Thursday, October 16, 2008

Hungry?

What do you eat?

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this! My gourmand South Louisiana family in particular seems to be scoping out the Cameroonian culinary options, so this one is for you guys.

Technically, I should split this category into two: What do Cameroonians eat? … and then, what do I eat in Cameroon!

Cameroonians: Blobs really do seem to be a recurring theme in Cameroonian cuisine, mostly consumed in the form of couscous. That means take any grain, mash it up, then cook with water. Corn for example. The other day I heard a repetitive thunking sound outside my window. I looked outside and I saw my neighbors, three women, gathered around a huge version of a mortar. Each woman was holding what looked like an oversized pestle. The women were going around the circle, taking turns thrusting the giant pestles into the container to mash the corn. I actually have a wall hanging that shows this exact scene, but I had never seen it before myself! Sorry I didn’t get the real-life version, but here is the wall hanging, which will have to suffice for now.


Once your grain of choice is mashed it’s cooked with water and molded into the blobs. That’s couscous! So corn couscous = grits. I’ve eaten couscous of rice, millet, and manioc, a fabulously flavorless root vegetable, which also has the disgusting quality of being “gluant.” The best way to translate that is—rubber cement. I haven’t met an American yet who likes it. One of my sisters (although unnamed, Family, I think you can guess which one!) likes to eat with her hands. Well she will love it in Cameroon. The Cameroonians go at the couscous, and most other solid foods, with their bare hands. Couscous is typically served with a sauce. You tear off chunks of the couscous blob, dip it in the sauce, and enjoy. The first time I, in my American rationale of “it all ends up in my stomach anyway”, mixed together couscous and sauce in one plate, with a fork, the Cameroonian I was with was disgusted. I’d obviously just arrived. He told me that he knows Cameroonians who would get up and walk away from the table if I did that. So remember: keep couscous and condiments separate.

There are a variety of sauces to go with those couscous-es. Think mix and match! Tomato-y meat sauces, tasty green sauces made with leaves I don’t recognize, delicious spicy peanut sauces. My neighbors spend huge amounts of time plucking the leaves off of plants, which they then dry in the sun to form the base of the sauce. For a protein-plus variation, throw in a few beans with your leaves. But at all costs avoid gumbo sauce. Gumbo is Cameroonian French for okra, not to be confused with the delicious brown Louisiana soupy substance. Gumbo is slimy as hell. The absolute worst is couscous de manioc with gumbo sauce—it is Sticky coated with Slimy and guaranteed to make you not as hungry as you thought you were.

Okra drying in the sun for gumbo sauce. Steer clear.


Red millet drying against my house. They also make a local beer out of millet, called bilbil. Not bad.


Beans and beignets are the breakfast of local champions. Just on my way in to work, there are about five different women selling B&B on the side of the road—amazing motivation to get out of bed! Beef, broth, and beignets are also a basic breakfast. In the category of “things you never knew you could put in your omelet,” … add spaghetti. Spaghetti omelets seem to be all over the country. I was so skeptical at first but they are incredibly satisfying!!

Here's a typical kitchen in my area: source of all the above described goodness. Outdoors, with a traditional three-stone fire. The pot sits on stones and wood burns underneath. (This is my neighbors' place, with whom I share my compound.)



That's corn dangling in front of the door, hanging out to dry.


A few other ‘Roonian basics: since the Fulani people are herders, we’ve got cows! The beef here is good! Peanuts abound. I can get fresh nuts, fresh-smooshed peanut butter sold in handy one-serving plastic sacks, or another concoction that is the Cameroonian version of a Power Bar. It’s a dried up, pencil-shaped stick made of peanut paste. It feels like sheer protein and costs next to nothing. Lastly, only in Mokolo it seems, we have tofu! I finally found the non-berry-blob version of it. It’s called awaara, and I think I am going to eat it for lunch every day for the next two years.

Lastly, somehow in spite of the abundance of cows, the closest thing we have here to cheese is called the “La Vache qui Rit.” The Laughing Cow. Just why is she laughing?! It’s some semblance of dairy, wrapped in aluminum packets, with a cartoon girly cow on the front of the package. That stuff has scared me ever since I first saw it for sale on the sidewalks of Haiti. If it can survive the tropic sun, it’s not cheese, and I see why that cow is laughing!



And then, there is what I eat, your typical Peace Corps Volunteer. All that corn mashing and pounding? No thank you, I just make popcorn, with salt and sugar on it. That’s a trick I learned while in training, and who knew how amazing it is! Wood burning stoves? I’m lucky to have gas and a burner. I’m getting good at making breads: banana, peanut butter, rosemary, sweet potato. Recently, I delved into soups: tomato, potato, eggplant. Why anyone would eat hot soup in the middle of the desert is beyond me. I do it anyway. It’s true that every thing takes longer to prepare here—there are no shortcuts, but I get by just fine. So, now you have the added bonus of knowing you won’t starve if you come to visit me! And to those of you with a culinary inclination, feel free to send any good and simple recipes my way!

2 comments:

Nate said...

Well, that did it: you gave me an acute case of homesickness.

I, for the record, absolutely loved baton de manioc. First of all, you can't beat it for style points: wrapped up in awesome leaves in spirals you can sling over your shoulder? And munching on it is delicious in the same way eating cold flour tortillas straight from the fridge can be. Bland, but satisfying. Add a honey-mustard sauce to it, and it's fantastic.

Gumbo is, indeed, the absolute worst. It's a large part of why I was able to lose so much weight in the first three months there. Once at post we, too, converted to things made out of the Peace Corps cookbook and spaghetti omelets at least three/four times a week. I became a master at flipping them in the pan. I also loved to add extra Maggi and onion. Some pimont goes well, too.

We had a gas stove that we used primarily, but if you haven't tried it, I recommend trying out a dutch oven on a foyer ameliore. Fill a large pot about 1/3 full of sand and you've got the perfect oven for delicious things like biscuits. Plus, after using gas all the time, it's nice to tend an actual fire for a while.

Kudos on your tremendous photodocumentation; I wish I had done half so good a job at posting actual photographs of the objects and places I was interacting with.

Booyataa said...

Best thing to do with ochra (but it might need to be fresh) is to make soupa kanje (you need palm oil too). It's delicious! I loved your photos - made me feel very nostalgic for my 9 years in Velingara, Senegal - amazingly similar. Would any of your friends like free copies of a paper in Fulfulde? See http://soon.org.uk/fulani/free-papers.php

We mail them free of charge if specifically requested.

Thanks, Jane