Monday, March 21, 2011

Kupika Chakula!

Written March 18, 2011

Here we go….the long awaited post on how I cook! I had no idea food would play such a central role in my day to day here. During training, conversations were primarily about our last meals in the U.S., what we planned to cook as our first meal in the village and how we craved a Taco Bell gordita crunch. Well, that last one may have just been the conversation in my head.

Not that we did not enjoy our new TZ menu. It was just different. Coming here I thought the things I would miss most would be internet and tv/movies. I have never been that picky concerning food. But I quickly realized I’d forgotten my general dislike for white rice and beans…..the two staple ingredients for just about every TZ dish.

Plus it’s interesting to note that as the ‘melting pot’ of many nationalities, we Americans expect a variety of food both for a single meal and for our meals over consecutive days. If we have meat loaf one night then we may want Chinese or Mexican the next. This is not so for other cultures, particularly in under-developed countries.

So I was quite excited when I arrived at my site last fall and was able to start cooking more to my taste. I also really enjoy opportunities to share my cooking with my villagers. Particularly in my region, many ingredients for healthy meals are available but locals are use to eating as they have for generations and do not realize there are other options. One day I had neighbor visit while I was eating a tuna sandwich. I made one for her to try and she did not know how to eat it. She was picking at the top piece of bread instead of eating it like….well, a sandwich!

Food Availability
First, I am really lucky to have been placed in the Mbeya region. Besides having great soil for growing a variety of vegetables, there are enough Europeans/Americans living here that more of our foods are available at the nicer grocery stores in Mbeya town. Pasta, tuna, Doritos, Pringles and Cadbury chocolate are a few of these that I treat myself to during shopping trips every 2-4wks.

I am also really lucky to have wonderfully amazing family and friends sending me awesome care packages. There is rarely a day that I don’t have a meal with something from America….seasonings, mixes, cheese, etc. They are all much appreciated!

The How
During training my homestay family- like most villagers- cooked over an open fire. This tends to be easiest when cooking for a large family, but it is also slow. As we are normally cooking for just ourselves, most volunteers use a kerosene or charcoal stove like what we us in America for camping. For my first meal in my village, I used my charcoal jiko and it took 2 hours to boil pasta! I don’t have the patience for that everyday so I bought kerosene at my first chance.

Chakula Cha Asabuhi
Even in America breakfast was a hard meal for me. I love traditional breakfast foods but who has time to cook them before running off to work? Here my issue isn’t as much lack of time as lack of being a morning person. I can’t seem to face the kerosene jiko first thing every morning. So one of my monthly splurges is cereal- also available at the nicer grocery stores in town. Throw some bananas in a bowl of Rice Krispies along with powder milk and room-temp water…..mmm, that’s some good eatin’ there.

Chakula Cha Mchana
Lunch is one of the main reasons I am most glad to be cooking for myself now. The heat here does not affect Tanzanians like it does us Americans. So it’s nothing for them to throw back a big plate of rice drenched in a hot vegetable stew with a heavily fried bread.

For my mid-day, height of the heat meal, I usually do tuna with tomatoes, peanut butter and crackers or a local type of Romein noodles with an avocado. Now that it’s the rain season and some days are cooler I may make a big pot of chili or mac and cheese that I can also eat for supper.

Chakula Cha Usiku
Supper is the meal where I do my major cooking of the day. My village has mainly tomatoes and onions daily in the market, but I can also get carrots, green peppers, eggplant, avocados and garlic in town. There is also an Indian woman in town who sells a wide variety of spices and popcorn that I can pop over my jiko.

Most of my meals are pasta or potato based. I have gotten really good at making spaghetti sauce and a vegetable stir-fry. I also like doing garlic mashed potatoes from scratch.

Mexican food has been my big craving. I have learned to make my own tortillas- which turns out is pretty fun to do! Thanks to everyone back home for making Mexican seasoning the most common item sent in care packages. When I get Velvetta too, I eat like I queen! Cheese quesadillas and breakfast burritos- yum! Another favorite dish I’ve created is Mexican mac and cheese by including the seasoning, tomatoes, onions and green peppers.

As a farm girl born and raised, meat is also a big craving. What I wouldn’t give for a big rib-eye! But even here I am lucky for my placement because pork is available IN my village! (See post The Other White Nyama) I can buy ¼ kilo reasonably priced and perfect size for one person (without refrigeration I try not to have leftovers). So I can even make fajitas and pork tenderloin!

Notice this isn’t in Swahili cause Tanzanians in the village do not really snack. I’m not sure if there is a word for it. Between all the work they have to do for their home and farm plus the time that goes into preparing food, there isn’t a lot of free time.

The one exception I have noticed is when a particular fruit or insect is in season. Mangos are largely grown in my village as well as sugar cane. Villagers can commonly be seen chomping on those. There is also a termite that comes out in rain season. Locals like to fry and salt them. A neighbor offered me some and I really wanted to try them….but I just couldn’t!

I will currently pay anyone $20 and the naming rights of my first born for a large, bottom-less glass of American sweet ice tea. Tanzanians live and die by hot cups of chai. I once tried to explain how we drink tea in America with frozen water in it to make it cold. The villager barely believed me, saying it would hurt my mouth!

I drink lots of water- filtered and boiled. I love getting Wylers and Crystal Light drink mixes!

Healthier or Not?
Volunteers tend to be divided on this opinion depending on how they ate in America. Personally, I was too unhealthy. So I have really enjoyed learning to cook with fresh produce and spices. Hopefully, this will be something I will keep doing once I get back.