Every Cameroonian I’ve spoken with about food says the same thing: there is more than enough food here so that no person will ever grow hungry.
Before I left the states, and during my time in Cameroon so far, many of the questions about life and culture here relate to food. I’m admittedly a total food snob, but also have a decently diplomatic stomach and enjoy a lot of different flavors. Even so, the food experience here has been a bit of a roller-coaster. I’ve so far managed to avoid any very serious encounters with stomach problems (though some iffy njama-njama kept me home, and close to the WC, yesterday morning for a few hours) and I’ve enjoyed most of the food. My housemate, Lars (a 19 year old guy from Germany carrying out his mandatory volunteer service) and I had a long conversation about Cameroon’s food culture last night as well. So, in light of the general interest on the subject and the importance of food in society as a whole I thought I’d devote this post largely to Cameroon’s food culture.
I’m ringing in my 26th year today here in Cameroon (can’t wait to open the box of birthday goodies from Andrew:)!) and a few people have asked if the locals will be throwing me a party. The answer is that out of fear for my stomach (and conflicting offers from about 5 different people) I decided just to have a few people up to the house for beers and dinner. A large part of the reason I’m doing a small scale thing with some friends at our house is so I can control the menu…I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the possibility of being presented with more achu soup for my birthday dinner.
Achu soup is apparently a very special meal here. I have absolutely no idea what it’s made out of, but it looks (and tastes) a like like something that would come from your nose after sneezing. My best guess is that’s where the name comes from. It’s orange-ish yellow and is served over pounded coco yams. The pounded coco yams look, feel and taste like paste–ie, not good. At. All. Aunty Grace, who is CHRAPA’s communications director and runs the compound where Regina is staying (the aforementioned room) served achu soup at her “tribal meeting” on Sunday. She proudly presented us with HUGE bowls of the stuff, which were topped off with some kind of furry-ish intestinal “meat” item. It was one of, if not the most, unappetizing things I have ever seen, smelled or tasted in my life. Regina and I looked at each other, unsure of what to do with the stuff, before deciding to try to take it to the toilet. Unfortunately, that furry piece of god knows what was a little too big to flush so we snuck off to find some trash. I have photos that, hopefully, I’ll be able to post soon.
Generally, Cameroonians eat every part of any animal that they kill (see my earlier post on the whole-chicken stew). One notable exception is that only men are permitted to eat chicken gizzards because they are “the best part” of the chicken. I’m actually pretty thankful for this tradition. However, everyone here–men, women, children–eat everything else on a chicken, including the bones. They crack the joints and chomp them up, and there is no piece of meat, skin fat or tendon ever left on any plate. Last week when we went out for dinner and had grilled fish, Regina and I both had help properly finishing off our fish from our local companions. This is because I don’t know that I will ever get to the point where I can put an entire fish head in my mouth. Some of the fish innerds are also left intact, and they don’t exactly provide the nicest of flavors.
I now mostly avoid meat, which isn’t a problem at all thanks to the bounty of fresh produce grown in the region. The Cameroonians definitely beat us out in access to very fresh, natural and local produce. Mangoes are three for 100f ($0.20), whole watermelons go for less than a dollar, chunks of super ripe and juicy pineapple are also about 20 cents and bananas come in at roughly 30 for a dollar. Avocados are also hugely popular here, where they’re called pears. They cost about 20 cents each. For me, however, they’re free as we have an avocado tree in our backyard (along with a papaya tree and plenty of bananas). I’ve also started eating passion fruit every morning for breakfast. So delicious. Many of the local specialties also consist of vegetables or grains found easily at the market or in anybodies back yard–fufu corn (kind of like a super thick corn porridge that reminds me a lot of cream of wheat), fried plantains, cassava root wrapped in banana leaves, fried “croquettes” of beans and corn. There really is not shortage of food here.
Now that I have access to a kitchen and fridge and have some independence in what I do with my after work time I can cook! After Court yesterday I headed down to the main food market to browse the produce and find something for dinner.
The market consists of endless stalls selling pretty much anything you could think of wanting, all fresh from the local farms. Most people here survive off of subsistence agriculture, which provides a pretty wonderful surplus that is sold in the markets. The North West Region is famous in the country for it’s produce, particularly vegetables–beans, carrots,numerous different types of lettuce, tomatoes, herbs, leeks, onions, potatoes, cabbage. It all contributes to a wonderfully diverse option of eats.
Yesterday in particular I was craving some good pasta with a fresh tomato sauce. Pasta is common here, often served as a spaghetti omelet (omeletes are also VERY common). It’s usually fried somehow though, and I was looking for something a little lighter. My shopping list ended up as follows:
- Bag of spaghetti: 600f (about $1.20)
- Two pounds of tomatoes: 400f ($0.80)
- Three shallots: 100f ($0.20)
- Giant bag of green beans 500f ($1)
- Huge bunch of basil 100f ($0.20)
- About one cup of salt 100f ($0.20)
So, dinner for two fresh from the market–with leftovers–ended up costing me a whopping $3.60. Which is about the same price as a meal out costs here, but more easier on the stomach and taste-buds. I boiled the tomatoes to remove the skin before adding them to sauteed shallot and garlic, and finished the sauce off with a giant handful of basil. The green beans were sauteed with a bit of butter (thanks to Lars, my housemate) and garlic. And it was all delicious. I’ve got a little tupperware of leftover pasta sitting on my desk waiting for lunch.
One thing I do know is that we’ll be having plenty of beer with dinner, as is the Cameroonian way. Actually, the drink beer just about any time of any day for any reason. There’s a lot of it around and it’s all quite good. Mostly light lager styles, but they also really love Guinness. Guinness in Cameroon is definitely not Guinness as we’re used to. I’m not sure if this brew is made from the sorgum produced on the farms that Diageo-Guinness helped develop in Nigeria (an interesting sustainable development project) but it’s definitely sweeter and thicker than what we’re used to. Beer is drunk almost exclusively warm. Whenever we go out to eat or to grab a beer they ask if we want our beer hot or cold. What I’ve discovered so far is that the only people who drink their beer cold are Westerner. I asked Uncle Joe about this and he said that it’s because Cameroonians aren’t used to cold and drinking cold beer would give them pneumonia. I don’t really know what the deal is with all that.
I do know that I will definitely have some beers tonight. I’m still trying to decide what to do for dinner –we have tons of potatoes at home along with some leftover basil but a trip through the market could provide for any number of possibilities. Lars suggested possibly going to buy a whole chicken from the man who runs a chicken farm up the hill from our house (which would cost about $7.50). Meat otherwise is kept outside, in the sun, under black tarps all day and I haven’t warmed to the idea of eating that yet. Any ideas??