Today’s topic is food—a topic near and dear to my heart. There is a wonderful cook, Joyce, here in the Lalmba compound. She is here to cook lunch 5 days per week, and she knows how to cook just about everything, as she has been cooking for the expats for 27 years. Dr. Sam brought lots of spices and taught her to make dahl with lentils and vegetables and spices, as well as a thick form of chapati or bread which is very good. Dr. Sam was vegetarian, as are some of the Seventh Day Adventists here, so I have told them I don’t eat much meat either. I did eat some chicken that was cooked for Dr. Sam’s going away party. Chicken is good here, as it is usually slaughtered and cooked all on the same day. Many chickens wander the compound here, the one at the rural clinic in Ochuna, and they are often seen along the road. I have no idea how beef is handled here, so I do not intend to eat it.
The people here eat fish, but so far I have not. I see them pulling in the nets each day. There are three main types of fish consumed here, as far as I can tell: tilapia, omeni ( tiny minnows about 1-2 inches long) and large Nile perch which were apparently brought to the lake for sport during colonial times. I think the non-native perch are carnivorous, and they have changed the fish population of the lake—not for the better, I’m sure.
Maize is a staple here, eaten in at least a couple of ways. Ugali is a paste of meal (usually corn meal), mixed with some oil and probably some water. It may have a little salt, but not much. It is eaten by making a little ball of paste, making a dip with your thumb, and scooping up some beans, sauce, or vegetables, and popping the whole bite into your mouth. It must be an acquired taste. Ugali can also be made out of millet and some other grain whose name I cannot remember. Maize is also eaten on the cob, after roasting, perhaps over a wood fire.
It seems that many rural homes here have their own small field of maize, and also grow a leafy vegetable called sukuma wiki. This is defined in the dictionary (Swahili-English) as a rape plant. The leaves are chopped very finely, as in a chiffonade, and cooked with oil. It tastes like a slightly bitter spinach, and I like it very much. “Sukuma” means to push, and the name means “to push the week” as in to make the food last ‘til the end of the week. There is another plant grown here for their edible leaves, but so far I have only heard that called “local vegetable.” Green bell peppers are also grown widely. I see banana trees, but not as many as I would have imagined.
Roma tomatoes are widely available, and I suspect imported. Watermelons were grown at a local agricultural school but they are done for the year. That school is also growing oranges, papaya, and a few lemons and bananas in addition to their staples. They also have 500 chickens and many eggs to sell. On the Llamba compound there are a few passion fruit vines and some mango trees. There are some little hot peppers (pilipili) which are apparently served on the side, if at all. Joyce tends not to cook with them.
From the supermarket in big towns come the boring stuff like wheat flour, sugar, instant coffee, oil, and good stuff like macadamia nuts and 500ml bags of milk. These last must be irradiated to last without refrigeration, and are sold by the box of about 20 bags. So far I have only seen whole milk.
That brings us back to where we started—rice and beans! These seem to be easily at hand and served often. Fortunately I like rice and beans, so I should be perfectly happy. Enjoy your own local foods!
(Note about the picture: this is the inside of a grass-roofed structure used to teach mothers of malnourished children in Ochuna about preparing healthy food for their children. Local food is cooked and eaten together, (yes, with wood in the middle of the structure!) and preparation of supplements for the children is demonstrated. In this way, a trusting local support system is built among the mothers.)