Tag Archives: cooking

Strangely Delicious Avocado Concoctions

It is undeniably avocado season here; I am the happiest girl alive. Any initial disappointment and skepticism resulting from a couple of bad avocado experiences has completely dissipated. Far too much time has been spent dreaming up different and bizarre avocado recipes, but the results have been excellent. Don’t judge it before you try it.

destined for greatness.

1. Avocado (roughly mashed), cucumber (diced), curry powder, salt and pepper. Mix, enjoy.

2. Mango (cubed), avocado, a dollop of the hottest hot sauce you can get your hands on, feta cheese. (I think this is my favorite.)

3. Avocado mashed up with some creamy cheese (goats cheese, laughing cow cheese, whatever you have) and some hot sauce; about 1/2 cup of rehydrated hijiki or wakame seaweed; pasta. Mix it all together. Trust me on this one.

4. Avocado, yogurt (or ricotta cheese to make it thicker/richer), a little lime juice, a little honey. (Which, if you are in Mali, is about as dark and intense as molasses.) Maple syrup would also be delish, and dried or fresh coconut is an excellent addition if you happen to have it on hand. Blend everything together. Best. Smoothie. Ever.

5. One red onion, caramelized; one giant ripe avocado, sliced; a few pieces of whole grain bread, toasted. Stack as high as possible; salt and pepper to taste; try not to make a mess all over your face.

Avocado is one of those things that doesn’t need much help to be delicious, but that doesn’t stop me from experimenting. The fruit is wonderful on it’s own, and in any number of savory, salty, and sugary iterations… all I know is that my intake exceeds anything that the FDA would put on a pyramid. I am ok with that.

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some of my favorite things.

Frustration comes easily, living somewhere that’s not entirely familiar, where the simplest things are often misconstrued or misinterpreted. Not greeting someone in the morning; eating with the wrong hand (apparently the left hand is pretty tabou outside of Senegal as well, and you don’t want to know why); or any number of small little things that I have yet to pick up on. Conversely, there are plenty of things that make me smile for no reason whatsoever. Simple, seemingly silly things, that – thankfully – are pretty consistently present :
  1. Fancy Friday, or “boubou Friday” as some would have it. Whereas in the US, Friday is almost universally known for being a dress down day, here people do it up. It’s the day where all the men go to the mosquée, and men and women alike walk around in their best bazin for me, it’s a celebration that the weekend is actually here.
  2. When I needed flour last week (to make my ‘steamcake’), there was none in any of the grocery stores in my neighborhood.

    steamed to perfection

    Not entirely surprising. So I stopped by the boulangerie next door to my apartment, and, seeing at least ten 50-kilo sacks of flour behind the window, I asked the guy if he could sell me some flour. Of course he said no (what baker will sell you just the flour and not the bread?), but after explaining my situation, I walked away with a small black sachet full of wonderful white flour. For free. The cake was delicious.

  3. Avocados. Everywhere. At first I was skeptical, not gonna lie. I’ve had a few iffy experiences, and one really bad one. But this week, they hit the mark. I think I’ve eaten avocado every day, sometimes twice.
  4. Mangoes are even more prolific than avocados. And the two combined is better than you’d ever imagine. With a little hot pepper mixed in.
  5. the foam is the most important part

    Tea. AttayaThé. Whatever you want to call it. People drink tea here from sun-up to sundown. There is an entire process that goes along with it. Drunk from a small shotglass-like cup, it’s incredibly sweet, incredibly bitter, and if I’m *really* lucky, has some mint mixed in. Most of the time, I pass, but if it’s just right, it’s just perfect.

  6. Greetings. It takes about 45 minutes to greet anyone here, and basically goes like this. “Hi, good morning, how are you?” “Fine, thanks be to God, how are you? And the family?” “All’s well, thanks to God, how is work? And your family?” “Family is well, thanks be to God, how is your health? And your wife and children?” “Thanks to God, all is well. How are your children?” Etc, etc. This continues, the same questions being repeated over and over. It has this amazing back and forth rhythm, like a call and response, and I aspire – by the end of my time here – to have mastered it. For now, I can get about two lines in before I trip over my own western tongue. I’ve got three months to find my rhythm.

not sure what's going on with my hair here, but me voilà, and Bara in his bazin best!

A Dairy Story, Part II: I promise to stop writing about goats. After this.

With six litres of goats milk in my fridge, and nothing else to do after some rooftop yoga (choreography by crazy redhead swiss women, music score by neighborhood construction workers and teenage footballers..) I went home to make some serious amounts of yogurt.

my bounty..

Not having a thermometer makes things interesting, but I managed to keep the milk at a not-quite-boil, and then cool it down to about 110˚. (According to my Bulgarian yogurt-making website, this is when you can hold the tip of your finger in the milk for 15 seconds without wanting to cry. I had many burned fingertips before getting to that point.)

just below boiling point

The incubating part was easy. When it’s 100˚ out during the day, and you spend two hours heating up the kitchen to some ungodly temperature, there’s no need to worry about the fecundity of the bacteria. Just to be sure, I swathed my pots of probiotics in kitchen towels and bedsheets and left my home-made sauna for the night. (Pores cleared, toxins all sweat out.)

impromptu incubator

Because I am neurotic, I woke up the next morning to thoughts of the previous night’s project, wondering if maybe I hadn’t let the milk cool quite enough, or what if it cooled too much?? Paranoid, I got out of bed (mind you, it’s not even 6am at this point), padded my way to my kitchen that had evidently remained at elevated sauna-like temperatures all night long. I unwrapped the still-warm casseroles, and uncovered the most beautiful cultured creation ever. Paranoia, placated.

successss! (to be enjoyed daily, preferably topped with fruit and honey.)

The Kids Love This Stuff (A Breakfast of Champions)

To recap the past few days briefly :

Saturday night at 10:30, I got a phone call from my boss, Bara, confirming that I’d be doing a field visit the next day to the west of Mali in a city called Kayes (pronounced like ‘eye’ with a k in front). Kayes is about an 8 hour drive from Bamako, and the epicenter of small ruminant (goats and sheep) production in Mali. As has been pointed out to me, it’s rather amazing that there is an epicenter for goat and sheep production within a country; the sheer quantity of these beautiful little animals in the region is astounding. So we (myself, Judy who is here to do a training on the subject, Cheikh the researcher/expert in the field, and our driver, Boureima) set out on Sunday at around 8am.

Arrived in Kayes, we visited a few producers and more goats and sheep over the course of about 4 hours than I think I have in my entire life. And I could definitely tell you more about breeds and cross breeding and characteristics of the different breeds than you care to hear. Believe me.

I held a newborn goat (literally 3 hours old) and felt the milk in its belly, making sure it had gotten the colostrum essential in the first few hours of life. Saw a sheep that costs up to $1500 simply because it’s a handsome fellow and is quite sought after among breeders.

this one was born the day before

they were amazingly content to be in the back of the truck

Monday morning we set out back for Bamako. Judy and I are waiting at the hotel where we overnighted for Cheikh and Boureima to come back with the truck and… three female goats.. and.. two twin newborn kid goats… and… 10 litres of goats milk, freshly milked and pasteurized that morning. Right.

Needless to say, the journey back took a little longer with five live animals (and their shepherd) in the back of the pickup. We crossed the Senegal River leaving Kayes (which I haven’t seen since I swam across it in 2007!) and crossed the Niger back into Bamako about nine hours later. When I got home, I promptly bought some vinegar at my favorite little boutiki and made goat’s milk ricotta from two litres of the seven in my fridge. Yesterday, I got a starter and made a vat of yogurt.

le fleuve sénégal, kayes

Since Tuesday I’ve been translating the training in Bamako for veterinarians working with goats and sheep into French. A big problem is with aborted pregnancies and infant mortality, yet they want to amp up production in the region because the market for meat and milk is lucrative, and wide open. It’s fascinating to sit in a room spitting out information about something in which I have almost no previous experience, because at the same time I’m translating, I’m learning all sorts of crazy things. (If the membrane of a goat’s eye is light pink or white, it could mean they have stomach worms and are anemic. Measures should be taken immediately to deworm them, or the animal could die.)

From a pedagogical perspective, the week has been hugely productive. But let’s be honest here. The most important thing to remember is : nothing but a little heated goats milk with cinnamon for breakfast is positively divine. Goats milk has this reputation for smelling bad and not tasting good, which, I admit, I bought into for a long time. But I swear it is the sweetest tasting milk/yogurt/cheese I have ever had. And the fact that I know exactly where it came from, how it was produced, and under what conditions the animals were raised, makes the whole process that much better. There’s no better way to be connected to your food than to see la chèvre milking her newborn kid, and then to drink that milk, or maybe the milk from a different female goat, with my breakfast of baguette and Nescafé.

See more goats and sheep here…

The Politics of Food and How to Ask Questions

Yesterday, 5:30pm. I found myself sitting in a stuffed leather chair, lit cigar in one hand and a glass of rum in the other, freshly brewed espresso (and the rest of the bottle of rum) on the table in front of me. With the purchase of the cigar you get the accompaniments gratuit. Ad libitum. This Senegalese-owned haven is most likely either run by drug money or mafia money. Or both. Either way, it was the unlikely (if slightly unfitting) site for a conversation that I’ve had many times in different iterations and permutations over the last months and years, and to which there are few (if any) answers.

The politics of food in any given place, be it Mali or your grandmother’s living room, plays a huge role in peoples’ interactions. The way they are treated and treat other people, they way they perceive and are perceived, the ways they show and accept love and care, how they feel about themselves and how they identify themselves. A peace corps volunteer I know here told me how she had stuffed herself full of about two days worth of food over the course of an hour while visiting a family that had hosted her for a month; it was simply not ok to say no. After the welcoming ‘snacks’, they all sat down to dinner. In the village she lives in now, she vacillates between not wanting to eat the entire (enormous) quantity of rice and sauce put on her plate so that the kids in the family could eat a bit more, and not wanting to offend the woman who cooks. At the risk of seeming ungrateful, it’s sometimes easier to just eat.

salade is délicieuse

I remember having this problem when I lived in Dakar. Not only was I vegetarian, but I simply couldn’t eat an entire plate filled with rice and mafé (tomato peanut sauce), no matter how delicious. Binta – a rather corpulent woman herself – always scolded me for not eating enough, if a bit jovially, but the message was clear: my not eating to her heart’s desire, was a direct insult. Not eating (enough) at dinner was offensive; eating food without sharing with anyone present was rude; eating with your left hand was unheard of; eating from a shared platter that which was not situated directly in front of you was gourmande. Rules about food and eating are not unique to Senegal or West Africa. (Don’t talk with your mouth full; you must ask to be excused; wait until everyone is served; make sure to eat Aunt _____’s casserole so she won’t be offended; and you get the point.)

My not eating the chicken at dinner the other night when I was invited by a colleague to his childhood friend’s house, while not hugely problematic, didn’t synch well with the Malian tradition of offering a chicken to a guest to welcome them. I accepted the chicken thigh on my plate as a garniture. And snuck it to Bourama’s plate the first chance I got.

It goes beyond “food as love”. Women are caregivers, men are the money makers. If a man has a maraîchage, a market garden, I’ve been told that most of the produce he grows is sold for profit, rather than used to feed his family. A woman’s garden is first and foremost a source of nutrition for her family, and secondarily a source of income. Women are most often responsible for feeding their families, and men are responsible for making money. Both of these roles, however, ultimately aim to care for the family. It would follow logically, then, for a garden to be used as both a source of nutrition and a source of income – whether owned by the man or the woman. A simple economic cost-benefit analysis would most likely show that, over time, the improved nutrition of the family would obviate the need for other medical expenses.

I am in no way positioned to lecture on a subject for which I have only a cursory and surface level understanding. Food and nutrition are complicated subjects and rooted in much more than just gender. Politics, sociology, economics, history, geography, meteorology… the list goes on. I know my understanding of these issues will broaden over time; maybe I’ll look back and read this a few months down the road and think about how naïve it all sounds.

Which brings me to the second theme of our smoky and slightly (both caffeine- and alcohol-) buzzed conversation. How To Ask Questions. I am currently grappling with how to frame a research project on urban agriculture in Bamako. Having read a lot on urban ag and the urbanization of African cities and cities elsewhere, I feel like I should have a ready-made question right there in front of me. But I don’t. I walk around and talk to people – like Aoua Coulibaly, who has been tenant cropping next door to my apartment since the 1940s, but a series of anecdotes and experiences of a few individuals dotted across the city does not a research project make.

growing sweet potatoes for over half a century

How do you frame a question so that the answer will be worth something? Even in asking that, I am assuming a certain audience or target group for the ‘worth something’ part. What am I aiming to achieve? I am obviously not going to write my doctoral dissertation over the next five months, but I also don’t want to just have a digital collection of photos and a legal pad full of notes. I want my question to somehow contribute to something. It’s the “somehow” and the “something” that I’m stuck on.

In the meantime, cigars and rum and espresso might just have to be the muse for my (lack of) brilliance. Not only do Cubans make excellent cigars (and rum), but urban agriculture is flourishing and vibrant in Cuban cities. So who knows, maybe the answer to my question – or the question to get my answers – lies somewhere between a glass of rum and a lit Montecristo.

“What’s that?” you ask…

 

hungry anyone?

That, my lovelies, is breakfast. Fresh mangoes and coconut.

Culinary Adventures à l’africaine

When I went about creating this blog – mostly in anticipation of being in Mali – I didn’t think at all that it would be a food blog. Yes, avocados and agriculture are inherently linked to food and to eating, and so I guess in the larger sense, this is intrinsically food related. However, I was in the kitchen last night cooking dinner after having done some shopping at a couple of local markets (no way I’m going without toilet paper, and there is only so much tolerance I have for sterilizing water every morning to drink).  Less than $3 got me a bunch of carrots, four tomatoes, three large beets, a head of cabbage, two giant plantains, two green peppers and three of the hottest little chilies I know. On the other hand, I think I paid almost forty dollars for things like toilet paper, bottled water, salt and pepper, a small jug of milk and a few other house essentials.

tomates et bananes

While in the process of opening a can of mushrooms (don’t judge me) with a sort of pokey devise that doesn’t at all resemble any can opener I grew up with, I realized that cooking in Africa is a total adventure in and of itself. Especially when you find yourself in a kitchen that you didn’t outfit yourself; whoever did equip it clearly did not come from a house outfitted with three crockpots, enough dishes to serve fifteen, various gadgets to perform various (seldom necessary) tasks, and more kinds of flour than I am proud to admit.

With the know-how of someone who has lived in an African kitchen, I hacked open the can of mushrooms (I promise, they really are tasty), chopped up an onion, and found a skillet buried in the cabinet somewhere.

onions sautées

I then, for the second time that day, set about taking my life into my own hands turning on the gas. Opening the gasket as little as possible, I said a small prayer and lit the stovetop with my lighter. “Low heat” is not something this range does well, unless there are two burners going at a time, in which case you have to open up the gas a bit more and play with the levels. Otherwise, flames will be at a roar.

my attempt at a slow simmer

 

my humble little stovetop

Boiling water in a small casserole to make rice, I suddenly understood better why all the ‘ceeb’ you get in Senegal has the crispy stuff on the bottom of the pan. If you try to steam rice over a huge flame, it will crisp. Granted, crispy rice is delicious – a delicacy, some might even say – but that’s not what I was going for. Dancing between the gas tank and my two burners, juggling the sputtering rice pot and some sautéing vegetables, the only thing I was missing is a unicycle, and I would have been a bonified kitchen circus act.

un repas délicieux

The meal turned out delicious; or maybe it was simply the fruit of my labor that was so satisfying. Either way, I don’t think I will be wont for a interesting culinary adventures over the next several months.