Thursday, October 18, 2012

Cameroonian Foods

I don’t know shit about Cameroonian foods.  At the same time I desperately want to talk to you about it.  You just NEED to know.  The thing is, I’ve only been living in one place.  Everything I hear about food here is that it varies drastically.  They have bushmeat down south (which could really be anything, but is probably monkey) to apparently a ridiculous number of cattle in the northern center.  They have jungle down south with all the tropical fruit you could want all the way to desert in the north.  There are places in the middle where you can literally grow just about anything.  Variety is the word.

And I get none of it. 

It’s a logistical problem really.  I had a hell of a time explaining this to Mamma Alice (I really have no idea what to call the people in my host family).  She was asking me what sorts of foods I liked and ate at home.  More importantly how and I tried to explain to her that we don’t really do markets like they have here and just use the supermarket.  They have something called a supermarch√© and she took me.  It had one wall of food which was basically some canned vegetables, pasta, tomato paste, and margarine (is that ok unrefrigerated?).  I felt too guilty to even try to explain Harris Teeter.

They don’t have refrigerators in their homes.  Many stores have a little one that cools the drinks about to be sold, but with electricity being shoddy, it’s not really feasible to stock up like we might.  The roads are lackluster or worse; I haven’t seen a semi—much less a refrigerated one—barreling down the road.  I know they have one train line, but from what I understand it does one passenger trip overnight.  Basically what all this means is that you eat whatever is available in your area.  And since you aren’t importing anything, you eat it when it is in season.  I’m going quite mad over eating the same thing day after day, often for more than one meal.

Now, I’ve gotten breakfast decently on lockdown.  I make omelets most days.  Two eggs, bit of salt, bit of a spice mix called magi, tomato, onion, and some leafy greens (parsley, basil, whatever they have) cooked in some palm oil.  That is occasionally spiced up with a puree of avocado (the American’s most prized veggie here; we seriously hunt them and buy all in stock whenever they can be found), tomato, onion, oil, and vinegar.  Both are ALWAYS served with bread.  I’d honestly prefer not to eat either with bread, but the Cameroonians seriously cannot accept this and think it madness.  If either of those fail and I’m in a rush, I get bread mostly with chocolate or creamer… actually that creamer is a whole different sort of thing.  They have powdered milk here (so I’m told), but my family just boils water and adds coffee creamer.  Then tells me it is milk.  One of the weirder things I’ve run across, though it tastes fine.

OK, so breakfast is pretty fine.  Lunch depends.  When I’m in the larger city, it’s decent…ish.  We have some people come cater a lunch at the big training house.  They do a decent job of variety.  It basically always has fish, rice, beans, and either cabbage or legumes (both seem super overcooked and kinda gross to me).  But they will at least a couple other things, like pasta and sauce, the occasionally other meat, fried plantains, and virtually always some fruit like pineapple, oranges, or papaya (best part as far as I’m concerned).  Very occasionally they have cake, but it is almost always dry and kind just a let down for a man who loves cake as much as me (how do you make moist cake, I must know to introduce and revolutionize these people’s lives!). 

There is one other good things about lunch at the big training site: the sandwich lady.  One of the other volunteers interviewed her and asked why she served sandwiches, she said she would normally just serve anything since Cameroonians didn’t care and eat it but she discovered Americans love sandwiches.  This is true and she does excellent business.   It is run literally out of a shake thrown up twenty feet from our front door.  She stockpiles avocado and basically makes puree with beans and hardboiled eggs and puts them in a sandwich with your choice of mayo, vinegar, and a spicy sauce.  Somehow this is amazing.  It’s probably the avocado.

I can barely stand to go to lunch at our place at site anymore.  It’s just the same.  Every day.  Fish always.  Beans, rice or pasta, some sort of tomato sauce that is kinda OK but runs out, and either the cabbage or legumes.  I spent an hour today roaming the town buying ingredients to make my own replica of the sandwich lady’s sandwiches.  And it was worth it.

Home is slightly better.  For one, my family has some excellent cooks.  They can turn out the same things and they are just better.  The pasta comes out right, the fish fresher, and the plantains hot and juicy.  We do have the same sort of things.  We’ve had beef maybe twice.  The sauces seem almost identical, but they do liven it up on the occasion like last night we had something what was almost but not quite akin to pesto.  We do eat a variety of veggies that all taste sort of like potatoes.  I kinda hate them and they are always just boiled and plain.  We usually only have two things: the fish in some sauce matched with any of the other things.  But it is do-able and different enough that I don’t want to pull my hair out.

I am working on improving my situation.  I’ve picked up things at the market and brought them home so they get incorporated into meals.  I’ve had a few convos with Big Mamma and I may try to cook here.  I’ve tried to explain that while I can theoretically cook a chicken, she’s going to have to help me kill the damn thing and figure out what parts I’m supposed to keep.  I accidently told her I could make potatoes (while we’ve had tons of things that taste like them, actual potatoes are expensive and we haven’t had them yet).  I will need to figure out how to mash them or something.  Ovens seem to be an extreme rarity, we are basically cooking on a nice camping stove or at best a gas grill.  Yea, we’ll see how any of that goes…

Well, I’ve managed to stay on topic for a whole post!  How do ya like it?  A thousand plus words of yours truly complaining about food.  It’s really not that bad, but I do have moments where I just kinda panic because I just can’t get ANYTHING that I’m used to.  Hopefully these panic attacks won’t kill me… though I did make ever the slightest mistake today.  When I was out searching for food for lunch and just going into anything that looked like a restaurant asking what they had (lunch is not a real popular meal here so “nothing is ready” was often the response), I ran into a place with an ice-cream machine.  An actual soft-serve.  Now, I have to boil my water and run it through a filter so that monsters don’t grow inside of me.  Cameroonians do not do this and instead opt for the “get sick and try not to die” approach.  But it was ice-cream… and it was the five best minutes of my life.  Cold, delicious, strawberry flavored ice-cream.

Sometimes I think about food and tears literally flow from my eyes.  Right now, remembering today’s ice-cream, is one of those times.