I’m going to the garden to eat worms…

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.

Hmmm…

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.

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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.

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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.

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A musical interlude

Somewhere in the chaos and rush of wifedom and motherhood I have forgotten how much I love music.

Today I’m alone and I’m not working.  Or, at least, I’m not working in the traditional sense, though I am practicing, as my friend MJ says, the “Home Arts.”  I’m cooking for the feast that we will have with four of our best friends tonight.  Standing rib roast, yorkshire puddings (ask someone British if you don’t know what these are – then do your best to get some…), roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, Pavlova (ditto above – just ask someone Australian or a Kiwi) and some homemade ice cream to round out the gluttony.

I was going to turn on the TV while I cooked, but come on, between the ice cream maker, mixer and being on the other side of the room, I wouldn’t hear a thing. So, instead, I decided to open the long ignored iTunes icon and I chose a playlist I made many years ago – before the aforementioned wifedom and motherhood.  I called the playlist “Awe.”  It contains songs that make me feel fully alive – the kind of songs that make you want to dance around, sing as loud as you can, and not care who sees or hears you.  These songs make me feel FULL. Full of life, and love and wonder.   They are the kind of songs that make me cry from happiness, and sadness, and longing and joy.

Most of these songs are not “hits” for anyone but me.  Somewhat obscure bands like Catherine Wheel, The Lowest of the Low and Bob Mould, plenty of ’80s “alternative” music and (for me) some bizarre additions like The Black Eyed Peas.  There are songs everyone knows too, but together this list just, well, sings to me.

The feeling these songs give me is part of the reason I have “blown up my life” (another gem courtesy of MJ) and decided to follow B to the African jungles (even though they might be concrete jungles primarily).

And listening is reminding me that life is full of Awe, isn’t it? In song, in art, in the goodness of other humans, in just looking out the window and seeing a gorgeous blue sky with passing clouds, in smelling bacon cooking. In so many ways.

I have had a million small and large moments of awe this year – it’s been a good one, 2014.  But my playlist is reminding of how much awe there is to come in 2015.  I can’t wait.

I’ve got to get back to my Choux de Bruxelles now, and Spoon just came on so I need to get up and dance.  For anyone who is curious, the whole list of “AWE” is below.

Happy New Year friends.  I hope 2015 is awe-some – and awe-filled – for all of you.

AWE

Litany (Life Goes On)            Guadalcanal Diary

Can’t Stand It                         Wilco

New Year’s Day                     U2

Dreaming                               Blondie

Judy Staring At The Sun       Catherine Wheel

Blister In The Sun                 Violent Femmes

Sit Down                                 James

But Not Tonight                     Depeche Mode

Forever Young                       Alphaville

Song 2                                    Blur

Hoover Dam                           Sugar

Just Can’t Get Enough          Depeche Mode

Love Is Strange                      Everything But The Girl

Heal                                        Catherine Wheel

Do You Realize?                     The Flaming Lips

Life                                         Our Lady Peace

Obsession                               Animotion

Rosy And Grey                       The Lowest Of The Low

I Turn My Camera On          Spoon

Super Bon Bon                      Soul Coughing

So What’cha Want                The Beastie Boys

Gone Going                             Black Eyed Peas

So Alive                                   Ryan Adams

See a Little Light [*]              Bob Mould

Just Like Heaven                   The Cure

I’m Free                                  The Soup Dragons

This Is The Day                     The The

Every Morning                      Sugar Ray

Thank You                             Led Zeppelin

Making do

First things first.  I “passed” my French “test.”  My score was a S-2/R-2.

I can’t say much about the assessment since I signed a non-disclosure agreement, but suffice it to say it was a LONG couple of hours that taxed my brain more than it has been taxed in a long time.  In good news, the assessors were quite complimentary and basically told me that they thought my childhood French was trapped somewhere in my brain.  So hopefully I’ll have the opportunity to take some classes in the spring that will be able to coax the French back out again a little more fluently.

What does my score mean? Well, a “2” is generally considered to mean I have a “limited working proficiency”

I am, according to the assessors:

  • able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements
  • can handle with confidence most basic social situations including introductions and casual conversations about current events, work, family, and autobiographical information
  • can handle limited work requirements, needing help in handling any complications or difficulties; can get the gist of most conversations on non-technical subjects (i.e. topics which require no specialized knowledge), and has a speaking vocabulary sufficient to respond simply with some circumlocutions
  • has an accent which, though often quite faulty, is intelligible
  • can usually handle elementary constructions quite accurately but does not have thorough or confident control of the grammar.

In about six months B will have to take a similar test assessment and he’ll have to get a S-3/R-3.  The score B needs is that of someone with a “Professional working proficiency.”  He will be expected to:

  • able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most conversations on practical, social, and professional topics
  • can discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease
  • has comprehension which is quite complete for a normal rate of speech
  • has a general vocabulary which is broad enough that he or she rarely has to grope for a word
  • has an accent which may be obviously foreign; has a good control of grammar; and whose errors virtually never interfere with understanding and rarely disturb the native speaker.

I know he’ll do it. He’s an annoyingly determined human being.  But, wow, my 2+ hours of “assessing” made me realize what an amazing, and difficult, feat it is to learn a language, basically from scratch, to the point that you “rarely have to grope for a word.”

Besides stressing about the French assessment, we have not been thinking much about Kinshasa in the last couple of weeks, at least C and I have not.  B has been in “area studies” learning about Africa, so he’s probably a little more focused, but C and I have been enjoying fall in D.C.

For me, with fall, comes a strange need to cook.  Something about apples and pumpkins and the feel of crispy leaves under my feet makes me want to get into the kitchen.  So C and I have been finding fun things to cook, and having fun in some unexpected ways.

We started with some banana bread.  We had a couple of browning bananas, so I found my mother’s awesome recipe (which is really Nigella Lawson’s awesome recipe – we skip the nuts, but don’t, whatever you do, skip the rum…) and set about baking.  I gathered all my ingredients and then realized that the corporate housing gods do not include a bread pan with the kitchen.  So I made do with the casserole dish we do have and tried to fashion a tin foil “basket” to keep it contained in a loaf-like form.  This is how it came out of the oven:

IMG_0622 Luckily it still tasted pretty yummy.

Then with an extra day off last weekend we decided to make some sugar cookies.  I was sad to discover that I had not packed our Halloween decorations (who knows where those are…), but my bigger problem came when we needed to roll out the dough and I discovered (not surprisingly, I suppose) that our corporate apartment also does not include a rolling pin.  So we made do again – this time with something that had the additional benefit of being drinkable.

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C thought it was pretty funny with the wine sloshing around while we rolled.  And again, luckily, the cookies tasted pretty good (even though we also found we only had Christmas colored sparkles…)

I suspect these will be the first of many (many) times that we’ll be compromising in our FS life, but if the results always turn out as well as our banana bread and cookies then missing a rolling pin, a pan, the right color sparkles – or something bigger – won’t really matter.  We’ll just keep making do and enjoying the fun of finding something that will work just as well (and even better if I also get a glass of wine as part of the deal).

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