It all started with the caterpillars. We went out for a nice dinner for B’s birthday at one of our favourite restaurants in Kinshasa: RE-source. It’s a lovely setting with good food and as an added bonus the chef likes to send over little amuse-bouches which are always delicious. As predicted, we started off with an appetizer of our own choosing, but he also sent over delicious ginger beignets and veggie fritters. As we waited for our main course he came around again with four plates setting them down in front of each of us.
We looked at the plates. We looked at each other. We looked back at the plates.
“Caterpillars, grubs and crickets,” pronounced one of our dining companions.
We knew that the menu included a salad with such insect delicacies, but none of us had been brave enough to order it. Apparently, though, the chef had recognized that we might all be brave enough to try it if it was put down in front of us.
I have to admit I bypassed the crickets on the left, but I ate everything else and, a bit to my shock, it was pretty good. I don’t think the avocado and feta cheese hurt anything as far as my appreciation for the grubs, but they definitely didn’t completely mask the taste.
This foray into insects as dinner started a chain reaction of Congolese food exploration – though for much of it I’ve done more viewing than eating.
In Kinshasa there are no “fast food” restaurants (unless you consider a 15+ minutes for your burger ‘fast’), but there is food that you can acquire and eat on the go. I’ve been fascinated by the street food since we got here, but it wasn’t until yesterday that I finally ate some. When I first saw the “egg men” I thought they were carrying raw eggs and I lived in fear of the day I would see one of them drop their pile of egg crates, thereby losing their livelihood for the day.
It turns out though, that those are boiled eggs with a little jar of hot sauce (pili pili) on the side. For 250 Congolese Francs (about $0.20) you can get an egg with spice either in powdered form (milder) or liquid form (hot!). The vendors carry a little knife with them and after taking an egg out with a plastic sheet (so they are not touching them) they crack it all the way around and peel the shell off revealing a perfect boiled egg (miraculously in my opinion because I always tear the egg and end up with a mess…). Then they add the spice and voila – lunch!
Other options for “fast” food include omelettes made on little stoves along the sidewalk (and I will be eating one of those one day soon because they smell AMAZING), little sausages wrapped in croissant that you can get out of the window of your car as you are stopped at a light (I’ve been sorely tempted to buy one some mornings, but we are not allowed to open our windows while we are driving so, alas, I’m out of luck on this one), and chickwangue (pronounced “chick-wang”) which is, perhaps, the most ubiquitous food in Kinshasa.
Chikwangue is a staple for most people here because it is filling and cheap. It is made from the Yuca root, also know as ‘cassava’ or ‘manioc.’ It is the tuber of a large shrub – tapioca comes from the same plant. Around here, the root is boiled, formed into a “log” of sorts and then wrapped in manioc leaves and sold on the street for about 500 CF ($0.40). In other parts of Africa the manioc is boiled and served hot, almost like polenta or oatmeal, and is called Fu-fu. The leaves are also used – they are ground up and boiled with onions and garlic to make something like creamed spinach (without the cream) called Saka-saka, ngai-ngai, or pondu.
These are the staples of many of the Congolese people, along with plantains and bananas, rice and, if they can afford it, chicken, or fish from the river. We pass stands by the side of the road with fish hanging from strings, fresh from the Congo River. One of the standard fish is called capitaine, a relatively mild white fish. The traditional way of cooking it, called maboke, is in manioc leaves (yes, them again) over a fire with peppers. You can also find fish being grilled street-side.
Unlike many places in Africa there is not really a “cuisine” as such in DRC, just a few dishes, like Maboke, Chikwangue and Pondu, that are considered Congolese (though most of them are eaten all over Africa in some form or another).
We’ve also been enjoying – quite literally – the fruits of our garden.
Last year our avocado tree produced exactly one fruit, so it was hard to appreciate it for more than the shade it provided. This year it has been so prolific I feel like I spend half my time trying to find new recipes to use all the avocados. We also have a maracuja (passion fruit) vine which has been dropping little balls of yumminess into the yard for the last month or so. Our coconut tree also gives us a nut or two every month – though most of the time I don’t have the energy to make my way through the husk, so I give them away. This week, for the first time, we also managed to get a ripe breadfruit off of the tree in our compound (they usually disappear with staff or guards before they get ripe), so last night I made breadfruit fritters. Breadfruit are actually pretty fascinating – called “ulu” in Hawaii – they are considered to be a candidate for curing hunger because they are so fruitful and have so many good health benefits. The fritters were pretty good too – potato-like and extra good with onion jam.
Finally are the foods in Congo that either make me cringe or laugh. I’ve been told that the poce and makokolo (the big fat grubs below ) are “délicieux” but I don’t think I’ll be testing them out before we go. Of course, the Congolese think it is bizarre that we eat raw vegetables, mussels and escargot, so it’s probably only a question of getting used to the idea…but I think I’ll stick to the avocados for now.