A Braud walks into an African restaurant and orders the daily special. She may think she’s getting the same dish millions of West Africans are eating at home, but that is probably not the case. Restaurants rarely offer subsistence cuisine, and even expatriates who shop and cook are probably not eating like their less-advantaged neighbors. Travelers rarely experience truly local food.
Regardless of where you live, “What’s for dinner?” is a loaded question for the middle-to-upper class. Will it be soup, stew, sandwiches, a casserole or salad, and will it involve potatoes, pasta, rice or some other starch? Will it have an Italian, Mexican, French, African or Asian flair? And what type of protein? The possibilities are overwhelmingly endless. A few slender options might well feel like luxury.
Today, the Two Brauds take you on an international tour of common cuisine. Join us for dinner, won’t you?
Like most other countries around the world, rice and beans played a huge part in local cuisine. A typical meal there, called a Casado, would consist of a meat protein, rice and beans and a salad. Fried plantains would also usually be found on the plate along with a corn tortilla.
A local family would use things from their garden or incorporate eggs with their meals. I recall once having green beans fried with eggs. It was cooked over a wood burning stove along with fresh fish, rice with some veggies mixed in and a strange fruit for dessert I hadn’t had or seen before that was fleshy and sweet, with the skin that reminded me of a reptile.
Fruit juice is often made since fruits are so abundant there. I’ve often had passionfruit mixed with water and sugar. Any restaurant would be able to serve you an agua fresca. That’s a blend of a fruit (usually watermelon, pineapple, strawberry, mango, etc.) along with crushed ice and water (or milk).
Fufu is every West African’s go-to food, a bland and glutinous paste usually made from pounded cassava and plantain. If you listen beyond the roosters, the goats, and the traffic, you will hear the dull thud of wood on boiled carbohydrates, a drumbeat to mark the passage of sun across sky. One person raises a heavy wooden pestle as the other darts a hand into the mortar to pull the pale yellow loaf into a fold. Pound, fold, pound, fold, pound.
When the paste is nice and stretchy, it is ready to be pinched and swiped through okra-thickened soups featuring beans, a fish head, or a few pieces of chicken, dog, or goat. The smell of stew simmering over cook fires built upon dirt thickens the afternoon air. Indoor plumbing is a luxury, and few own kitchen appliances.
Another option is Kenkey, a fermented corn product wrapped in banana leaf, often eaten on the fly. Turn a dusty corner, and you will see a patch of roadside corn tucked between ditch and wall.
Rice and beans also figure into the Ghanaian menu. I repatriated with recipes for Red Red made with black-eyed peas, tomatoes, onions, palm oil, ginger, and garlic; and Jollof which involves rice, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, ginger, and garlic. The ginger and garlic, it turns out, are naturally anti-parasitic.
While rice may be one of the cheaper consumables worldwide, it doesn’t seem that applies to New Zealand. I finally switched to a 5kg bag from the Indian shops instead of the small bags from the grocery store. The cheapest I’ve purchased a 5kg bag was about $16 ($10.41USD) and it goes upward from there to $30NZD.
So a large family here trying to get by day to day may incorporate store-bought sausages in a large package with the very cheapest being $6/kg. Throw in a bag of frozen fries with the least expensive at $2 and maybe some white bread at $1.50 a loaf. Not the healthiest meal.
Those who raise sheep or cattle will eat lamb or mutton. Once a cattle beast has been processed, they’ll store it all in a huge freezer.
Most families have gardens or fruit trees, and neighbors share when they have an abundance of certain things. They may also have chooks (chickens) that lay eggs which could be incorporated. But overall, it seems you won’t get the value or nutrition in a cheap meal here as you would elsewhere.
We often say that the cheapest meal could come from a fast food place (and we all know how healthy that is!). Or that they don’t make it easy to feed a family of four or five on a budget while still attempting to be healthy.
I see a lot of beetroot and pumpkin used here. Carrots grow easily and you get a lot out of one packet of seeds (and they can grow year-round). Some grow beans and potatoes and maybe kumara (a type of small sweet potato).
If you live near a river or ocean, you may be able to catch a fish or two to feed the family. And if you dive, you can grab some paua (abalone) or crayfish which costs a lot of money on the open market, but there isn’t a whole lot of meat so you’d have to make fritters to bulk it up.
When I visited Guyana, I was deep in the heart of things. No fast food, no restaurants, no corner stores. I remember seeing large white discs on the roofs of homes which turned out to be bread made from cassava root. That seemed to be the main source of food for them, as it could be made into many other things.
I also remember seeing (in 100-degree heat) a half butchered cow hanging from someone’s tree.
My first night in a cabin, the guy cooked up chicken along with farine which was a breadcrumb sort of mix using the leftovers of cassava, and he told me that was typically served there.
The problem with cassava is that it has naturally occurring cyanide in it. Depending on which type (sweet or bitter), it can be cooked or boiled out. I recall having some odd reactions while I was there and didn’t realize it may have been due to this.
Fishing, I believe, was one main source of protein for people there. When I had gone piranha fishing, the guys kept them for their dinner. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to taste any!
I visited a family with a garden and they had a lot of peppers and cucumbers growing. However, I also walked by many families living in the rainforest and didn’t notice any gardens so had to assume they were living off of fish, mostly.
Bushmeat was a sad reality and one image I can’t get out of my mind was in Georgetown (the capital) where a man was selling dead iguanas. I’ll take a wild guess that people in the rainforest may have been eating monkeys, too.
Bob and I ate like royalty in Tianjin, China—a large industrial city with ports on Bohai Bay. Even when a woman invited me into her house for lunch, she put on the dog. Not that she fed me puppy meat—although one never knows—but that she felt obligated to pull out all the stops and prepare a banquet. We got so sick of Lazy Susans piled high with broiled fish, roasted duck, noodles, rice, and other incredible dishes that we begged out of invitations, preferring a can of tuna with mayonnaise on a baguette in our hotel room.
We did, however, watch what our friends at the manufacturing plant brought for lunch. Rice with a smattering of vegetables and a few small pieces of pork, chicken, or fish still attached to their bones. The lunchroom was where I bit into my first ever edamame pod. Noodles occasionally showed up as well.
One day a week we joined our co-workers in a place that smelled of fish and grease and which featured a severed shark’s fin in a metal pan near the front door. In the six months we were there I saw no evidence of that fin either being used or replaced, so I got the impression it was merely part of the decor, more status symbol than food.
We cooked for ourselves on the North Pacific island of Guam, a U.S. Territory with a strong military presence. Guam was well-stocked with American food which gave us little incentive to explore local cuisine. We knew precious few islanders beyond Robert and Polly, a gracious pair who treated us to a traditional meal of Chicken and Red Rice.
Robert told us a great story about a meal he ate while visiting the nearby island of Tinian. He was so impressed by the fish, roasted over a fire in aluminum foil that he invited the cook to come to Guam and show him how to make it. It’s all in the sauce, the islander said, a sauce he called minus.
Eventually, the day came when our friend met the Tinian at the dock on Guam. They went over to the Pay-Less for the fish and other ingredients but had a hard time finding the special sauce. Up and down the aisles they went, scanning the shelves, until the man stopped in front of the Hellmann’s and yelped, “Here it is!”
Guam was the first time I ever saw purple yams, referred to locally as “Ube” and the first I ever tasted Ube Ice Cream. I don’t know if the poor people on Guam ate ice cream, but they certainly did eat yams.
We would all do well to indulge in plain food more often. In the words of Michael Pollan: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Beyond making life simpler by paring down our choices, eating like the locals is good for our health.
Without the “luxury” of being able to afford or even GET fast food or pre-packaged meals, the locals seemed healthier than their foreign guests. It’s no surprise, since they eat leaner meats and more vegetables and fruits as well as work outside and get plenty of exercise.
Additionally, there is much overlap between subsistence and sustainability. It turns out that the future of our planet depends on more of us eating lower on the economic food chain. According to organizations like Project Drawdown, which promotes ways to roll back the effects of global warming, eating a plant-rich diet ranks four on the list of ways ordinary people can reduce carbon emissions. Finding out what the locals eat might just be the next holy grail of green travel.