Tuesday, September 20, 2011

She’s Baaack ….and we’re cooking up a storm.

One morning shortly after I returned from vacation, I walked out of my room and found my host mom sitting at the table drinking a cup of coffee.  “Surprise!” she said in French before reaching over to give me a kiss on my left, then right, then left cheeks.  Khady Ndiaye, or Khady Ndiaye “Toubab”, as the neighborhood kids call her because she’s more Western than the average Senegalese woman, has come back from France where she works cleaning rooms at a ski school 8 months out of the year.   She superstitious about flying so she comes and goes without any advanced notice.  Khady (pronounced like “hottie” with a guttural H) doesn’t like her job there much, but she gets paid well and, as a result, can afford to own her own house in Senegal.  Ibou and I rent rooms from her and our association offices are located in her compound.  Much of her family lives next door, although her relationship with them is a bit strained so she keeps them at arms-length.  The compounds share a wall which used to have a door leading from one to the other, but after a dispute with her father’s second wife, she bricked it up.  That’s Khady for you!  She’s a force to be reckoned with.  People both love and fear her.  Although she returned unexpectedly in the middle of the night, it didn’t take long for people to realize that she was back.  Within 24 hours, the peace and quiet to which Ibou and I had grown accustomed was gone.  In its place was a flurry of activity as Khady began executing the home improvement plans she’d been envisioning while away.  Gardeners showed up to hack away at or dig up and move the overgrown plants.  Brick layers appeared with pile of sand and bricks to begin paving a terrace outside her living quarters.  Workmen deconstructed a thatched-roof hut over our classroom space so it can be replaced with something more substantial.  Khady is wise with her money and is investing it in her compound as opposed to doling it out to whoever asks for it, which is the more common trait here in Senegal.  She definitely has a good head on her shoulders.

In addition to filling her house with workmen and construction debris, she’s also filled it with friends.  Daily, there are a handful of folks who come by to catch up with her and hang around most of the day.  We all eat lunch together, with 10-12 of us around the bowl, and most of them stay for afternoon tea.  Last week, Khady decided that I need to learn how to cook Senegalese food.  This thought had, of course, already crossed my mind since cooking has always been one of my favorite pastimes, but I hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet. It wasn’t an appealing prospect at my neighbor’s house where I’d been eating lunch since Khady left last December because their “kitchen” is a small hot cinderblock room with soot-stained walls which is shared with a family of mice and about 10,000 flies.  I also, thought that learning to cook here wouldn’t really translate back home because the pots, pans, and “appliances” are so different.  All meals are cooked over a single propane burner or a pile of burning wood (sometimes even“paper briquettes”!), so there is a certain order to how things are cooked (e.g., the fish is fried first, then the oil is used to make a sauce for the stewed vegetables, then the rice is steamed over this mixture, then the veggies are removed, and finally the rice is added to the liquid.)  Even though we have a four-burner stove in the indoor kitchen here, no one ever uses it but me.  This method of cooking outdoors, using one pot, is well-engrained into the fabric of the culture and it’s not going to change anytime soon.

This will soon be a new covered classroom

Khady washing dishes amid the debris

Most of the greenery in our compound got hacked away,
but I suspect with all of our heat and rain, it will be back in no time.
Anyway, I decided to take her up on the offer and have started to prepare some meals under her tutelage.  Had I known how many “toubab points” that would have gotten me earlier on in my service, I would have done it sooner.  The first afternoon, I made a simple tomato sauce to have over the millet couscous that someone brought us from an outlying village.  Couscous is “village food”, you see.  People in the cities eat rice.  This is an unfortunate cultural divide as couscous is made from local millet or corn and is so much more nutritious than the imported white rice that most people I know eat.  My sauce consisted of oil, tomato paste, water, onions, hot peppers, vinegar, potatoes, and spices.  It was far from rocket-science, yet you would have thought I’d just sent a man to the moon by the way people reacted to a “toubab” cooking a Senegalese sauce.  Anyone who heard the tale, which spread like wildfire, came by to ask me about it and giggle.  Maybe this was the other reason I hadn’t been inclined to do this until now--I certainly don’t need any other reasons to stick out around here.  After the success of my couscous sauce, I was next charged with Ceebu Yaap, or Rice with Meat, which is very descriptive of the end product.  You’d never guess that a platter of oily rice with a few morsels of meat in it would take several hours and many steps to make, but it did.  It went something like this:

  1. We washed ½ kilo of meat in a basin of water since it spent the morning at the market covered in flies. Remember, a ½ kilo is just over 1 lb (before the fat cooks off) and we were serving this to 12 people—not a lot of meat.
  2. Next, Khady and I held onto each piece of meat with our right hands (the “clean” hands), stretching them taut, then I used a dull knife to cut the pieces into smaller pieces.
  3. I then chopped 2 onions in the palm of my hand and added this and the meat to an aluminum Dutch oven called a “marmite” with ½ liter of oil and basically deep fat fried these for 15 minutes or so.
  4. After the meat and onions were crispy, we added 3 liters of water and, pardon my French, boiled the hell out of it for at least an hour.
  5. Meanwhile, with a large wooden mortar and pestle, I pounded away at an onion, many cloves of garlic, a couple of bell peppers, 25 CFA worth of hot peppers (yes, that’s the measurement I was given), black peppercorns, and Maggi and Adji spice packets (aka MSG-laden spice mix).  Pulverizing this into a saucy paste was a good upper arm work out, but you must be careful that the mixture doesn’t splash up and hit you in the eye, which, of course, I was not.
  6. Before adding this saucy mixture to the pot, I skimmed off the oil.  At this step I got excited for a minute because most Senegalese dishes are really oily, but then I realized we were going to add the entire ½ liter of oil back in later.
  7. Then I rinsed 2 kilos of rice (that’s about 4½ lbs dry weight--a lot of rice) and placed it in a steamer pan over the boiling mixture and covered it, wrapping a long piece of fabric around the two pots to keep in the steam.  This is why we removed the oil, so that the pot would produce a better steam.
  8. About a half hour later, when the rice was soft and fluffy, I poured it into the boiling mixture with all of the oil that I’d skimmed off and cooked it until the rice has absorbed all of the liquid.
  9. Finally, I transferred the mixture to a large platter, scraping the crunchy rice that was stuck to the bottom of the pot and placing it in the middle as a garnish, and listened to all the oohs and ahhs from our guests as they gobbled up this high-carb, high-fat meal.
Today I helped make"Boulettes" (fish pounded into a paste and then deep-fried and served with a curried tomato sauce over rice.  It was pretty good.  We’re building up to Ceedu Jenn, the national dish of rice, fish, and vegetables, but even though they’ve been impressed with my cooking skills thus far, no one thinks I’m ready for that yet ;-)

Abib eating millet and my couscous sauce the
 next morning for his breakfast.
Making Ceebu Yaap
Three hours later (see I told you there's not much Yaap)
Khady and her bonne (maid) frying fishballs
Tomato curry sauce

This weekend, my friend Kelsey came to visit.  We were both in Thiès on Friday for a Girls Camp planning meeting and came back to my site together to work on some of our assignments.  We decided to cook an “American” meal for dinner on Saturday night and prepared a burrito bar with tortillas, marinated meat, seasoned black beans, sautéed onions and peppers, grated cheese that Khady has brought back from France, chopped lettuce that Ibou grew in his tabletop garden, and mango salsa.  Everyone loved it.  Ibou, who usually eats like a bird and has been sick for the past week, wolfed down his entire burrito before mine was even wrapped up.  Khady informed me that a meal like this would cost 7€ per person in France, and Khady’s brother and nephew were glad that they’d come to visit just as we were putting the meal on the table.  The next morning, we shared the leftovers with the guys working here and they all came over to thank us personally.  I might just be making that Ceebu Jenn sooner than they thought!
Ibou, Fatou, Coumba, and Khady

Ahhh!  A yummy burrito.

Even this little pipsqueak enjoyed the meal.

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