Saturday, December 08, 2007
Alwiello recommends Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen as the ideal accompaniment to the cranial feast that is alwiello.blogspot.com
Cameroonian Cuisine. As I sit here killing the minutes or indeed hours before the next meal begins its Maggi® laced way through my digestive tract, it seems like a fitting occasion to expound on the gastronomic delights of Cameroonian cuisine.
This evening promises a pescatorial feast that is peculiarly common place in these landlocked sub-Saharan climes. A fish answering to the name of ‘capitaine’ barbecued by a woman answering to the name of Marie in a street answering to the name of Avion Me Laisse. The bombed out shell of a building that was formerly the venue for such exquisite sustenance has been replaced by an all-singing-all-dancing-pool-table-filled-semblance-of-a-bar that is wholly out of character with the generally bombed out look of the entire street and indeed quartier. In fact, if the truth be known, most of Maroua looks bombed out; the peculiar pattern of erosion that afflicts the buildings here bears a striking resemblance to bullet holes and the results of a sustained mortar attack.
The fish itself is presented on a tray with a dollop of green, a slop of red and a blob of white and the options of salad, fried plantains and the almost-entirely-indescribable flavour and texture that is ‘batons de manioc’. Cutlery is of the fingers and thumbs variety and invariable messy and the end of the meal is marked by the grabbing hands of a gaggle of hungry street kids determined to glean what they can from the clean-picked bones.
Manioc ... someone spent a lot of time working out how to eat manioc and if I’m totally honest, I’m not entirely sure why they bothered. To make it edible you have to wash and peel the toxic root, shred it, boil it, dry it, make it into a powder, soak it, wrap it in a leaf, steam it, let it cool and then eat it. It smells a little like vomit, has the texture of Pritt Stick and tastes of nothing at all. Not that that has ever stopped me ordering it.
In a typically Cameroonian demonstration of economic theory, the street itself is lined with about 20 women all selling exactly the same thing at the same price. Quite why Marie gets our trade is a mystery lost in the mists of time. Given her inability to serve you what you asked for, her tantalising people skills and her distinct lack of small change it’s a wonder that she continues to do business.
Just around the corner is Maroua’s main drag and pumping heart and soul; Boulevard de Renouveau de Domayo. Bars and clubs share the pavements with vendors of barbecued chicken and kebabs. Stacks of spatch-cocked chooks are sliced and diced into a jigsaw of gigots and served in a torn piece of cement bag with a side serving of potentially amoeba-laced salad, the ubiquitous pimant and perhaps a loaf of bread.
As with most places here, you find a place to sit, usually a bar, put your order in to the chicken/fish/goat/lamb/beef vendor and tell him where you’ll be. You can even sit in a restaurant, order a drink and then get your food brought from somewhere else entirely.
Bona fide eateries are hard to pick out amongst the debris of the sprawl that purports to be urban. Gloire de Dieu has become something of a favourite despite the ongoing attempts of Mama Magui to lure the unwary to the Evangelical Church. At 500 Francs (50p) for a portion that would silence even the most gluttonous of gourmands it won’t be winning any prizes but when it comes to Ndole and couscous it’s hard to beat. Cameroonian couscous, incidentally, is about as close to its Moroccan counterpart as I am to His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
Ndole is another Cameroonian staple that you have to spend three and a half years rendering palatable before you can consider eating it. What happens to it after it’s been detoxified is anyone’s guess but it looks a bit like spinach and if you close your eyes, hold your nose and think of nothing but spinach it could almost pass as something that’s a bit like spinach.
The Couscous is made of millet and is basically a large ball of an almost entirely tasteless, white, gelatinous gloop. Gombo takes the theme of gloop to a whole new level, having, as it does, the consistency, flavour and nutritional benefits of wallpaper paste. Folere is almost exactly like Ndole in every way imaginable except that it’s not Ndole. Legumes are almost exactly like Folere in every way imaginable except that they’re not Folere and also, despite being called vegetables, contain large chunks of something once living that often bears a remarkable, nay, uncanny resemblance to cow.
At the posh end of the scale are the hotels and guide-booked restaurants which invariably employ the more vivacious members of society whose incredible memories and puppy like enthusiasm are conspicuous in their complete absence. If you manage to get their attention and a menu, half of the things on the menu are invariably not actually available and if you manage to find something that is and that the chef can be bothered to cook, you quite frequently end up with something that is only partially what you wanted.
Pre-empting this intricate dance and asking the ‘waiter’ what’s available is an exercise in futility as the weakness of the connective tissue in the head and neck is so fragile and brittle that any expression in the affirmative or negative is potentially life threatening and so answers to questions tend to be based largely on guess work. Eyes rolled or a gurgling noise that could just as easily be trapped wind covers a multitude of bases which makes the ordering process just that little bit more interesting.
Paying is a pleasure on a whole new level. Entire new life forms could evolve, pick fights with one another and be consigned to the fossil record in the time it usually takes to get change.
Other succulent morsels to satiate the Lockhart hunger include beignet which is either made of black-eyed peas mushed into a pulp and deep fried, or what are basically doughnuts in everything but shape. Goat in its dismembered entirety grilled over a barrel and soaked in Maggi® and served with raw onions and the ubiquitous pimant. None of it’s likely to win any prizes or become the next big taste sensation but it fills a hole and you can’t ask for more than that.
And so to the star of the show: Maggi®. Cubes or Arome? The options are, well, two fold. It’s basically MSG in a liquid or stock cube form and is the essential ingredient in all Cameroonian cuisine. Nothing is cooked without it which means that everything tastes strangely similar. It does, admittedly, add a bit of flavour to what is occasionally quite bland food but the result is that everything ends up tasting the same, which is to say that chicken, fish, beef, goat, salad and vegetables all end up tasting almost exactly unlike what they are but almost entirely but not quite totally similar.
So there you go. Cameroonian cuisine. It’s not going to take the world by storm but it does all that can be hoped of it, albeit with the occasional but very real risk of intestinal invasion ... whoop whoop, as they say.