Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Food, Glorious Food!

Hamjambo familia na marafiki!

As many of you know, I am what could be described as a “foodie” at heart. I can (and do) spend hours seeking out new recipes online, I find grocery shopping therapeutic, I genuinely enjoy preparing food, and I LOVE eating. I am also quite an avid host. I like to set my dining room table more than 24 hours in advance of any dinner party that I throw simply because I enjoy the process and the aesthetic so greatly. Perhaps I’ve said too much… Moving on then.

Speaking as a self-declared foodie, when I arrived at my apartment I was slightly disheartened to observe the state and contents of my kitchen…

 All of our dishes and utensils

Most of our pots and pans

Our silverware was rusted, our cooking utensils melted, none of our plates or glasses matched, our only knife was so dull it could hardly chop a pepper, and not a single wine glass could be found (priorities)!  The state of my kitchen, combined with the uncomfortable hassle of having to bargain in the market for produce left my little chef's heart feeling anxious and defeated.

But then something inspiring happened… three days after I arrived I was invited to the home of my friends Megan and Shannon for dinner. It was Mexican night and Megan (with the assistance of her lovely sue chef and roommate) had made, from scratch: tortilla chips; tortillas; guacamole; salsa; chimichurri sauce; a whole BBQ chicken; a sausage, mushroom and cheese dip; mango crisp; and some of the most delicious margaritas I have ever tasted! I was so impressed and inspired that from that night on I completely changed my attitude toward cooking in Mwanza- I no longer see it as a burden but as a challenge, and one that I gladly accept!

Aside from having gone out and bought a new chopping knife, 10 Tupperware containers, a juice container with 4 plastic cups, and a set of 6 wine glasses (again, priorities), I am making due with the tools I have available to me at the apartment. For the sake of full disclosure I did almost buy a 140 piece kitchen set for 75,000tsh last Saturday (about $60.00 CAD), but thankfully reason prevailed. I probably would have gone through with it but this Saturday Susan and I are moving into Megan and Shannon’s place, which is fully equipped with all the cookware I will ever need here!

Here are some of the items that I have cooked so far, and tend to eat on a regular basis…

 Wali na maharagi (rice and kidney beans) from the food court downstairs, topped with cooked vegetables

Eggplant parmesan

Avocado Salad

Salad with homemade balsamic vinaigrette

Vegetarian Curry

Chapati (Indian bread) baked with bruschetta and mozzarella; cucumbers in vinegar, which my roommate Susan introduced me to; and coke light (all pop comes in glass bottles or mini cans)

 "Chipsy-Mayai" (fries with eggs) which I do not make myself 
but buy from a street vendor next to the apartment at least twice a week. And I even use the fancy "American Brand" ketchup. 

Still, cooking in Mwanza continues to present its own set of unique and unexpected challenges each day.  Sometimes these challenges are fist-clenchingly frustrating- like the time I went to four stores over the course of three days to buy ingredients for eggplant parmesan, only to have our gas tank run out just as I was beginning to fry my first piece of carefully selected, washed, chopped and breaded eggplant. It is a fact that cheese is almost non-existent here. I found Mozzarella at the expensive supermarket down the road from me (but they only had low fat- so weird) and I swear I saw feta there once. But aside from that there is literally no cheese for sale anywhere. Even restaurants rarely have items with cheese on them, except for pizza places. Others use a cheese substitute called "paneer" in their dishes, but (as I wrote to my friend Laura last week) they aren't fooling anyone. My point being that I was really looking forward to eating my hard sought after creation, and may have thrown a minor (albeit internal) hissy fit when, at 8pm at night, the stove suddenly would not light.

Other times these challenges provide hilarious and priceless memories – like the time my roommate Susan and I decided to “walk on the wild side” and buy a bottle of Perfect’s Pineapple Wine from our local mini-mart. It was 7,000tsh ($5.00 CAD) and 11% alcohol, and we were certain that we had just stumbled upon a diamond in the rough, our new drink of choice in Mwanza. We took it home only to realize that we don’t actually possess a corkscrew, and resorted to testing out a ridiculous variety of makeshift gadgets and tactics recommended by Google. Approximately 45 minutes later we ended up ripping half the cork straight out of the bottle and pushing the other half in with a black Crayola marker. We poured a glass, cheers’d to our resolve, and I went in for my first sweet sip of my new favorite beverage… it was awful, like, not even physically drinkable in my opinion. I think the fruit had continued to ferment in the bottle because it tasted something more akin to scotch than any variety of wine I’ve ever tried. Fortunately, in an even more hilarious twist of events, my roommate Emily loved it and proceeded to finish most of the bottle herself within 36 hours!

Perfect's Pineapple Wine 
(with the cork still floating inside the bottle)

I have now become a fairly confident and skillful bargainer in the market. Last week I picked up all of this goodness for less than $5000tsh (just less than $3.50 CAD)! 

The fruits and vegetables available locally are so fresh and ripe- just look at the size of these avocados!

(Photo courtesy of my friend Megan’s blog)

But what I love the most about the challenge of cooking in Mwanza is the pride that I feel after all the work is done: after scouring the market for the best fruits and vegetables available; bargaining for a good “mzungu” price; lugging it all home; washing everything in my kitchen sink, which is impossible to ever actually keep “clean”; chopping it all up with my dull knife on my crooked cutting board; cooking it atop my gas stove that I fearfully light myself with a match; making make-shift versions of recipes old and new for lack of proper ingredients…. and sitting down to eat with friends. For all the effort it takes to cook a meal here has caused me to recognize the luxury and complete non-necessity of the hundreds of dollars worth of cooking gadgets, utensils and appliances I have sitting in my kitchen in Canada. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as though I am about to go home and throw out all these items I have been collecting for years. (Fact: the first time I asked for a Kitchen Aid stand-mixer for my birthday I was 17, and once I got it, I kept it safe in the box for two years before I finally moved into a house that I was certain it would be safe in.) I love and enjoy all of my kitchenware- it's just, now I recognize that I don’t need it.

The genuine acceptance that I would be absolutely fine without most of the contents of the material contents of my kitchen is something for which I have to thank, in part, my forever friend, Sarah Bolen. This past New Years Eve Sarah’s jacket- the most expensive item of clothing she had ever bought for herself- was taken from the bar we were celebrating at in Toronto. The next morning at brunch I expressed my sympathy and frustration for her loss, and Sarah replied (without a hint of condescension, might I add) that it was “okay, and in fact, a good exercise in detachment from material possessions”. I was stunned but mostly impressed by her reaction to the situation- it was a sentiment that only a true yogi would express in that moment, and it was totally genuine. I haven’t even told Sarah this but I have recounted that story and her reaction to multiple people over the past two and a half months because I found it so exceptional. But only now, having lived in this city and this apartment, where nothing is convenient and everything tries your patience and your sanity, only now do I fully appreciate what Sarah was getting at. And it's not as though this “revelation” is life changing or even necessarily permanent, but it is a level of self-awareness that I am going to try to preserve, and work to cultivate for the rest of my trip and when I return home in May. 

Until next time, friends. 

Bon appétit! 

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