My African culinary safari
I recently wrote on Facebook that no matter how long I spent in Africa, I'd never learn to love goat meat, and it provoked a flurry of responses from well-traveled friends, most of whom called me ignorant. How could I not love goat?
Well, to be honest, I wrote that near the end of a two-week swing through Somaliland and northeastern Kenya, and I was probably just sick of goat, especially the boiled, rubbery variety that's all too common in those parts. I admit that when it's roasted just right, with a little bit of chili and seasoning (not just a mountain of salt) goat can be pretty good, neither beef nor chicken, a totally unique taste and texture.
A friend asked what food I'd loved in Africa, and it got me thinking. I guess I wouldn't rank any goat dish among the best I've had on the continent, but maybe that's just because I've had a lot of pretty great food. Here, in no particular order, is my culinary greatest-hits tour of Africa:
Poisson yemenite, Djibouti
They call it Yemeni fish, although I didn't find it the same in Yemen. Djibouti's version is a whole fish, eyes and all, grilled and served in tinfoil, garnished only with lemon and a light tomato dipping sauce. I ate this once in a popular restau-shack in Djibouti whose name I wish I could remember. I do remember that we competed for the hunks of fish with a large colony of flies that wouldn't leave even when the owner turned the oscillating fan on full blast. One of the simplest and best meals I've had.
Roasted chicken and arugula, Khartoum, Sudan
It seems an incongruously effete dish for a place as no-frills as Khartoum (apart, of course, from Ozone). But there's a place the Sudanese capital that the indomitable al Siir, driver to several generations of foreign correspondents, will take you to, where the only thing they serve is chili-grilled chicken with huge limes and big handfuls of arugula. You wash it down with a cold soda, since there's officially no alcohol in Khartoum, but you don't care because the chicken is so tender and pleasantly spicy, and it's perfect with handfuls of the bitter arugula. It's surpassed in Sudan only by...
Fried fish with lemon, Omdurman, Sudan
...Al Siir's favorite breakfast, big platters of lightly battered fish, which you douse in fresh lemon and gobble up with unseemly efficiency considering it's usually about 10 a.m. At this place on a riverbank in Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, with a fryer the size of a Dumpster, all the tables are taken by about 11 a.m., so I've come to view this as an acceptable breakfast in Khartoum -- although I skip the raw onions before lunchtime. (Al Siir will inevitably describe the meal as "tasteable," instead of "tasty," which is a not insignificant part of its charm.)
Tournedos, N'Djamena, Chad
Say what you will about the French colonials (and there's not a lot of nice things to say) but the food culture they foisted on Africa hasn't totally been forgotten, even in the decaying desert capital of Chad, where you can find good baguettes, perfect pommes frites and even an above-average pastry shop. After a sweaty couple of weeks on the Chad-Sudan border, subsisting on rice and beans (and goat if you're lucky), you treat yourself to the thick tournedos filet at Le Bistrot, a charming little place tucked into the main drag of the capital, where, if you close your eyes, sip your red wine and listen to the exotic mix of French and Arabic, you can imagine you're somewhere a lot more interesting.
Chicken and sadza, Harare, Zimbabwe
Pretty much every African country has its version of mealie-meal, the maize- or millet-based starch that's the foundation of the meal. Kenyans have ugali, South Africans have pap, Burkinabe have to (pronounced "toe") -- and frankly I find most of it to be dry and unpalatable, like bricks in your stomach. It fills you up, which is the point, but I found the Zimbabwean version, sadza, to be lighter, a lot less bricklike in the belly, with a true corn flavor not unlike polenta. I remember one meal in particular, after a long day of furtive pre-election reporting last year, when my two Zimbabwean colleagues were angling for me to take them to a local joint because sadza had become so expensive in the stores. We found a dark, out-of-the-way place that served it with fried chicken -- a kind of southern African comfort food.
I'll round out the list in my next post...