Eating things in Sierra Leone
December 5, 2012 § Leave a comment
At the moment, when I read the Sunday papers, I turn straight to the restaurant reviews. I don’t know what’s so compelling about them yet, but I think it might be ‘food in context’ (recipe books don’t have the same effect), and also the snack-sized nature of the medium (I’ve written about reviews, and not liking them, before. It’s not the criticism so much as the narrative that draws me to these; but I’m also not tempted – yet – to read a whole food-based book).
Just back from Sierra Leone and having written a bit about its politics and economics, I haven’t known where to start with actually communicating the experience. So I thought I’d begin with food.
I’d never eaten cassava before – which will make some people smile, since it’s the staple diet of 500 million people, mostly in Africa.
At the place where I try it the cassava is peeled and steamed, and then slightly mashed. It’s like potato crossed with parsnip, but creamier than either, and it’s got a surprisingly nice texture, squidgy but also with a bit of crunch, like risotto with the bite of some less-cooked grains. The cassava comes with “sauce”.
Cooked on patch of ground, with a bench to sit on and some carpenters making sofas nearby, the sauce had an intense aspect, even before it came near being eaten:
Over a charcoal brazier, in a big pot, a reddish stew, mainly palm oil and chilies; whole fish, which tasted like sardines and might have been; fish heads; chicken feet; fish balls, made of I’m not sure what and a bit hairy-looking, but tasty; bones; many other unidentifiable things.
This, steaming hot, is ladled over the cassava, served in plastic bowls and eaten with a spoon. It’s savoury, spicy, delicious. You push to the back of your mind the possible consequences. Even further back I pushed Freetown’s recent cholera epidemic, which would have made eating street food really silly, but which was over, pretty much, wasn’t it? (We were fine.)
We drank filtered water from the plastic bags that are ubiquitous, and make every drink taste like a bottle kept in the car too long or like a child’s beaker on a summer day.
Later, after someone climbed a coconut tree, a local man called Ibrahim bought me a “jelly” – a green coconut, chopped open so that you can drink the water, then halved with a machete and the flesh – looking very like a dead squid – scooped out and eaten.
We walked into central Freetown on the last day of rallies for the ruling APC party. The crush in the streets was fun, then scary, then exciting again; there is no crowd-control in Sierra Leone. On Campbell Street, we stopped at a general store that doubled as a bar.
We ordered cans of Heineken and watched as the street – full of cars, trucks, dancing people and motorbikes going in both directions on both sides – grew darker.
We asked for some meat on sticks. It comes plastered in chilies and you pull is off with your teeth and try to guess what it is. Goat? We thought. Lamb, a distant possibility. Some you chew for a while but make no impression. I left a piece – “That’s just fat,” I told my friend. “There’s no distinction here”, she said. Later, someone grabbed the scraps we’d left and ran off laughing into the crowd.
Later still, when the dancing was really underway, we changed to drinking J&B whisky and Coke. A man bought some more meat sticks for everyone. “I hope you have a strong stomach!” he said. I asked him what it was. Chicken gizzard, it turns out; the muscular gut that birds, lacking teeth, use to grind up food.
Coffee: Nescafé, powdered milk. Or: Cocoa, powdered milk, brown sugar. In Sierra Leone this tastes like luxury.
Cereal: Imported. Powdered milk.
Toast: White bread, cooked over a flame in a tin pan, with edges burnt. Real butter, surprising, again a luxury. Jam (easy export/import). Honey, sometimes with ants in, but they’re avoidable. Sweet, thin marmalade. Nutella – 55,000 Le, or about £8.50, per jar; sometimes worth it. Laughing Cow cheese.
Fruit: Guavas – like daytime versions of passion fruit, green outside, delicate rose tint inside. Papaya – sweet, sunset-coloured, with a hint of marker-pen in the perfume. Star fruit – big, yellow, juicy. Bananas, small and green. Oranges – green as well, fibrous, eaten by cutting off an end and sucking. Grapefruit.
Malarone: An anti-malarial to be taken once a day, with food. £3.85 per tablet until the patent expires, or unless you’re friends with a doctor.
Water: Filtered, frozen but thawing.
On Lakka beach, one of the closest to Freetown and therefore less prized than some, but still long and white and quiet, we drink red wine with a slight dusty edge and eat peanuts and small, sour pancakes known as cassava bread. Lobster traps bob in the water, are pulled to shore. The peach-coloured lobsters are taken from the traps, carried up the beach, cooked in pots over charcoal as the sun suddenly sets. In the dark, we’re brought chips, small cooked snapper, wedges of lime. The lobster is extraordinary, fresh and savoury and also sweet.
There are little boys who hang about, waiting for a job to do: something to carry, a car to wash. They fall asleep with their heads on the sand.
Friday afternoon. We’d heard that the election results might be announced, and as I waited at a police checkpoint I cycled through local stations on a battery-powered radio. No one at the checkpoint knew. I called local journalists, election observers – something would be announced, it was agreed.
We drove on, asked for directions, and ended up with an old man in the car, showing us the way. We turned off the highway after the sign for Black Johnson, into the forest. There were small jagged tracks, with high rainforest on either side. We parked our 4 x 4 and walked, me carrying the radio as it buzzed in and out of reception. Otherwise everything was quiet.
As we reached the sea: a completely improbable guesthouse called Tito’s Paradise. Poyo had just been collected – a ‘wine’ that is tapped from palm trees and fermented almost instantly. It was sharp, sweet, yeasty – like a strong, heady wheat beer. It reminds you of coconut water, but also of something seriously on the turn. It’s hard to drink much of it, unless you’re excitable and around 14, which most of the people on the beach were.
And then, after we’d swum in the evening sea and as a bonfire was being lit, the results were called: the National Election Commission chairwoman’s voice suddenly clear and full of slow, stony authority. The incumbent, Ernest Bai Koroma, won with 58%, and the dozen people on the beach cheered and hugged, in slight awe at the massive roar that could be heard, in the background of the radio, from Freetown.
All the mobile networks went down. Bottles of local Star beer, variable in alcohol-content, sugar-content and almost every other way, were opened. Still wet from the sea and being bitten by unseen mosquitoes, I found that the internet was working, and filed a story in the dark.
Huge plates of food appeared: rice and fish with coconut sauce. More poyo was offered and drunk, and the dancing started – first among the ‘adults’ on the beach while the boys – of which there were about eight, between the ages of perhaps 12 and 17 – kept it cool on the veranda.
Someone broke out the ‘man-pekin’ rum, which we had been warned off. ‘Pekin’ means child in Krio. The rum, mixed with water perhaps, was lighter and sweeter than a straight spirit – more like strong punch. We shared blue plastic wineglassfuls.
When we went to bed, the boys were still dancing.