Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Lucy in Africa

The timing of this post is fortuitous as it is about one of my favorite people and also happens to be my 100th post.

I first met Erica Reckard when she was a young child. She is my good friend Kaki's niece. We took a trip to Boston to visit Kaki's brother Eric and soon became acquainted with Eric's lovely wife Cathy and his three beautiful daughters Katherine, Bobbi and Erica. I fell in love with the whole family but felt an instant kinship with Erica, the youngest. She was clearly wise beyond her years and an absolute ray of sunshine. She decided that I resembled Ricky Ricardo and took to calling me Ricky from then on. I would come looking for her calling,"LOOOOOCEEEEE!!!!You got some 'SPLAININ to do!!"

You watch a clearly precious child grow up and you have high hopes and quite often unrealistic expectations as to the adult they will become. Erica greatly surpassed every one. She's whip-smart, witty, engaging, incredibly passionate and an absolute joy to know. Erica graduated from Dennison University this past year and is presently in Africa doing amazing work with the Peace Corps.

I was beyond thrilled when I finally heard from her recently. I had asked about food culture that she has experienced while in Africa and her response was typical...it exceeded my expectations.

The timing of this post was fortuitous in a second way. It's occurring on December 1..World AIDS Day. Today, Erica will be attending World AIDS Day events in Africa.

Read on for her beautifully descriptive, you-are-there take on food and culture in Tanzania. It's a long passage but I found I couldn't excise any of her lovely words.

Unlike in America,food in Tanzania does not have a large variety or diversity. You can go to any restaurant and expect to see the same menu items. The only variety may be in what meat was slaughtered that morning or if rice is available.

The first food of Tanzania is ugali. Ugali is made of corn flour and water. Similar to grits, but made with finer flour and cooked to the consistency of cake. Traditionally, ugali is eaten with the right hand ONLY as you use the left hand for other,less appetizing tasks. It is the bulk of every meal. The corn flour is cheap and the majority of Tanzanians are subsistence farmers. The corn is usually grown, harvested, ground and sold all locally(although the processing of the corn removes all of the nutritious qualities and contributes to the already prevalent problem of malnutrition). Ugali is served with a number of side dishes including cooked greens boiled or fried in water with oil and salt, a tomato and onion sauce with dagaa(similar to a sardine)and beans. If no beans are available, a meat will be served which is typically either cow, pig, goat or chicken and it is always slaughtered that morning.

The ugali is served on the center of a large platter often resembling a large, fluffy cloud. Surrounding the ugali are the smaller side dishes. The platter is shared by all. Hands are washed, a prayer said and then all fingers dig into the ugali and are made into expertly handled balls that are used to spoon out and eat the side dishes. Similar in style to the dipping of a breadstick in oil before an Italian family dinner.

There are a few rules you must follow if you are going to cook Tanzanian food. You have to use a dangerously large amount of salt and vegetable oil and everything must be overcooked. Raw food is looked down upon by Tanzanians-the concept of vitamins and minerals is not known and oil and salt are luxuries so the excess use represents a sign of wealth and ability to provide for the family. If ugali is not eaten, white rice is the alternative and is also the more popular choice among the Arabic and Muslim populations of Tanzania.

Ugali, though, is just scraping the top of Tanzanian food culture. Food penetrates every level of culture. Breakfast typically isn't eaten and chai tea is drank around 10 am. The average Tanzanian enjoys 4-5 spoonfuls of sugar in their tea. Chapati or andazi is always served. Chapati is a fried wheat flour tortilla and andazi is a fried doughnut. Boiled cassava root is also a popular choice.

Pilau is my favorite dish in Tanzania. Pilau is a special treat that is only served at large communtity celebrations. You make pilau by first pounding garlic with a mortar and pestle and stir frying it in the bottom of a large pot. After browning, you add potato halves and a large amount of a pre-mixed powder of cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper which is the smallest ingredient. When the powder is added, the air is filled with the sweet smell of celebration. Once it has simmered for a few minutes, you add a large amount of water and wait for a rolling boil at which point white rice is added. The rice becomes dark brown and becomes so fragrant that you can't help but smile. Generally pig is added as well as large chunks of lard.

Food is almost always cooked over a wood fire made in the center of three large stones and is in a cooking room separate from the house. Women are always the cooks and weight gain is a sign of wealth, respect and social status in the community. It is honorable to receive compliments of weight gain by close friends as well as strangers. Men and women typically eat separately. Children eat on a mat on the floor.

Personally, I like embracing the food culture of Tanzania. I like sitting on the floor, eating with my hands and when I eat it is only with the other women and children. That way, I don't have to worry about the men offering five cows for my hand in marriage. You can always expect that if you want to get into a home that the family will insist that you eat with them and fill your belly with salty, deep-fried food until you can simply no longer stay awake. The extreme and genuine hospitality of the Tanzanian people results in them offering you a place in their home to sleep off your food coma. I have taken them up on their offer more than once.

I hope this gives you a general idea of food culture in Tanzania.
I recommend you go to an Ethiopian restaurant and sample ugali. Don't underestimate the joy of playing with your food!

There you have it. What a fascinating and intimate look into Tanzanian food culture and into my dear Erica's life. I hope to post some future looks into Erica's world in the future.


Kristy said...

REEEECKEEEEEE! Thank you so much for posting this. I too love receiving mail from our Miss Erica. Not only is it nice to catch up with her "goings on" so far from home but I always learn something very interesting about a different culture from her letters. We all miss her dearly and she truly is a gem. I look forward to the day that she returns to the states and visits Aunt Kaki, JB and Grandpa at Historic Abicht's Landing and thrills us all with stories from abroad. Great post!

Lisa Mandina said...

Wow, so interesting! I'm a fan of fried food, wonder if I'd enjoy it there? :-)

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