Food is such a part of daily life. There are many aspects about buying and preparing food that we take for granted – until we change continents and cultures! Recently, someone asked me to talk about what I eat here. Well, a lot of that is influenced by what I ate in the US and, of course, foods that are available here. (I am having trouble spacing pictures well. Please excuse that they don't match the text.)
In the US my staple meal was beans and rice with whatever vegetables and spices I had on hand. While I prepared mostly vegetarian meals there, I also prepared (often frozen) fish, turkey, or occasionally another meat. I do the same here since I am preparing most of my own meals. I rarely buy or prepare beef, fish, or chicken, but I have occasionally bought mackerel or tuna in cans. (Call me a coward if you want – I am not sure how to buy the best meat in the market or to prepare it so that it is not just shoe leather-like. These conditions have encouraged my trend toward vegetarianism... When I eat food prepared by others, I do eat meat – see below.)
|mangoes, cabbage, millet, flags:|
US, Cameroon, CAR
What can I find here that I am used to preparing? Dried beans (red, black-eyed peas, some others), rice (white long-grain mostly, but several other white varieties are available in some places – I miss brown rice!), sweet potatoes, corn (dried or on the cob, but it is more like hominy than sweet corn most people in the US eat), yams (although these look very different – see picture), bread (a couple of types), tomatoes, and onions. These have usually been available in all the towns where I have lived (Baboua, Bohong, Bouar, N’gaoundéré, Garoua Boulai, Yaoundé – an impressive list for 6 months!) In all those places, I have also been able to buy raw peanuts, peanut butter, and often grilled peanuts. What are less available are vegetables which people here had traditionally not eaten: green peppers, celery, parsley, carrots, green beans, cabbage, spinach, squash, avocado (in season, which just ended) and okra, although I can find them in larger towns or, sometimes, on market days in smaller towns. Some Africans have begun to eat these vegetables, so they are more widely available now than in the past. (Two factors affecting the purchase of these vegetables are cost and developing a taste for them.)
|parsley and celery|
|fat, sweet bananas|
|other bananas - |
spots don't change the taste!
|fruit boiled and used to make a juice|
Bananas seem to be available all the time – various kinds. The small, fat ones are very sweet. The often have spots, but that doesn’t affect the taste! Other fruits are seasonal: oranges (although most of these that I have eaten are not very sweet), lemons, watermelon (small and round and delicious), mangoes (just coming into season), and others I don’t know by name. Many places you can also buy plantains – the kind of bananas that must be cooked. When ripe, they are very sweet. When less ripe, they taste more like potatoes. They can be pounded and made into a ball (like cous cous – see below) or cut into pieces and fried.
|veggies from the market|
|small yams that each feed me for days!|
Some people here eat millet regularly (often those from further north in both Cameroon and CAR). Manioc root is often eaten as well, esp. in CAR. Grains must be cleaned – picking out small stones, clumps of dirt, and maybe a few bugs. They must also be washed to get the dust off. Here’s a pictures of some millet I cleaned this morning. On the left are the little “caps,” or stems. In the middle are a couple of grains with their caps and on the right are those ready to be washed and cooked.
Also, very commonly eaten are greens. These can be manioc leaves or others grown in the reason – including squash leaves (in season). Central Africans often prepare them with a peanut butter sauce (with a few tomatoes, salt, onions…). In Cameroon they are prepared differently and are probably different leaves. It is hard for me to ask questions about greens. People willing tell me the names of things – in Sango or Gbaya (or maybe Fulfulde), but can’t give me a French equivalent. Or, if they can tell me in French, I don’t know what it is in English! My current practice is to buy what looks interesting in the market or to eat what is put in front of me.
Meats are often tough because the animals are free-ranging. Here’s a picture of beef “being grown.” Beef is served with bone and gristle. Africans eat the latter and eat all the meat off the former. Fish is served with head and tail intact. It may be grilled – my personal favorite – or cooked into a stew. Fresh-water fish is what is most readily available. In Yaoundé and closer to the coast, seafood is also available.
It is hard for me to say what Cameroonians or Central Africans eat on a regular basis. When I am invited to eat, it is a special occasion. Meat (usually beef or chicken) is always included to honor the guest. It shows that they can afford to buy and offer the best (even if they can’t really afford it). Most meats are prepared with lots of oil, onions, some tomatoes, other vegetables, and Maggie cubes (these are beef bouillon cubes that can be bought plain or with some tomato added). While I prepare my food on a gas stove (with oven), most Africans here cook outside or in a separate kitchen building over a wood fire. The little I have seen of this process is to boil the food in a kettle over a pretty high flame. I think adjusting the flame is much more difficult over an open fire. Those of you who camp and cook over fires would know more about this than I do. For meals I have been offered, the women (yes, this is still primarily a woman’s job although some men, especially students, can also cook) also make rice, macaroni, and cous cous. This last is what they call prepared manioc, corn, or yams. They grind them up into flour and then add it to boiling water and stir. They look like of like balls of bread dough, but the consistency is different (denser and less springy) and it doesn’t need to be baked to be eaten.
Many Cameroonians and Central Africans eat one meal in the evenings. They may have other snacks during the day. Beignets are one choice. They are round doughnut-like pastries that are fried in oil. Grilled nuts, when available, are another good choice, as are bananas! People also sell hard-boiled eggs with which you can get some powdered hot sauce.
Macaroni, pasta, spaghetti sauce, canned vegetables, popcorn (not the microwave kind, of course, and what I bought doesn’t pop completely – more roughage for my system, right??), chocolate, jam, soda, soaps, shampoo, hand cream, toothpaste (OK, these last few aren’t foods, but I thought you’d like to know…), and lots of other canned goods/items are available in boutiques. Market refers to open-air places where people sell what they have grown – a version of Farmers’ Markets we know in the US. Yaoundé has a few supermarkets like those we have in the US. Other towns and neighborhoods have small shops (boutiques) that sell these kinds of things. Think Convenience Store, but not exactly. Cameroonians and Central Africans shop in these stores, but buy less and avoid more expensive items.
Many missionaries eat bread (in some form) or cereal for breakfast. I don’t usually. I often have food left over from an earlier meal. (Anne told me last week that this is very African! I did it in the US, too, sometimes.) I also eat fruit and make tea or hot chocolate (from a powder). Coffee and I have I like-hate relationship; I like good coffee a lot, but it makes me hyper and gives me headaches. Avoiding it here is much easier since most people serve instant coffee. (You can buy ground coffee, but most Africans don’t and I can easily not buy it. I have instant coffee in the house to offer to visitors.)
I try to eat my largest meal at lunch time. As I said, I usually prepare for myself. I hired someone to work in my house in Baboua – to clean and cook sometimes, but ten days after she started working for me, we were evacuated! (She is currently keeping that house clean and in order. And, the man I hired as gardener has been planting and caring for a large garden. I should have fresh vegetables, etc. when I get back! Yeah.) In the evenings I have something to drink, some fruit, and maybe some peanuts or left overs if I feel hungry, but often I don’t.
There are some restaurants in towns, but not many. Non-Africans tend to avoid many of them because we can’t be certain about how the food is prepared. N’gaoundéré has a good restaurant often frequented by local and visiting missionaries – the Coffee Shop (which is actually a regular restaurant). My favorite meal there is fish brochettes with fried plantains. Yaoundé, of course, is a very large city with many great restaurants.
|kilichi from N'gaoundere|
People also prepare some foods and sell them in the market or a small shop. In N’gaoundéré a Fulfulde specialty is dried beef made with a peanut butter sauce. Many stalls grill beef. There are various other foods I have seen, but not tasted. It is better for missionaries not to eat these “fast” foods because it is more likely that the water used to cook them was not clean or other, less sanitary practices are followed.
Whew! Did I cover everything? Probably more than enough. I guess it is time for me to go eat the meal that has been cooking as I write – millet, beans, tomato sauce, and peanut butter are the main ingredients. It is my own concoction – want to join me???