Variations on a Theme: Cookin’ in Benin

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! As always, I have much to be thankful for this year. I am particularly aware now of what a blessing it is to have knowledge about and access to nutritious food, being that many people where I live do not have this. I even got to eat turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving, courtesy of a local restaurant that was willing to prepare and serve an American Thanksgiving meal for a bunch of us volunteers. But in general, meals are a lot different here, so I thought you might enjoy a post about cookin’ in Benin!

* * * *

It’s 7 AM, which means Sami and I have just returned from our morning run. Sami, still full of energy, is pacing at the front door, waiting to be let back outside (so she can terrorize the hapless neighbor children on their way to school) while I am sprawled out on the cool cement floor trying to decide whether I should make a celebrity appearance at the 8 AM English class or just go back to bed. But I can’t go back to bed because I am also hungry. Food. I get up and open the giant metal food cantine and ponder our breakfast options. Sami, easily distracted, forgets about the children and comes bounding over to rummage through the cantine with me. She selects a bag of beef jerky. Noooo, Sami. We can’t eat that for breakfast. (Actually, the day after getting the beef jerky in a package, I did in fact have some for breakfast, but I threw it in a frying pan and called it bacon.) I take out the canister of oatmeal and start the water boiling.

Oatmeal is one of my staples here. I discovered it after finally figuring out the code (if you want oatmeal, you must ask for “porridge of quaker”) and getting a tip from a fellow volunteer who had heard one can buy such things at the pharmacy. It’s oatmeal or pancakes for breakfast most days. Occasionally too, I fry up some plantains and drizzle them with honey: delicious. It’s easy to come up with a tasty breakfast. Lunch and dinner are more of a challenge. Beans are the standard fall back, which I usually eat with rice or “gari” (manioc flour). On market days, I buy tomatoes and onions to make a simple spaghetti sauce (see recipe below!).

Though different than at home, my options here are actually more varied than I once thought. Almost every week I make some new food discovery. Like when I found out you can get fried tofu at the market (just look for an old lady cooking rice and ask for cheese – makes perfect sense, right?). And there are even these people who come walking through the village now and then selling real cheese. I call them the cheese gypsies. You can spot them a ways off because they wear beautiful, bright fabrics. They always arrive from the Tobè Forest path, so I have no idea where they are really coming from. I guess there must be a village out there somewhere… and cows. Or is it goat cheese? It’s “wagasi” – whatever that means.

I’ve tried most of the local specialties too, and a lot of it is growing on me. I now eat akassa (fermented corn flour) all the time, though I hated it at first. The one thing I absolutely refuse to eat is “crain-crain,” or as we Peace Corps volunteers like to call it, “the snot sauce.” I draw the line at the snot sauce. It’s made with okra and who knows what else but the point is that it is the color and consistency of snot. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

 

Heidi’s Ginger Tomato Sauce

1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 of a small red onion, diced
1 cup fresh, sliced cherry tomatoes
1 – 2 tsp. chopped ginger (must be fresh!)
A couple cloves of garlic
Juice of one small lemon
1/4 tsp. chili pepper
Salt to taste

Heat olive oil in a pan. Add onion when the oil is hot and fry for a minute or two until the onion begins to brown. Add the other ingredients and cook for about ten minutes. Serve over pasta. Makes enough for two (or one with a hearty appetite!).

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6 Responses to Variations on a Theme: Cookin’ in Benin

  1. Karen Torghele says:

    That recipe sounds great! Will have to try it. Our Thanksgiving was the usual chaotic hodgepodge. As you know, we have guests from our work who often have never experienced American Thanksgiving and it has brought many fond and funny memories through the years. This year both “boys” were on call
    at the hospital, but Lisa and Sarah were here. We also had 15 guests from China, Russia, Romania, Germany, Turkey and Scotland. I will tell you right now that pumpkin pie is apparently an acquired taste because not many foreigners like it. (It’s got to be better than Benin’s snot, tho)The funny part
    comes from Larry’s insistence that the family tradition of playing touch football be be carried out before the meal. You can imagine people who have never even seen an American football and some having limited English trying to play the game with the complicated instructions that go with it. This year Sarah and I secretly taught the Russian girl to throw a perfect spiral pass before the game. Larry was stunned! And it was very funny to see the male counterparts
    trying to duplicate her skills.
    Love your letters. I read them to the kids sometimes and they are impressed with their “little cousin.” Love, Karen

    • Heidi says:

      Ha! That sounds like so much fun! The kids here have said they want to learn American sports, so I am thinking we might have to rustle up some materials and play baseball!

  2. Gail says:

    A wonderful thanksgiving to you. Your post about snot sauce reminded me of a delicacy served in my own kitchen by several Japanese students who were making us a meal as thanks for hosting them. Dinner was fine – okonomo-yaki – a pancake with vegetables imbedded served with barbecue sauce – quite tasty. then came dessert – glutinous rice balls – may be served with chocolate sauce. .Imagine making rice – now form it into a paste and roll into balls. They have zero flavor, the consistency of snot – or phlegm – and are very sticky. sometimes you just don’t want to know all the ingredients.

    Our retired pastor and family spent 20 years in Cameroon. His wife told me you never ask what you are being served (the fish eyeball was the most challenging nutrition she had – she received it as guest of honor in one of the villages). then there is “cutting grass” which is rat of some sort – evidently quite tasty if one overlooks the name.

    • Heidi says:

      I must confess, I had something once that was like glutinous rice balls but they had tahini inside… and I thought it was pretty good! I only had one though – it might be one of those things where you try it and you’re like oh, this is great! Then you get served a few more and you realize wait, this is not so great… :)

  3. Marty Siegel says:

    Heidi,
    You continue to amaze and inspire me… You’re one of my heros!
    We continue to hold you up in prayer.

    Yours In Christ,
    Marty

  4. The spaghetti sauce sounds delicious! I’m glad you’re able to find some variety—it is, after all, the spice of life!

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