Puff-puff choux-choux, voilà voilà, Beignets!
I’ve had a craving for deep-fried things of late.
Very out of character for someone who rejects every deep-fried demand made at home, and indulges only elsewhere—when I don’t have to get out the gallon of oil (and then figure out how to store so much of the used stuff), when I don’t have to prepare dozens of things to be fried, coax things to float and brown at the mercy of the grease beast, then lay them out on dozens of paper towels soaking up the oil drip. Elsewhere, my indulgence finds limits easier to respect than self-restraint: only so many deep-fried things on a restaurant plate, only so many more deep-fried things at a friend’s house to avoid the impression of gluttony.
Now, I don’t know if it’s a consequence of being in the year of turning fourty, which caps off some of the more stressful and trying times of my life, but these past months have weakened my less-sugar less-fat less-starch resolve considerably. An if not now, then when sort-of je ne sais quoi. That doesn’t mean I am not still discerning; I can stand strong when the boys clamour, as they endlessly do, for sweet-and-sour chicken. Or for tempura and pakodas. I’m not swayed by the batter-dipped.
But I go positively weak-kneed just thinking of dough. Fresh baked. And now, deep-fried. Minimalist in its composition, made with just flour, water, yeast; like bread. Hot-hot, fresh-fresh.
Dough demands its own vocabulary to bring it to life. And something about deep-fried dough seems to call for the sing-song language of repetition and emphasis that communicates experience and sensation, not merely fact. Things’re not just hot; they’re hot-hot. They’re not just yum; they’re yum-yum. They don’t just puff in hot oil; they puff-puff.
Hold onto that thought; I’ll be back to it momentarily.
I’m aware that many cultures have their versions of doughy fried sweet (and sometimes savory) things. I can’t begin to cover them all here, but some examples: Churros, tossed in granulated sugar and spiced with cinnamon; alongside hot-dogs, the staples of public park food in the United States. Funnel cakes, deep fried and sugared (and usually overpriced); staples of concession stands at fairs and sporting events. Donuts, of course, which were dough-nuts before they were pared down to phonetic minimum, American-style. And all the international equivalents and approximations: oliebollen in the Netherlands region, Fat Tuesday [the day before Ash Wednesday; the first day of Lent] malasadas from Portugal, Fat Thursday [the Thursday before Ash Wednesday] pączki from Poland; any-time-at-all mandazi from the Swahili coast and [picking up the thread from above] puff-puffs from Nigeria. Each one is distinct in its ingredients and method of preparation, as in the traditions of its display and consumption. Just about all can be grouped into a “concessions” genre of snack—small chop, as the Nigerians would call it—roughly the sort one finds at event concessions or at other places where people gather in numbers, whether in passing or to stay for a bit. Quick to make, cheap to sell for good profit, perfect for on-the-go or take-a-break snacking.
Related to this genre, and yet a class apart, is the beignet: that creole fried doughnut of Nouvelle Orleans, which demands a rich chicory café au lait in an appropriate setting rather than just a bench and a whatever drink of soda. Too much élan for a fair food, but the thick dusting of confectioner’s sugar on top would invariably puff-puff in my face, calling to mind the experience of being a kid in a northern Nigerian school yard, when the ladies would come with baskets of those gorgeous round red-browned doughy sugared treats, perfectly puffy and just slightly chewy, sold at the (for us) princely sum of 10 kobo a piece.
I made the beignets, first for their elegance and frankly because I didn’t chance on a reliable puff-puff recipe [from the Kitchen Butterfly's beautiful site] until later. But the word “beignet” hardly lends itself to sing-songy-ness, and it tells me nothing about what it is or becomes. And so it was that I found myself remembering the Nigerian words that were my childhood expressions while making beignets, to describe experientially, the little-little cravings of this year of turning fourty. Kadang-kadang, as the Hausa would say.
Were these only Nigerian modes of linguistic expression? I would think not. Many would slide seamlessly in to Indian (and perhaps even other) everyday speech expressions. ["Chop, chop!" my Nigerian-British coworker from my banking teller days would hustle us back to work. "Nice, nice" the men on the bus in Hyderabad would leer as we would climb on, clearly "modern" girls, dressed traditionally.] Many would be familiar to mothers of young children from nursery rhymes and remonstrations: puff-puff, toot-toot!, chirp-chirp, naughty-naughty!–and so on. I asked a Nigerian-American student what was particularly Nigerian about them, and here’s what Oyinna had to say:
I tried to do some research on why we reduplicate words in our Nigerian English. I didn’t find much, but some people said the same thing I’ve been thinking. Words are duplicated when people want to stress or emphasize a point. For example:
“The girl fine well well” “Come here quick quick!” “I reversed the car sharp sharp before the robbers could catch up with me” “Do it sofri sofri now” (do it gently gently please) “Na so so book book she dey read”
… and so on. Duplicated words are common in Nigerian Pidgin English—a collage of borrowed words from the English, Portuguese, Spanish and French languages, mixed up with some of the Nigerian languages—but they are also common in indigenous languages as well. Hausas would use the words, “yanfu yanfu,” to stress the abundance of something. Yorubas would say, “kia kia” to stress something that happened very fast or to stress something that needs to happen fast. Igbos would say “kita kita” to stress the importance of something that just happened “now now.” Igbos also say “ofuma ofuma,” to stress that something is going very well. Igbos also duplicate words to stress abundance or excess or too many things. For example, you may hear someone say something like this in Igbo: “We couldn’t see…the place was full of children children and old old people.”
I think duplicated words serve the function of continuing the singsong language style found in Nigerian languages. If you notice, they love to add “o” to the end of many of their sentences: “I’m fine o, my sister” “We thank God o” “He get plenty plenty money o, no try am,” and so on.
What I learned from Oyinna, too, was that the repetition in Nigerian useage is singsongy but actually descriptive, not merely onomatopoeic sound repetition. I especially loved the line “the place was full of children children and old old people.” So many that a single utterance couldn’t sufficiently get to the reality out there. Numbers and ages had to be communicated by repetition, and the repetition did more than stress, it added up.
So it’s obviously not enough to call something a puff. It doesn’t communicate the inherent nature of this pastry which puffs, and then puffs some more. It is, quite appropriately, a puff-puff.
How to work the same into the “beignet,” all class and coffee house charm? Beignets are fundamentally a sort of French choux pastry fried into puffiness; the word “beignet” means risen and fried dough. In other words: choux-choux become puff-puff. To be served hot-hot. With plenty-plenty sugar-sugar dusting on top. Much better, to get at the sweet drift that covers my face with each soft-soft sugary bite.
Oyinna reminded me, too, that beignets and puff-puffs have entirely different genealogies, the one French, the other quite predictably derived from something English, we don’t know what. It’s a history reflected in their very names: “puff-puff” is noticeably English, not indigenous Nigerian, whereas the etymology of “beignet” at least has discernible Celtic and French roots.
I also called my friend’s mother to ask her if she knew anything about puff-puff. My friend’s mother is about 67 years old, and she grew up in Cameroon. She doesn’t know anything about its origins either; however, she says she saw it first in Calabar, and that puff-puff was made along with “make-you-well.” And Calabar had a seaport, so the locals may have picked it up from foreign traders. It was the first time I heard about “make-you-well,” so I asked her what that was. She says make-you-well is like puff-puff, and the only difference between the two is that the insides of puff-puff is stretchy while make-you-well is fluffy…
Whatever their origins, beignets were my puff-puffs that make-you-well, O. In some sense at least, in this year of my turning fourty, somewhere between stretchy and fluffy. It will be a while before I will muster the courage to tackle hot oil and grease again, but what can I say, this mother’s day in Pondicherry, I got to have my class—and eat it, too.
Fine fine, and (more universally): yum yum.
With special thanks to Oyinna Ogbonna, for her contributions to this post. Hot hot beignets graphic recipe is below, followed by the text version. Click on the image for the larger version. Or find it on They Draw and Cook!