By Yewande Komolafe, The New York Times
Fermentation, to me, is like a dance with my environment: at times loose and improvisational, but always measured and contained. What better way to cook is there than to rely on nature to alter an ingredient, at its own pace?
Broadly speaking, it is a process that transforms an ingredient, using elements — bacteria, yeast, microorganisms — present in the air. But I like to think of fermentation as capturing the essence of what is around me while I gently nudge things in the direction I desire.
In my work, I’m often drawn to recipes that feel delicate and thorough, an intricate approach to familiar ingredients or the extraction of flavors from them. I love immersing myself in what often can take hours, or even days, to achieve. When I’m fermenting an ingredient, I know the ultimate reward is a dish that tells the story of time in every bite.
Like many of us, I filled the early days of the pandemic with food projects. Jars lined my windowsill, some with ingredients at various stages of fermentation, a few with sprouting cuttings and others stuffed with vegetables ready for a canning project. It was in this time, with a teething toddler by my side, that I nursed a healthy obsession with learning how to make sinasir, a flat skillet cake made from a thin batter of fermented rice. A brilliant side from northern Nigeria, sinasir is used as a vehicle for soups, stews or grilled meat, or as a lovely snack drizzled with honey and eaten by itself.
Rice is central to most of my meals. Too often thought of as a simple sidekick, it’s quite the shape shifter, as versatile as it is reliable. Fluffy steamed grains of rice, bouncy rounds of idli and glutinous balls of mochi are just a few examples of what dried rice can become. What a lovely surprise when something predictable is no longer so.
Together, my young daughter Aṣa and I would soak our rice, grind it, then wait for its gentle sourness to develop. She’d scrunch up her nose at the batter’s scent, but I welcomed the smell, knowing it signaled life. We’d try the batter, and I’d nod in approval. Then, we’d pan-fry the cakes until they had perfect spongy middles, with lacy, crisp edges. The aroma of gently toasted rice would move through the apartment like a warm balm. And, of course, we’d feast. I made mental notes on what to adjust — more time, more salt, less sugar. Aṣa would taste and squeal, her little hands pulling and tearing the cakes, the squishy texture pacifying her sore gums, and her greasy fingers smearing every surface she could reach.
Summer is often when fermentation is at its quickest. I like to believe that the sun pouring in and the humidity hanging in my Brooklyn kitchen must be harnessed. But if it’s not the height of summer where you are, there’s still plenty to capture. Fermentation is for any season.
Sinasir (Fermented Rice Skillet Cakes)
A flat skillet cake made from a batter of fermented rice, sinasir is a recipe from Northern Nigeria similar in texture to Somali cambaabur and Ethiopian injera. Its spongy texture makes it an excellent vehicle for sopping up soups, stews or chunks of beef suya. It is also quite lovely when eaten as a snack, drizzled lightly with honey. This version gets a bit of nuttiness from the short-grain brown rice, and the scent of toasted rice will waft through your kitchen as you cook. The fermentation step in the beginning is crucial, as it gives the finished cakes a slight sourness. For a more intense tang, ferment slowly in the refrigerator using the directions below.
Yield: 10 cakes
Total time: About 3 to 6 hours, plus 24 hours’ fermentation
- 2 cups short-grain brown rice
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt (such as Diamond Crystal)
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon instant yeast
- Neutral oil, for frying
1. Place rice in a medium bowl and cover with 2 inches of water. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and let soak for 1 to 4 hours. The rice grains should plump and break easily after soaking. Using a mesh strainer, completely drain the soaking liquid and move the grains to a blender. Add in 1 1/2 cups water and process the soaked rice on high speed until it’s a smooth batter. (Makes 2 cups fermented rice paste.) Move the batter to a clean large bowl, cover with a dish towel and allow to ferment at room temperature for 24 hours. If you want it rather sour, allow it to ferment for up to 24 hours at room temperature, then cover and transfer to the refrigerator to ferment slowly for up to 1 week.
2. Using a whisk or a spatula to combine, add salt to the bowl of fermented brown rice paste. In a small bowl, stir together the sugar and yeast and add 1/4 cup warm water. Set aside till foamy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Once foamy, mix the yeast mixture into the rice batter and stir well to combine.
3. Cover and allow to rise until doubled in volume and foamy, about 1 hour. (You can also leave the batter to ferment and develop more flavor by letting it rise slowly in the refrigerator over a 12-hour period.).
4. Gently stir the batter, making sure to get any paste that’s settled at the bottom of the bowl. Allow to sit uncovered for another 10 minutes at room temperature before frying.
5. To fry, warm up a small (8-inch) well-seasoned or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add a teaspoon of oil. Ladle in 1/3 cup batter and tilt the pan to spread to the edges of the pan. Cover the pan with a lid or strip of foil. Cook until the surface of the cake is translucent and dotted with holes, 1 1/2 minutes. Remove the lid and continue cooking until the edges pull away from the pan and the contact surface is a crisp golden brown, 1 1/2 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and fold the sinasir into a half-moon shape.
6. Repeat step 5 with the remaining batter, adding 1/2 teaspoon oil with every new cake and lowering the heat to medium-low as necessary. These can be served savory alongside beef suya, or sweet by drizzling lightly with honey.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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