Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Malian Meals

I ate well in Africa. Usually I come back from Africa a bit thinner, but not this time. Suffice to say were were very well fed (why did this underline, I have no idea).

Breakfasts included deeply fried eggs, fresh French bread and coffee, often accompanied by a warm millet porridge and fried banana fritters. Lunch was always a hot meal of rice (less often corn polenta) and sauce-peanut sauce, onion sauce, "water sauce", okra sauce, vegetable sauce, etc.

Dinner was lighter, sort of. We had fresh salads piled with vegetables, fries and grilled meat, or a plate of amaranth couscous with fried plantains and chicken (duga), or heaps of beans topped with fried onions and seasoned meat (sho), or stewed yucca (coo). Notice the heavy usage of the word "fried"? Sometimes, we ate out--you can't take beer and pizza out of Wisconsinites (our French friend ate pasta:)!

Here are some photos of our favorite meals. (Our cook Sarata, the typical pot they use to cook, stewed yucca, a plate of beans, millet porridge, at the Relax, breakfast salad, seasoned rice, amaranth with plantains, salad, and our attempt at making a salsa fresca.)You'll notice in one of them I am cooking. I started to cook our eggs, since we preferred them with much less oil. The Malians were convinced that the eggs wouldn't cook right, but they cooked perfectly:) We agreed to disagree.

Recipes to follow...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Slice of Solidarity

I can't believe the story I just read (see link at end of post). As protests continue in Wisconsin to maintain workers' rights--specifically the right to collectively bargain--someone realized that the protesters might be a bit hungry. So they ordered a pizza from Ian's on State St. to be delivered to the Capitol building where some people have spent 5 days and nights trying to convince Governor Walker to change his tune. (i won't go into politics here, but let's just say that the bill he introduced has caused an uproar!)

People from 12 other countries and 38 states have followed suit. Ian's has always supported local farmers, businesses, and made a darn good pizza, but now I love Ian's even more. They are working hand in hand with people around the world, non-stop (I went into the very crowded State Street location Saturday with my family, and the workers are literally running around making pizza as fast as they can), to support the rights of all of Wisconsin's families.

I have always believed that food is what binds us, unites us and brings people together in peace. Maybe Scott Walker needs a slice of Solidarity Pizza.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Bowls of Love and Stew

I remember the disappointment I felt as a kid when I saw my mom rinse the spaghetti sauce jar to get every last drop of sauce out. I longed for thick, sweet, sauce, but what I remember (mom, don't worry, I've gotten over it—and make up for it daily:) is thin sauce that stretched our meals and our family's food dollars.

We ate well in Bamako, Mali's capital. Though the food was somewhat redundant, we ate meat at most meals, flavorful, thick sauces and fresh salads. After a week of tigedigena, toh, duga, and zame, my family headed to Wasulu, a region in the southwest of Mali that spans Mali, Guinea and the Ivory Coast. We had a mission this trip—I wanted to bring Jarra to the village of his father's birth, and his grandmother's home. We also were delivering the grain grinder which our Madison community so generously bought for the villagers.

I had not been to the village in 10 years. We were excited and nervous. Jarra was meeting his father's family—his paternal grandmother-- for the first time. We loaded ourselves into a hot and crowded bus, and took off for Yanfolila, Mali, where we got a car to take us over the dirt path to the village.

The village lies just over the border in Guinea, and is called Kolomalila by the locals. The Guinean government renamed it Bagafea, and miraculously it shows up on Google earth.

As my son likes to explain, we went 4-wheeling without a 4WD vehicle. The carcass of a van carried us for more than 2 hours over red-dirt roads which gradually became a single track. We held onto metal framing and vinyl seat covers for dear life. Our friends Cathy and Peter joined our family and were amazed as the cement block houses of the city were quickly left behind and replaced by beautiful, round-walled, adobe brick huts thatched with grass.

We reached Kolomalila just before dusk and were greeted by dozens of villagers who immediately surrounded the van and helped us out. Jarra's grandmother slowly walked through the crowd, bent with age, and started shaking with emotion. She is very old, no one knows exactly how old, but must be around 85 or so, as Jarra's father was her last child. She reached for Jarra and put her arms around him before people gently guided her away to sit down.

We spent 3 nights in the village, quickly adapting to life without electricity and running water, but less easily adapting to the crowds and crowds of kids that surrounded us every waking hour, and the very simple meals that were served.

The villagers still subsist almost entirely on food they grow themselves, and access to market produce is limited. Every day begins with corn porridge, called seri. For lunch, while the villagers ate toh (a corn polenta with okra sauce), we ate rice with a thin tomato-onion sauce. Dinner was another bowl of rice with sauce, or gbanzan, a thicker corn porridge with a green leaf sauce. Jarra's uncle Joumen brought bananas from their farm, a potato-like root, and peanuts to snack on. On the last day, we slaughtered a sheep and fed many families. I discovered that I love sheep liver—or maybe I was just hungry.

Corn makes up the basis for most meals, and peanuts and small amounts of fish provide most of the protein. There is little sugar available, though sugar cane is grown for a treat.

The farming season lasts from about May-Nov, and a large communal garden about 1.5 miles from the village provides fresh onions, pineapple, peppers, okra, herbs and tomatoes year round.

My son, who had become accustomed to sugar in his seri and milk, went through some sugar withdrawal, but, amazingly, learned to love the morning cereal without sugar (though that didn't last long).

Here are some pictures of what we ate in a day (corn porridge, freshly butchered sheep (and the sheep before butchering) and rice and roasted roots). Though the food was simple, we were given the best they had, I know. As our friend Cathy noted, we stayed in their huts, ate their food, used their water, and we were treated like royalty. I wish I could be that kind of hostess.

The love the people of Kolomalila have for Jarra, our family and our community filled our stomachs and hearts in ways that food can't. It is the same love that was stirred into each plate of spaghetti I ate as a kid.

(other photos include, from the top, women pounding grain, a fire in a kitchen, some villagers with my son and his grandma, the grain grinder, gardens, selling food at a bus stop.)

Monday, February 14, 2011

24 Hours in Paris

It was supposed to be 48, but we missed our flight out of Mali. I can't believe we didn't once check our itinerary to verify our return flight. We anticipated our departure date--Feb 11,2011, we were sure—for days. We packed our bags carefully that last day in Bamako, and said goodbye to our friends. After a quick dinner of salad, bread and stewed, freshly slaughtered sheep, we headed to the airport.

“We don't have you in the computer,” said the flight attendant at check in. A sinking feeling hit me as I pulled out the paper tickets. I looked at the departure date—Feb 10, 2011. Oh Sh%$!

After waiting like orphans next to our carts filled with carefully weighed and packed bags, we managed to get on the only daily flight from Bamako to Paris. We had booked a hotel room for two nights at the Hotel Marignon in Paris, but spent our first night on an airplane instead. Oh well.

We arrived at our small but quaint hotel, nestled in the Latin Quarter, early the next morning. After dumping our bags, we filled up on a quick breakfast of baguette, jam, cafe au lait, juice and Nutella. Thus started our adventures in eating our way through Paris.

My husband had spent some time as a youth, and again as a college student, in Paris and was excited to show us his old stomping grounds. We navigated the old cobbled streets, which led us by many a creperie, where we sampled a ham, onion and mushroom crepe, and past little shops selling tourist trinkets. We stopped in a chocolate shop where we savored a dark chocolate ganache with gold dust—all before 11 am.

The Panthenon loomed up as we strolled and I stared in awe at the detailed architecture of the city, where the tops of buildings are as beautiful as the facade.

We rounded yet another corner, where the street's breathtaking beauty and suggestive curves drew my gaze. Ah, the city of food and romance.

We returned to our hotel near lunchtime to meet my husband's dear friends, whom he hadn't seen in 8 years. The Willmann's guided us through the city, showing us in a day what most sane tourists would probably see in 3 or 4.

Notre Dame was our first stop (on our way to lunch). In Bamako, most building are unfinished. The houses are constructed out of concrete block and plaster, but many people cannot afford to build their entire house at once. The begin with the ground floor and the the front, hoping to meet the city's requirement that land be developed soon after purchase. Rebar emerges like wilted flower stalks from the rooftops, waiting months or years for the next layer of bricks.

By contrast, every building I saw in my one day in France was beautiful and carefully constructed. If that itself weren't enough, the inside of the buildings were equally ornate. We headed to the Place de Concorde for the scenic ferris wheel ride, but not before we stopped for lunch at a streetside cafe called Au Verre Luisant.

Luckily the Willmann's were as eager to eat as we were. At the cafe I enjoyed a Ceasar salad with salmon, while Drummer Man had a chicken Ceasar salad.. The kids had fresh pasta and hamburgers. We all shared plently of wine.

A few fluffy mounds of Barbe-a-Papa gave us energy for the slightly nauseating ferris wheel ride. We headed next to Montmartre and Sacre Coeure. Stunning. Only the heavily accented rendition of “Take me Home, Country Roads” being sung by an Italian guitar player de(dis?)tracted from the beauty of the place.

My son, an active 8-year old boy who lost weight on the standard African fare, was ravenous and grabbed a “hot dog” wrapped in a baguette and cheese. Yum!

By evening my legs ached, and our 3-year old daughter, tired from lack of sleep and endless walking, refused to put her feet on the ground. We headed to the Metro as the sun set. City lights shone through the night and restaurants filled with hungry sightseers, families and lovers. After arriving back to the latin Quarter, we enjoyed dinner at a small brasserie near our hotel, devouring grilled chicken, frites, escargot, fresh cheese, onion soup, grilled beef and lasagne. With more wine. Um, and dessert—profiteroles piled sky high with ice cream and whipped cream.The tastes of Paris left me wishing we had far more than 24, or even 48, hours. And that I had bought more chocolates.