I don't really like coconut. It's not even the taste I don't like ... I mean, I love Thai curries with coconut milk. And who doesn't love a piña colada? And I have really fond memories of eating "young fresh coconut" -- where the "meat" is so soft you scoop it with a spoon -- in Indonesia.

My issue with coconut now is the mouth feel ... which I assumed comes from the desiccated version usually found in baked goods. (BTW, if "mouth feel" isn't a thing, well, it is now.)

But having never opened a coconut or cooked with the fresh stuff, I figured I should give it a go. First hurdle... finding coconuts at the store. Second hurdle... how does one get in there???

I found a really thorough article on how to open a coconut on WikiHow ... which probably saved the day. It taught me that there is a "soft eye" ... and only one "soft eye" ... where you can poke a hole in the nut and drain the water. (See the little hole in the picture above? That's the one. And before you ask, of course it was the third one I tried!)

Water drained, and it was time to get to the meat of the matter. The WikiHow article showed lots of options including how to make nice even halves "for a bikini top or whatever". I actually wanted my pieces on the small side, since I would be grating them by hand ... so the less curve in the pieces, the better.  So I did the simplest method listed: put the coconut in a plastic bag, then put the bag on a concrete surface, then hammer on the nut until it breaks open.

This is probably easier said than done. It took an awful lot of standing on the sidewalk in front of the house whacking a small brown object with a hammer. It's a good thing we know and like our neighbors, because it looked like I was killing a small rodent. In a plastic bag. With a hammer.

That (above) was after 5 minutes of serious thumping. This (below) was after 15. Honestly, it took a lot of hitting to get to these chunks.

The good news is that on most of the pieces the outer shell came off ... which made it easier to "flatten" the pieces and grate them. I ended up with a pretty big bowl of grated coconut.

Was it worth it? I still don't know...
Which, when added to the coconut water and a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter, looked like this.

After wrestling with the coconut -- yep, still doing prep work! -- I had this IM exchange with a foodie friend:

She then sent me this lovely video of the Freddy Martin and his Orchestra -- featuring a young Merv Griffin on vocals! -- performing "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts":

 (Wikipedia informs me that it was a top ten hit for them in 1950 and sold over 3 million copies -- despite Merv having the second worst English accent ever recorded...)

Coconut processed, things were much easier... chopping up an onion and a tomato:

Sautéing them in 3 tablespoons of butter with a tablespoon of curry powder -- next time I would use more curry powder!

And then starting to add ALL THE SPINACH IN THE WORLD. How much spinach? TWO POUNDS. Which, raw, is impossible to fit into a the pan. So I just added it a little at a time so it would cook down, then added more.

Once I got it all cooked down , I added the coconut water / coconut meat / peanut butter mixture and simmered it for 15 more minutes:

Rather than serving it with the traditional ugali, I decided to serve it over rice. The result?

mchicha wa nazi
While I was cooking Wil came home and asked what smelled so good, so that was a good sign. As someone who refused to eat cooked spinach as a child (my poor mother!), I was a little worried that maybe I wouldn't like it. But it came out nicely -- though as I said above I would add both more curry powder and more peanut butter.

Also ... if I made this again I would do the sane thing and use a can of coconut milk rather than spend a quality hour with an actual coconut. And... it's probably heresy, but... I might just buy frozen spinach rather than fresh. That would take the prep and cooking time down to about 45 minutes total. Much more do-able.

But all in all, I liked it. I liked the peanut - curry - coconut mixture. I couldn't "feel" the coconut, and the taste blended well with the other flavors. And I could see how this would be great with ugali, making little scoops out of the ugali and using them to eat the greens. Maybe next time.

Mchicha wa Nazi

-- serves 4 as a main course

Adapted from Um Safia's recipe on Food.com


2 lbs spinach -- I made it with heaps of fresh spinach, but I think you could very quickly make this with frozen spinach. You could also make it with different greens, say collard greens or chard.

2 T peanut butter -- could up to 3 if you really like it peanutty

1 tomato

1 medium onion

2 t curry powder -- next time I'll up this to 3 teaspoons / 1 tablespoon

1 coconut, both water and grated meat -- let's be honest ... just use 1 ½ cups of coconut milk out of the can. It'll turn out way creamier... and it won't take you an HOUR to prep one ingredient. SAVE YOURSELF!

3 T ghee or butter

1 t salt


In a small bowl, mix peanut butter and coconut water and meat (or coconut milk); set aside.

Wash and roughly chop spinach, set aside. (If using frozen, thaw and squeeze out as much moisture as you can.)

Peel and chop onion and tomato.

In a large saucepan, melt ghee / butter over medium heat. Add onion, tomato, and curry powder and cook for 5 minutes, or until onion is soft.

Add spinach. If using raw spinach, it will take some time to cook down the bulk! Just add a big pile to your pan, stir, and cover for a couple of minutes until it wilts down. Repeat until you have all of the spinach in the pan.

Add coconut / peanut butter mixture and simmer for 5-10 minutes more, stirring frequently.

Serve over rice, quinoa, or with ugali. 


  1. I love coconut and I love spinach, Tony loves curry and doesn't eat meat on Fridays. Does t mean tea spoon and T mean table spoon? Love from the mother in law. X

  2. Hi Sue - yes, t = teaspoon, T = tablespoon! I'd bump up the curry powder if I were you, too. :)