Attempting to put into words what nokoss is, or define its importance to the West African diet, is like explaining the importance of sleeping each night: It’s something that must be done, required for existence. Nokoss is the base to nearly every traditional Senegalese main dish served over rice. If your nokoss is off, there’s something off with you.
I have a confession to make: In my Senegalese home, I do not own a food processor. Though this recipe is written to use the machine, when I cook here, my approach utilizes the most traditional and authentic techniques and equipment. I use a standing guna, or mortar and pestle. I add ingredients little by little so as to not overwhelm the guna and send hot pepper juice flying toward my eyes. I start by pulverizing the black peppercorns into a powder and then add the peeled garlic. Once that has created a paste of sorts, I add the dried chile and habanero. You want to make sure you really pound these ingredients well—you don’t want to ruin someone’s meal due to hot pepper inhalation. Once that’s completed, I’ll add the green pepper and onion and pound until smooth. Fry the nokoss in fat, add the tomato paste, and season. This paste can be used in dishes such as yassa (with chicken or fish), as the base for a spicy tomato sauce, or thinned with fish broth and used for steaming mussels or other shellfish.
As I sit on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean working from my beachfront outdoor office, I am reminded of my indigenous roots. Upon first sight, one may consider this recipe oversimplified or question its importance. Such is the mark of an amateur, a novice chef unaware that the most complex of dishes commences with the most basic of procedures and ingredients. It is the very first thing I learned how to make as a small African girl, sitting on a stool in front of a guna almost taller than me. I am what I am because of nokoss, and there's no denying its significance in my life as a person and a chef.
- Prep time 15 minutes
- Cook time 10 minutes
- makes 2 cups
medium yellow onions, peeled and roughly chopped (about 2¼ cups)
(about 8) scallions, green and white parts, roughly chopped (about 1 cup)
habanero (including seeds and stem)
freshly ground black pepper
dried Thai chiles
small green bell pepper, seeds and stem removed, roughly chopped (about 1¼ cups)
kosher salt, plus more to taste
Bragg Liquid Aminos
- Place the onions, scallions, garlic, habanero, ground black pepper, dried chiles, and bell pepper in a food processor and blend until a consistent paste forms (you’ll have about 3 cups).
- Heat a Dutch oven over high heat then add the oil. Once the oil is hot, add the mixture from the food processor. Allow the paste to fry, stirring constantly, until the water has evaporated, about 4 to 7 minutes.
- Stir in the tomato paste, salt, and Bragg Liquid Aminos. Let the paste continue to cook, stirring constantly, until the liquid has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
- The nokoss is now ready to be used in myriad dishes (see headnote). Store the cooled paste in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or frozen for several months.