The National dish of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Poulet à la Moambé (variously spelled as mwambe or nyembwe) is a rich, hearty chicken stew that seems like the perfect dish for a cold winter night. While the dish has influences of French cooking techniques in the manner in which it is prepared, it is entirely Central African in the ingredients and flavors used.
“Moambé” refers to the red palm nut cream sauce that the chicken is braised in. Palm oils and cream are a quintessential cooking medium in Africa and parts of Asia. The controversy around its use, both in terms of its nutritional value and in terms of the environmental and human impact, abides. One cannot, however, overlook the fact that palm oil extracted from palm nuts was an important component of trade in the Congo because it was an efficient source of nutrition for enslaved people. It’s high saturated fat content, vitamins A and E and beta carotene made it both a popular and good cooking medium.
Variations of Poulet à la Moambé such as Mwambe Nsusu use peanut butter in the sauce, but the traditional recipe essentially just confits the chicken in the Moambé with aromatics, onions, and tomato paste. Traditionally making the Moambé, the palm nut cream, was by itself a laborious process as it involved pounding the nuts until they released the oil and reached a nut butter like consistency. The traditional recipe requires using an entire can of Moambé, which is available in some grocery stores and online. Because of the struggle with finding palm nut cream that is ethically sourced, we have replaced it with peanut butter and reduced the amount for a lighter dish. Note that Mwambe refers to the palm nut cream, and by replacing the palm nut cream with peanut butter, this is no longer authentic.
Peanut oil is substituted here for palm oil for sautéing. Any cut of chicken would work for the recipe. I used chicken breasts, as I had them on hand, but thighs or bone-in cuts might work even better for the braising technique used.
Poulet à la “Moambé”
Chicken – 2 lbs
Peanut oil – 2 tbsp
Peanut butter or palm nut cream concentrate – 8 tbsp
Onion – 2 medium, finely sliced
Fresh spinach – 2 cups (use ½ cup if using frozen)
Garlic – 4 cloves, crushed
Cumin –2 tbsp
Paprika – 2tsp
Lemon –1, juiced
Tomato paste – 3 tbsp
Water – 3 cups
Dutch oven or Deep bottomed stew pot with lid
- Pat the chicken dry
- Marinate it with salt, cumin, paprika and juice from 1 lemon juice and set aside for 30 minutes
- In a Dutch oven or deep bottomed stew pot, add 2 tbsp peanut oil on high heat
- When the oil is hot, add onions and sweat the onions until golden
- Add garlic and sauté
- Add tomato paste and sauté till it caramelizes
- Add the marinated chicken and stir to coat
- Add the peanut butter (or palm nut cream, if using)
- Add water and cover and let cook for 30 minutes on simmer
- Add fresh spinach and let cook for another 10 or 15 minutes on simmer, uncovered until the sauce thickens
- Serve hot with rice
Recipe and photo credit: Vinola V. Munyon