Cutting the cheese in Benin
Ah, cheese. The one thing every expat in West Africa misses. Luckily, Benin has a local cheese that’s excellent, both as a cheese, fried, and as a tofu subsitute. Known commonly as wagasi, from Dendi, it goes by many names: amo in Fon, wara in Nagot, and gasaru in Bariba. The French simply call it fromage (cheese).
Wagasi is made in northern Benin by the Peul in a manner similar to ricotta cheese. Cow’s milk (or rehydrated dry milk) is warmed, then stirred with a leaf from a fromagier or another acidic substance. After the milk begins to curdle, the curds are removed, then pressed into round cheese wheels. These wheels are then dipped into a red wax made from yet another leaf as a perservation aid. The cheese then filters down to the south via street sellers and dedicated middlemen.
Wagasi can be prepared in many ways. It can be fried or boiled. It’s often served as a meat or fish substitue in sauces. When traveling, wagasi is sold fried, with a side of hot pepper sauce for dipping. It’s never eaten raw. When I prepare it, I take a raw wheel, cut it up into 2″ chunks, then fry the hell out of it before using it in sauces or just snacking on the cooked cheese.