Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Mzungu's Delight in Tanzania

There are some people who can take pictures of food and make it look appetizing, and who enjoy posting those pictures on the internet. My friend Lindsey - to this day the only person whose friendship I owe completely to blogging - puts up pictures on facebook that I occasionally feel tempted to use as recipes. Suffice it to say that I'm not one of these food-picture-taking people. I feel about as comfortable taking a picture of my plate at a restaurant as I would feel, say, attending the Republican National Convention. But my faithful readers deserve to know about what I've been eating in Tanzania,apologies for my food photography skills.

Ugali. We begin our tour with the shapeless blob of starch you see on the plate above. Shapeless blobs of starch are common as staple foods in Africa, and Tanzania's version is known as ugali. Largely flavorless but undeniably filling, ugali serves as a sort of gustatory canvas for sauces, vegetables, and for the fortunate, meat. It comes in two main types, corn and cassava. Both are nutritionally marginal and are what an economist would call "inferior goods," but the cassava-based stuff, pictured above, is especially looked down upon. Which is really too bad, because I find it tastier than its maize-based sibling. If you were at a roadside restaurant in Dar es Salaam and craved the repast pictured above, you'd want to order ugali dagaa, ugali and sardines. The usual formula for a meal name is the name of the starch followed by the name of the protein, with no conjunction in between; thus wali samaki is "rice and fish" and chipsi kuku is "chips [fries] and chicken."

Instant coffee. Coffee lovers, weep. East Africa may produce delicious coffee beans, but from what I can tell, most of them are exported elsewhere. Instead in our office we have the product pictured above, which I drink out of desperation. In my normal life I take my coffee black, just like Dad taught me, but this stuff requires a hefty dose of powdered milk and sugar before I will consider drinking it.

Chipsi mayai. I don't know if there's a term for comfort food in Swahili, but chipsi mayai (the latter word is pronounced like "my eye!") certainly fits that bill. The name means "chips and eggs," and it's really just a mass of precooked french fries glued together with eggs. It reminds me a little of the omelette spaghetti I enjoyed in Cameroon. The specimen above is topped with shredded vegetables, and on the side of the plate you can see a pile of salt and a some pilipili (chili peppers) in case you want a little kick. It's also good with ketchup, though be warned that the Tanzanian stuff is watery compared to good ol' Heinz.

Ndizi nyama. This may be my favorite Tanzanian dish so far. Ndizi nyama means "bananas and meat," and it consists of beef cooked in a tomato-based sauce with bananas. Not plaintains, mind you, but real, honest-to-goodness bananas. I haven't tried making it myself, and I can only assume that they use slightly underripe bananas to prevent the finished product from becoming chunks of beef floating in fruit puree. In the other segments of the plate you can see some greens and maharage (beans), which are common side dishes.

Machungwa. It's not my most photogenic moment, but I wanted to illustrate the proper Swahili technique for eating machungwa (oranges). The oranges here are absolutely delicious, and they're sold in abundance by the side of the road anywhere you go. They are delivered sliced in half, often with the rind partially peeled away in an artistic-looking fashion. Rather than peeling and eating--a procedure I personally don't much like owing to sticky hands and that bitter white layer--people squeeze and slurp the juice and pulp. You probably lose some fiber this way, but it can't possibly be worse than drinking it from a carton.


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