The first time I had African peanut stew, I was 14 years old and staying with my aunt and uncle. They were currently living stateside, although for the last six years they'd made their home in the country formerly known as Zaire (it's now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). It was the start of what would be known for years after as "African dinner" at Auntie Dee and Uncle Terry's house. The menu was always the same: a spicy, hearty, and very fragrant peanut stew served with sukuma wiki (a traditional African kale or chard side dish), rice, and homemade chapati. It was so delicious, and it pretty much blew my adolescent mind—and palate.
The original recipe, given to me by my aunt, is structured around three main flavors, which she says are needed to make it "authentically" African: lots of tomatoes, cayenne, and peanuts. Traditionally, she says, African peanut stew is made with raw peanuts roasted over charcoal fires then ground by hand into a flour. The stew is wonderful that way but VERY labor intensive, so she's found that all-natural chunky peanut butter is a much faster and easier substitute (although, admittedly, not quite the same).
Additionally, because this version is made with meat, which was expensive, it was considered a "company" meal and it's also why the recommended meat amount is flexible. The recipe, in true African style, should be tweaked for what you have on hand. If you have less meat around, don't worry about it. Just use what you have, tweak the rest of the ingredients by taste, then bulk up the dish when you serve it with more sukuma wiki and rice. Or, you could add carrots, squash, or sweet potatoes to the dish in lieu of the beef, or in addition to it. As my Auntie Dee says, "Just imagine you're cooking over an open fire, throwing things in as needed, and watching it... simmer!" She's pretty flexible on the recipe, and relies a lot on how things look and taste.
There are endless variations of this stew, and as my aunt assured me, very little you can do to screw it up! I've added a few other spices—a touch of coriander, cumin, nutmeg, and ginger—to her original recipe to round out the flavor, but the essence of the stew and its now-familiar flavor remains as unchanged as the first time I scooped it up with a piece of chapati, so many years ago.
African Beef and Peanut Stew
1 tablespoon oil
1 1/2 pounds beef, cut into chunks
2 medium onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ginger, minced
2 cups water
6 tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
1/2 cup to 3/4 cup chunky natural peanut butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Take a Dutch oven or a non-nonstick pan, pour a little oil on the bottom, and set it over medium-high heat. Let the pan get very hot, then add the beef chunks. Do not crowd the beef. Make sure the chunks do not touch. Cook the beef until it's nicely browned, about 2-3 minutes on each side. You may have to do a few batches of this, depending on how much meat you're using. Set the beef chunks aside.
Reduce the heat to medium, add some more oil to the pot, then add the onions. Sauté until softened. Add the garlic and ginger, and sauté for 2-3 more minutes.
Return the beef chunks to the pot and add water to cover (about 2 cups). Add tomatoes, cayenne, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, until meat is tender, about 2 hours. If you find the stew getting too thick, add a little more water or some more tomatoes while it continues to cook.
Once the meat feels tender enough to puncture with a fork, add 1/2 - 3/4 cups peanut butter and continue to simmer until the meat is very tender (it should easily flake apart) and the veggies have cooked down into a nice gravy, about another hour.
At this point, taste it and adjust the seasonings and peanut butter as desired. If the stew is too juicy, you can use cornstarch to thicken the gravy, but you usually won't have to do that. This is a very forgiving recipe. You can adjust all of the ingredients somewhat without causing a problem.
(Images: Cambria Bold)