It’s quite a treat to be amongst the chef and his team as they go about their daily business. It’s certainly a treat not to have to think about what to cook for dinner every evening! Previously, we have cooked for ourselves – especially when we know we are going to be at camp for a couple of months at a time. The reasoning for this is purely down to digestion. Without going into too much detail (!), when you are used to a western diet – changing to an African one for an extended period of time can prove to be rather interesting and not necessarily in the way you would automatically assume.
Our chef previously worked for an ex-pat company and has obviously learnt a thing or two about what “us westerners” liked to eat. For the most part, this was fine. Sometimes, though, the good intentions don’t have quite the right end results. Somehow, something gets “lost in translation”. We have finally convinced him that we are not the same people as he was used to dealing with in the previous company and do not expect to be given western food all of the time, if at all. We are in Africa, aren’t we? (There is a fine line between being brave and being naive.. I kind of knew I would be letting myself in for a few treats!) We’ll eat with them rather than forcing them to eat with us, if you follow. Granted, we are being funded by the company, which means that we are not surviving on rice and dodgy, unrecognisable bits of animal alone and over the years we can see that our crew all look considerably “healthier” than when we first met them. Admittedly, the chef is looking a little too healthy around the middle..
The chef and his sous-chef also do all the food sourcing, as they obviously know best. These guys have it sussed. Some stuff is bought in Bamako and brought along with them in the bakkie (pick-up truck). Other stuff is sourced at the local village market. Everything, I’m pleased to say, is thoroughly cleaned, washed and cooked. I know – I watched intently for the first couple of weeks we all worked together, just to be sure, to be sure! There is zero point in being ill and therefore incapable of carrying out the work you are paid to do.
Normally, everyone will sit down to an evening meal together around the one table, which is all set in the most civilised fashion. (We hardly ever do this at home anymore!) Chef then serves us all, one by one. He does this because there are a couple of guys who would polish off the whole platter/pot of food before others had a chance to get their portion! Being the only woman on site, I am in the privileged position of being served first, even before my husband – the boss! I have to tell him when to stop dishing out for me as he is extremely generous with his portion sizes. I suspect he is trying to fatten me up ;) It is a general belief in Africa that a “well-fed” woman reflects her husband’s wealth. It would appear that my husband could be considered a bit of a pauper in this regard.. (that’s ok by me, tho’)
Typically, an evening meal would be a stew, which is mostly sauce based with a few rations of meat hiding here and there. This would usually be accompanied by either rice or couscous. My favourite dish these guys prepare is peanut-based, with a rich tomato sauce. For me this is rather ironic because before I came to Mali, I never ate peanuts. I couldn’t stand the things. It just goes to show that if you’re hungry enough (and providing you don’t have an allergic reaction) you’ll learn to eat and like just about anything (almost anything, that is.. – read on!). Other times we get deep-fried chicken (no surprise there) with pasta drenched in tomato sauce. You’ll know if you’re getting chicken that night, if there is a chicken clucking around under the mango tree during the day.
Capitaine (Nile Perch) is another local favourite. In fact the crew stock up on fish from the field and take it back to Bamako with them even though Bamako is situated on the banks of the mighty River Niger. It would make sense that fish from smaller rivers (and less polluted ones at that) taste a whole lot better than the big fish from the big river.
Today’s lunch, a rare treat – as we’re usually not at camp during the day, was a mutton stew with a peanut and mango-leaf sauce. Yes, mango leaves. I saw chef picking them off the tree myself earlier in the morning, wondering what on earth had he planned for them! Well, I soon found out. At least he went for the young and tender leaves! It did lend a slightly earthy flavour to the dish, but otherwise it was quite tasty. Got to get your roughage from somewhere, I guess! And no, it didn’t make the stew taste of mangoes. Only the inclusion of actual mangoes would do that, and they are a bit too “green” at present.
If you have read the previous post – you’ll be aware that we have some “beefy bits” in supply. That first evening we had liver for dinner. Now, I’m not a big fan of liver. I’ll eat it but if I had a choice I’d probably give it a miss. Paté – I like. I think it has something to do with the texture rather than the taste. Liver was not a surprise. I was prepared for that. The biggest surprise of the week came the following night.
I mis-heard chef when he announced what was on the menu, thinking it was liver for the second night in a row (it was an awfully big liver)…I tucked in. I saw my husband look at me in surprise and I wondered what was wrong. I had managed my first mouthful and had realised it wasn’t liver – the texture was very different. The smell too, was not the same. In fact, it was a little “ripe”. A factor of ~45C heat and a lack of refrigeration for 36 hours since the sacrifice took place, no doubt. Mind you, in saying that – we do operate a gas-freezer, which although doesn’t actually get cold enough to freeze anything (due to it constantly being accessed for cold drinking water etc.,) and chef still chose not to keep the meat cold inside it. On reflection, I would probably think it “less ripe, more rancid”. Hmm…
Anyway, back to the dinner scenario. I managed a couple of mouthfuls (nay, morsels) and then decided that I would satisfy my hunger with the pasta and tomato sauce that accompanied it instead. My husband waited long enough, with a glint in his eye, before asking me if I knew what it was I had just eaten. It was lung.
Never, ever again. If it’s the last piece of meat on this planet – I’ll turn vegetarian in an instant. I’ve tried it and I’m very proud of myself for not wanting to “up-chuck” on the spot, but it is fair to say that I shan’t be trying to prove something to myself or anybody else for that matter by eating lung again. Thankfully though, I had a nice ice-cold can of tamarind juice to wash away the taste. At least that had been kept in the freezer!
I’m kind of hoping that this is the end of the “strange cuts” from the cow. I know the brains have gone – the other guys in the camp scoffed that up the same night that the lung was reserved for my husband and I. Maybe tonight will be beef – in the more recognisable form, that is.
Ok – Update and clarification on the “lung” incident. It was a day later that my husband actually realised that it could not have been lung that we had for dinner. He has eaten it before (grew up on a farm.. they eat anything… ;) ) – and he thought the texture wasn’t spongy enough (eeuww). He has since concluded, putting a few other snippets of conversations with the chef into the mix, that it was in fact “tongue”. – Lung, tongue – for any non-English speakers.. – I can see where the mix-up might have come in…
This now presents a bit of a dilemma for me. I happen to like tongue, normally. Presumably, this is all down to a different style of preparation – and the fact that the head, from which this delicatessen was sourced, was sitting out in the sun in a metal wheelbarrow for a day and a half. Clearly, these guys like the effect of this “tenderising process”. I know for a fact that I don’t. I’ll be giving tongue a miss until I’m back in either South Africa or the UK! I still don’t think I’ll be entertaining any options on lung either… Although, I do have to say that I am strangely disappointed to have had my potential bragging opportunity foiled.