Twenty years ago or so, a work contract took me from Kansas to San Diego for about a year, where one of my first outings was to a Moroccan restaurant in La Jolla called Marrakesh. Seb often jokes with me that my strongest memories are those that revolve around food, and this memory is no exception. I can no longer recall what specific occasion took me to that particular restaurant, but certain subtle details became forever embedded in my olfactory machinery. The ambience, the low seating and lighting, the washing of hands at the table, the belly dancers, and, most of all, the crispy, exotically rich, and oh-so-mysterious pastry full of chicken, ground almonds, cinnamon, and sugar. I remember wondering, is this supposed to be savory, or sweet? And happily concluding that it was, somehow, at the same time, inexplicably and perfectly both.
Congo is not exactly renowned for its cuisine. You’ve probably heard of the spices and tagines that Morocco and Northern Africa are famous for, and you may have noticed an Ethiopian restaurant or two in big cities near you. (Tip: go in!) South Africa is known for its fabulous meats and sausages, whether in a braii, a potjie, or dried into biltong. India has lent its distinctive flavors to the cuisines of both South Africa (Cape Malay) and Kenya. The countries of Western Africa like Nigeria, Senegal, and Ghana have some iconic dishes. But Congolese food? Nobody’s heard of it.
I have two comprehensive African cookbooks that go into great detail about special foods and recipes from all over the continent. Congo is notably absent from both of them.
So it’s not a huge surprise that it’s taken me awhile to get into the groove here when it comes to local or regional cuisine. I’m not just talking about using what’s available locally, which I do all the time; what I’m talking about here is getting some kind of handle on bona fide Congolese recipes.
I hope you don’t mind if I take you on a multi-year journey here. You might want to tuck in after having had lunch or something; otherwise this is bound make you very hungry. (In a few cases, it might make you lose your appetite!)
If my Facebook news feed is any indication, food waste is a hot topic these days. Everyone’s talking about it, from John Oliver to NPR to the Washington Post. I first heard about it from Barbara Kingsolver in her excellent book that I would super-highly recommend to any human being who eats food: “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.” (Thanks, Lauren!) Basically, the story goes that in the United States, we waste between 30 and 40% of the food we produce. We trash 20 pounds of food per month per person. I imagine that’s more than a typical African eats! For sure, industrialized countries as a whole throw away almost as much food as sub-Saharan Africa produces. So your Mom was sort of right when she used logic such as “You’d better eat everything on your plate; there are starving kids in Africa” on you when you were a kid.
You would think plantains would be prolific here in Congo, where banana trees propagate by the side of practically every path. But somehow this paladin of Pan-African cooking perennially passes us by in the pandemonium of the public market here.
I have no idea why the plantain supply is so paltry, nor why I’m so partial to P’s. It’s been raining for three days straight now; I must be feeling a little pallid.
(Sorry. I’ll arrêt with the alliteration now.)
Potjie (poy-kee): Noun. Afrikaans. A three-legged pot-bellied cast-iron pot used for cooking over a fire. Usually by pot-bellied beer-drinking men.
It’s that time of year around base camp where we feel it’s not quite hot and dusty enough, so we light a huge fire and gather round to cook in cast-iron pots all day long. It’s the annual Potjie Cooking Competition, an homage to our South African employees and contractors. Last month Seb and I celebrated our fifth.
There are lots of random green leafy things for sale in the village market just outside our gates. Sweet potato leaves, squash leaves, bean leaves, cassava leaves, and more. Many things I wouldn’t have thought were edible (and my husband still insists aren’t). For us foreigners they can be intimidating to buy… not only do they look unfamiliar but they’re usually touted under unfamiliar Swahili names: Matembele, Kibwabwa, Sampou, Sombe. But after weeks or months of nothing green at the company store besides cabbage and frozen broccoli, they can start to look pretty interesting.
I may have misled everyone earlier with my posts about fancy recipes like Oaxacan Mole, Steamed Mussels in Thai Red Curry Sauce, and an impromptu Thanksgiving feast I presumably performed with my right hand tied behind my back. Because the truth is, I don’t have much experience in the kitchen. Nearly everything I know about cooking, I learned here. The ladies who welcomed me four and a half years ago doubted I was up for the task; it wasn’t long before they began sighing and rolling their eyes whenever I asked them questions about recipes and specific quantities. “Eyeball it!” is an answer that only makes sense to someone who has a vague notion of what they’re doing already.
Ask my brother about the time I tried to make enchiladas from an Old El Paso kit when I was a teenager, and dropped the whole baking dish trying to get it into the oven. Twice. I never took home economics in high school; somehow my dad had convinced me to take wood shop instead. (A step forward for feminism; a step backwards in the enchilada prep at home.) By college I had somehow learned to make a decent batch of chili, but otherwise I recall eating a lot of cheap pizza or ramen noodles. Years later I had collected a few favorite dishes and on occasion would try to follow an ambitious recipe out of Bon Appétit, but for the most part, my repertoire consisted of throwing frozen chicken kiev and creamed spinach from Omaha Steaks into the oven. Otherwise, I went out to eat. I loved going out to eat. Any claim I can lay to being a “foodie” may come from extremely adventuresome eating, but always in someone else’s kitchen.
So it was kind of a shock to move to a place where there were no restaurants, no fast food joints, no Omaha Steaks, not even a real supermarket. And, suddenly, my #1 job in life—my only job, really—is to somehow feed myself and my new husband. Every day. Ideally something interesting, nutritious, and that won’t accidentally kill us.
There are times when the pickings feel pretty slim around here. Us expat wives responsible for the weekly grocery shopping have gone through long dry spells when we can’t even find flour, sugar, or vegetable oil at our local mining-camp store. Stinky frozen fish, yes. Moldy cabbage, usually. But even then, don’t count on it. Nearly everything we’ve thought was a “regular” item on the shelves has run out at one time or another, and there’s no telling when it will be restocked.
Those beautiful chihualces chiles didn’t let me down. Last night’s mole sauce totally took me back to La Roca in Nogales. If only I’d recruited a local mariachi band and installed a few rock walls in our house, the teleportation to Mexico would have been complete.
As I’m standing in the kitchen Saturday night cutting up a whole chicken — something I never did before moving here, by the way, I mean why would I when a normal grocery store sells them in convenient little pieces already? — I’m thinking of my grandmother, and the story she told recently about butchering a turkey for Thanksgiving one year because she thought she and her daughters ought to know how to do it. My chicken arrived already dead and frozen, thankfully, but I’m picturing my grandmother in the kitchen with me anyway, offering tips as I cut through joints, separating legs from body, drumsticks from thighs, breasts from backbone. I’m making chicken stock, using a whole chicken instead of just spare parts in order to get a super-rich broth (plus shredded breast meat for enchiladas later). Two more whole chickens wait in the freezer for their turn under the knife. This stock is slated for tomorrow’s mole negro sauce, to accompany those other two chickens at a dinner party on Monday.