I long for fritos, a really good cheeseburger, or a bar-b-cue beef sandwich from Oklahoma Joes, or cookies, and also something cold….really cold with lots of ice. Ice is non-existent here, and I’ve not had anything really cold. I also long for chocolate. Chocolate is very hard to find here. A bobo’s hamburger sounds as good as, or maybe better than a steak. I think about what you all might be having at the family reunion in July. I can deal with the heat. I can deal with poverty. I can deal with no plumbing, and very little electricity, but it is very, very difficult to deal with the food situation. I’m thinking when I get to my post and in my own house, that I will be able to come up with some very tasty concoctions of my own from what I have to work with. I hope so.
Liz had asked me to talk about the food. I’ve kind of put it off until now, because I really need to be respectful of every aspect of the Togo culture, and that includes the cuisine. The food is by far the hardest part of being in Togo, for me. For anyone who really knows me, you know that food is one of the highlights of my life. I LOVE GOOD FOOD!! I may not be the best cook in the world, but I believe that I’m quite the expert on good food, and the best places to eat in Kansas City, and I’m a downright officiado of the best burgers and bar-b-cue to be found in Kansas City. It doesn’t matter that I only eat half of everything. I think great food is one of the very real delights in life. I know that many of my friends and relatives share this trait with me. To me, great food could be as simple as a delicious salad, well cooked bacon and eggs or a fine fish stew . Good food is good food. It doesn’t have to be gourmet to be what I consider good. But I digress……
So….the food in Togo…... Well it really goes hand in hand with this primitive country. It is fish from the neighborhood rivers and streams, meat from the very chickens that live among them, and vegetables and fruit grown in and around their towns. All of the fruit and vegetables are about half the size of ours. Take a cabbage for instance. Togo cabbage is about the size of a baseball. Not a softball, but a baseball. Their tomatoes are a bit bigger than cherry tomatoes, but they are their regular tomatoes. I think the sun, dry climate and the clay dirt stunts the growth of their fruits and vegetables.
My host family makes a big effort preparing my meals. Kafuir cooks the majority of my meals, but Florass and Sayseel and Nay-la have all prepared special meals for me as well. They bring me my meal with pride on a little tray covered with a dish cloth. They set it on the table and they take the cloth off and watch for my reaction. They then dish it onto my plate. They like to give me enough food for three or four people. I always have to stop them. It’s funny, but some things are not lost in translation. They quickly picked up on the fact that I don’t eat very much, and that I always leave food on my plate. They started making fun of me early on about that. Sayseel or kafuir will be dishing up my dinner, and I’ll stop them, and they will laugh and mimick me and say “ohhhhhh un peu, un peu”….(just a little,) and they’ll laugh. It’s amusing to me that here in Africa I’m being made fun of for the exact same things I’m made fun of at home.
Although I have not been able to muster up an appreciation for the food here, I appreciate all the effort they go to, and the fact that they are trying to please me. Many times they will sit with me so that they can watch me enjoy it. They rarely eat with me, they just sit and watch me, and when my plate starts to get empty, they try to fill it up again. I haven’t really figured out when the rest of them have their meals. I never see them eating.
The kitchen is a little room off of the courtyard. The room is about the size of a large closet. They do their cooking over a tiny little stove with charcoals (not our kind of charcoal, but a big slab of charcoal) right outside the kitchen door. There are various kitchen utensils in this room. I had to learn what all the utensils were in French. Usually there are three or four women/girls scurrying around preparing any one meal. There’s no telling what you will eat when you are hungry enough. Most of my meals are 90% starch…either rice, potatoes, couscous, bread or spaghetti. They mix a tiny bit of vegetables in with the starch. Many times, I’ve just had fried potatoes, and tomato and onion sauce. There is one thing that I love, and that’s fried plantains. They are yummy. I think they have finally gotten the hint that I do not like any of the meat. I hope so, because I cannot eat it. For the first couple weeks, I would hide as much as I could in my napkin, take it back to my room, and the next day take it to the Tech house and throw it away. I felt awful about doing this, but it seemed better than trying to explain, and it seemed better than being rude. Going to the market (marche) the first time also pretty much convinced me to not eat any meat. At the marche there were many, many vendors with meat and fish. The meat, mostly chicken, and the fish were usually in nice neat displays, piled high, with tons and tons of flies swarming around. It was hard for me to even try the meat and fish after seeing how they process and sell it. When they have served me meat, I usually don’t know what it is, and second…it doesn’t taste like anything I’ve ever had before. And third, I am afraid of what it might be. My French teacher told me that the Togolese do eat dog and cat and rat!!! She said that those three items are usually on skewers. I’ve not been served anything on a skewer and I will no doubt never, ever eat anything served on a skewer.
Breakfast usually consists of bread and peanut butter (homemade very gritty peanut butter). They bring me a rather large thermos of hot lemon grass water for either tea or instant coffee. I usually also have a banana and or orange. Lunch and dinner are similar…usually pasta of some sort, a sauce, and fish or meat. Some of their sauces are very tasty, but nothing, that I just love. They fix a lot of sauces with tomatoes and onions and cabbage and they fix a lot of potatoes in a variety of ways. They fry everything in palm oil. There are some ethnic African dishes, such as foofoo, which they haven’t made yet. They say they are waiting for me to get used to other things, before they give me real African food. I wish I could say some of the food is really delicious, but so far it hasn’t been very exotic. I haven’t found any spices that are specifically African.
The following are some meals I’ve had:
• Fried fish, tomato and onion sauce, and some sort of bean mixture (curd, I think) that had been made into a paste. They mixed all of this together so that it ended up kind of being a fish stew. I was so, so hungry, that I ate it all, and I convinced myself that it was really very tasty.
• Couscous, with again, the tomato/onion sauce, a hard boiled egg and a some very hot green pepper paste that I could mix into my couscous if I so desired. I had a banana for desert.
• A spaghetti and beat salad with hard boiled egg and green beans.
• Fried potatoes in palm oil, with once again the tomato and onion sauce
• An avocado salad with hard boiled egg, tomatoes, onions and a mayonnaise dressing. It was tasty, but warm. It might have been delicious if it had been very cold. (I have had my eye on the two jars of mayonnaise sitting on the table since the day I came here, and the jars sit out in the heat at all times. I keep wondering how one keeps from getting poisoned eating that mayonnaise. Until my avocado salad I was not put to the test of surviving eating that mayo. I ate my salad, but I kept thinking….I’m going to get sick from this mayonnaise! I might even die from eating this mayonnaise! I didn’t. But, didn’t weren’t we all bludgeoned with what would happen if mayo was accidentally left out of the fridge?!?)
They give me a knife and fork and spoon to eat with, however, the few times I’ve observed them eating, I see that they just use their hands and shovel it in. I used my hands once when Kafuir ate with me, and she seemed to enjoy that I wasn’t using utensils.
I like and appreciate a lot of different ethnic foods. I liked a lot of foods and spices in VietNam and in Peru. I imagined that African food and spices would be something that I would like, but so far it’s been rather bland…..again, lots and lots and lots of starches at every meal.