Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Foodie thoughts on Gabon

In each of the places we’ve lived we’ve picked up a number of things that have stayed with us long after we’ve moved - habits, ways of thinking, tastes for certain foods, recipes, even words from the language that seems to have replaced their English counterparts, and all of these things have woven themselves into the fabric of our lives. 

As we are beginning the process again somewhere new I wonder…what pieces of Gabon will attach themselves to us in the next 5 years?  After only 2 1/2 months here I find that I’m quick to respond in the affirmative with “oui” without thinking, even when speaking in English, although when I nearly bump into someone I still automatically want to say, “desculpa” (Portuguese).  But just as my Russian vocabulary slowly began to bow out to make room for the Portuguese, I know that French will eventually take it’s place too.  

I asked for some inspiration and got some.  I was asked about adapting the local foods into our daily lives.  and I can’t say whether “adapting” was meant to be “adopting” or whether adapt was the word chosen, but I’d say it’s most appropriate, because we aren’t Gabonese and I’ll probably never cook completely traditionally Gabonese meals at home on a regular basis.  But we’ve already begun to adapt things.  Substitute.  Change things.  Keep things.  Adapt to them and them to us.

Plantains.  It’s a good thing we both like them.   They are everywhere.  In Angola we had them on rare occasions when we were gifted some from Luanda, but never had much opportunity to cook them often.  Here they are one of our staples.  We boil them.  Fry them.  One day I decided to make plantain fritters and shared some with our Gabonese neighbor, Nesmy, who upon seeing them and having a bite said, “You know how to make these????”.  I said, “I do know how to make them, but what do you think they are?”  Then he turned to his wife and said, “beignets avec banane!”, which actually is exactly what they were, since “fritter” is the English word for beignet.  He had been joking with me that I owed him some “cuisine de Pennsylvanie” and so I told him that we make something similar in PA, but not with plantains.  He replied, “I’ve never had them with plantains either. It’s good!”  

Etangas.  When we first arrived in Gabon, any time we would pass a market stall I was intrigued by this small blue thing.  Everyone had them, and everyone seemed to be buying them.  Was it a fruit?  A vegetable? I mean, they are BLUE!  Other than blueberries I can’t think of any other blue fruits, and I certainly have never seen a blue vegetable before.  One day I ventured to ask the lady at the vegetable stand, “Que ce que c’est?”  (“what is it?”) and she replied with a somewhat bewildered look that sort of said “duh” she said, “Etanga”.  I asked, “C’est des fruit?  des legumes?”  she said, “c’est etanga.”  Clearly I wasn’t getting anywhere.  Later when I was able to ask Nesmy, he told me it was a vegetable and when I asked what it was like he said, “it’s like….. etanga" and laughed.  But he promised to make some for me to answer my questions.  

* (once cooked they appear more purple, but raw they really are quite blue!)

Several weeks later I was invited to go along with Nesmy and his wife, Andoo to visit a friend of theirs for his birthday.  To my surprise, the hosts had made etangas!  They had been baked and were accompanied by a good deal of salt.  I was quite excited to try one, so I chose a smaller one and watched the others to know how to eat it properly.  They each ate them, skin and all, avoiding the pit inside, which is kind of like a mango or avocado pit.  The flesh of the cooked etanga was quite soft, creamy - like the consistency of pureed pumpkin or a very soft overripe avocado, and as I took my first bite I thought, I could really like this, but after a second or two it was very sour, almost bitter.  It kind of took me by surprise.  I kept taking bites hoping that maybe it was just an odd bite, but each was accompanied by a rather strong flavour that i really find it hard to put into words.  I dutifully finished my etanga and prayed that I wouldn’t have to eat another one or get put on the spot to tell everyone what I thought of it.  I was offered another and I considered taking one, had there been another small one - just to see if perhaps i had gotten a bad one - but there were only 2 left and both were actually bigger than my first and I just couldn’t force myself to eat another one if it turned out to taste the same.  

Sam had not been at the birthday celebration, and had missed out on the etangas.  The following day, Nesmy brought some to us.  These had been boiled this time, but were served in the same fashion as the one I had had the day before - with a hefty amount of salt.  I decided that this was my chance to see if the previous day was a fluke or not.  For some reason I really WANTED to like these strange bitter veggies with the blue skin.  I also decided that the key to eating them must be the salt, and made sure to get enough on my first bite.  To my surprise, it wasn’t so bad.  Perhaps it was because I knew what to expect, or because I had been expecting the worst - but this one, I actually kind of liked.  I am still at a loss to explain the flavour exactly, but it does somehow remind me a bit of strong salt and vinegar chips.  I can see now, though, why people were at a loss when explaining what they are like, because they really aren’t like anything I have ever had before.  I’m told that you either love ‘em or hate ‘em.  My first was a definitive hate.  But maybe they are an acquired taste - the second may have started to win me over, as I have a strange desire to have more.  Sam on the other hand, has no such compulsion and is strongly in the “hate” category.  

Manioc/Cassava.  This is something we ate in Angola as well.  Sam in particular loves it and often came home from work carrying some.  Generally we would boil it and then fry it.  Before having it in Gabon if I had been asked, “Do you like manioc?”  I would had said, “Yes.  of course.”  Now that I have had it here in Gabon, I wouldn’t be so quick with my answer.  I have discovered that my liking it has a lot to do with how it is prepared.  The way I have had it here - it is boiled and fermented and this seems to be the most popular preparation as far as I can tell.  It is sold this way, wrapped tightly in the manioc leaves, at all the little vendors and market stalls.  It has a rather spongy texture and with the fermented flavour and grey appearance it just doesn’t appeal much to me.  We  have actually only seen fresh cassava at the big market and we didn’t see any that looked really good enough to buy for making it ourselves at home our own way.  

Smoked fish is another popular food here.  We tried some in a peanut soup that Nesmy made for us.  The soup was decent, but I think I would have preferred it without the tough, smoked fish.  

Speaking of peanuts, that is another thing we’ve seen quite a lot of.  Many of the stalls sell home-roasted peanuts packed in salvaged glass bottles.  Some also sell jars of cooking “peanut butter” - for use in dishes like Nesmy’s soup, or cooked cassava leaves.  We buy the peanuts, but grind them ourselves.  I’ve made my own natural peanut butter with a little oil and honey and it was quite nice.  There’s a spicy peanut chicken stew of sorts that Sam learned how to make from a Nigerian friend he met in Russia that we make fairly often.  it will be even easier to make now that we can just buy the cooking peanut butter rather than having to grind the peanuts ourselves every time.  

French baguettes, of course!  One of the many hand-me-downs of colonisation - these are the daily bread of the Gabonese.  We get a fresh-baked baguette every morning at the little shop across the street.  The young vendor knows what we want when we step foot in the tiny shop and we don’t even have to ask anymore.  He just grabs a long baguette, slices it in half and puts it in it’s little bag.  We hand over the 125 Francs (about 25 cents) and that’s it.  He practices his English with Sam and Sam practices his French.  You can even purchase the bread with chocolate spread (a favourite with the kids in the neighborhood) or with spreadable cheese. Seems like it’s a popular breakfast on-the-go for school children and people on their way to work.  

Here in Libreville there is a lot of variety - a typical saturday trip to the market stalls for us yields plantains, sweet potatoes, carrots, zucchini squash, red peppers, green peppers, red onions, garlic, ginger, mangoes, bananas, tangerines, tomatoes, avocados, basil, cilantro, lemons, oranges, and watermelon.  We’re preparing ourselves though for our move to Bongolo in January.  We’ve heard much about how there’s isn’t much to be had there fresh vegetable-wise.  So we’re enjoying the bounty while we can.  I hope to try my hand at a garden there, but i also know the task is daunting - many have tried but have failed for lack of the time and effort it takes to keep away the multitude of pests and the rot that can come from living in the rainforest.  I’m trying to do my research into tropical permaculture to make sure to choose plants that thrive in a hot, humid, wet climate.  We shall see….

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