Monday, August 14, 2006

Insert Clever Food Oriented Title Here

Last night I enjoyed one of the best burgers I've ever eaten. Part of it may have been the onions, tomatoes, basil, etc. that was actually in the patty. Part of it might also be that my standards have been significantly reduced in terms of my culinary discretion over the past 7 months. Either way, greetings on your cooking Brandon.

I was warned about food in Niger before I came here. I was told that I had better enjoy millet. It was reccomended that I bring lots of spices, as the food here was very bland. I was also led to believe that the food here was just thoroughly unappetizing and the prospects of getting any sort of standard American fare were slim at best. All of these things I have found to be true, sometimes.

Generally speaking it is not too hard to get a hamburger or pizza in Niamey. However, you have to watch out for bones in the ground beef and the pizza is not exactly Dominoe's delivery. Think of the more gourmet pizza's you can get in America and that's what pizza is like here. Delicious...but not quite what I was looking for. Like everything else in Niger, American food here is consistantly inconsistant.

In terms of actual Nigerien cuisine, I don't actually have too many complaints. In Hamdalley we were absolutely spoiled. Like most Nigerien meals, the ones served during training consisted of a starchy base with some kind of sauce. Usually there was a meat and veggie sauce along with a vegetarian alternative, served over couscous, rice, or pasta. Occaisionally we were treated to a ground meat pizza which was much closer to American cafeteria style pizza. Every now and again we would get some true delicacy like roast guinea fowl or goat meat brochettes.

My host family during training was a bit more traditional. We pretty much ate rice and sauce every night. Though I have heard through the grape vine that my host mom is one of the best if not the best cook in Hamdalleye. The variety of sauces served was impressive over the course of the two months, and they frequently had meat. Other volunteers were not so lucky and basically had rice and "snot sauce" (okra sauce) every night. We also occaisionally had rice and beans (my favorite standard dish) or pasta.

In the bush is another story entirely. Every night my villagers eat kolkoti and kofois. Kolkoti is corn. They pound it into a coarse meal and basically make grits out of it. I like grits so this is not too bad. This serves as the starchy base for the kofois, or baobob leaf sauce. They pound the leaves of the baobob tree and through some process I have never bothered to observe, turn it into a sort of grean slime. I often liken it to a Nigerien version of pesto. Except that instead of a small amount giving a subtle yet pungent flavor, they creat a half inch thick layer of the slime on top of the kolkoti gelatin. It's actually pretty good when done right...but not every single night.

For lunch they almost always make rice and beans, though less frequently these days as we are now into hunger season. Rice and beans is my favorite bush food. When I go to market I always end up eating at least 2 helpings at the little market restaurents. It's not really any more complex than it sounds. But it has a ton of oil and salt and is just wonderfully filling and tasty.

Such is the crux of Nigerien cuisine, rice and sauce or rice and beans. The sauces vary from meaty, nutty, spicy, or just bland. All in all though it's not too unfortunate. Sometimes the snot sauce is rather unfortunately textured.

The other primary food is millet drink, called huro, doonu, coweh, or a multitude of other names. Usually it contains milk, but not always. Basically they produce a sort of millet paste that they then dilute with the liquid of choice. I personally quite enjoy kooku, which is the drink with just water and is served hot. I find it tastes like runny grits and makes an excellent breakfast if you add powdered milk and suger.

Speaking of powdered milk, it's amazing some of the things I have acquired a taste for in terms of my own cooking. I generally go through a box and a half of powdered milk a week, between cooking and just drinking a cup or two of it a day. I figure I have to get my protein from somewhere and it's actually a pleasant and filling afternoon beverage. I also drink a cup of Nescafe every morning. A far cry from the Green Mountain Roasters I used to drink all the time back home. But if you load it with powdered milk and sugar it's almost like a cheap cappucino. When I'm in Niamey I go all out and get the street coffe with sweetened condensed milk. However, when I do get a cup of real coffee it's that much more of an amazing treat.

As I mentioned, my villagers primarily eat kolkoti and kofois every night, so I mostly cook my own food. I eat a bowl of oatmeal every morning with my coffee. As far as lunch and dinner goes it usually consists of some sort of pasta or rice or both and a choice of either red or white sauce. I once texted someone "If you consider differently shaped pasta constitutes dietary might be a real PCV."

The only vegetable I can reliably get at market is onions, and even those are scarce and crummy right now. Rogo is not so bad and adds some bulk to my dishes. Mostly I improvise with whatever random root, or sweet potato, or squash is in season at the time. I'll just say it's a good thing I like onions. I do also add baobob leaves to almost everything, though my villagers don't understand why I don't want to pound them into mush before adding them to my food.

I have to say that spices are key. It's amazing how much variety in meals you can trick yourself into thinking you have just by mixing it up with spices. Lately I don't bother choosing between rice and pasta anymore. I just cook em both, add an onion if I have it, some oil, and then decide what kind of spices to add. Invariably I always add a bullion cube or two (It's the secret to good cooking). The other day I made a curry rice with some rogo (which is casava root by the way) which I thought was rather mediocre. But I gave a taste to a kid and he said I cooked better than the women. Go me!

The monotony get's broken up by the occaisional infusion of care package food, usually instant soups or pasta mixes. Big thanks to mom for keeping those coming, just got two packages today, including the one with a ton of Beef Jerky courtesy of the awsome folks at the Snowshoe Pub in Montgomery Center, VT. (A little plug for you guys ;-)

Eating healthy enough isn't too challenging here. You just can't be too picky. I know several PCV's who have lost a lot of weight because they just can't get used to a largely uninteresting diet. I like food. If it's edible, I will probably enjoy eating it. And so I honestly enjoy the cuisine here for the most part.

It's also nice that I found a restaurent in Niamey that has good steak au poivre.

Also, spices are

Thursday, August 03, 2006

What do you do all alone in the bush?

It feels like it's been forever since I've made a post, and yet my head doesn't feel at all bloated with excess thoughts and experiences eager to burst forth upon the blogosphere (god I hate that word). Allow me to explain the reasons behind this.

There are many things I've always wanted to do but never quite got around to. Examples include playing guitar, studying philosophy, and especially writing down my thoughts and experiences (those of you I talk to with some frequency will note that the first two are my primary liesure activities in the bush). Well I've never been able to consistantly keep a journal or maintain a blog or what have you. I usually just end up telling or discussing my thoughts with someone and that's the end of that. I've always felt however that if I could just find the right notebook, the floodgates would open and a tidal wave of inky thoughts would flow freely from my pen. Well when I was visiting Kurt in Gotheye he gave me one of his spair pocket sized moleskine notebooks (I've had a few of the larger sized to limited success). Since then only two days have passed where I have not written something down. I could go on a long rant about why I think that is the case but I wont...atleast not today.

The result is I feel less inclined to post when I'm in town because I am constantly jotting things down in my notebook, be they observations, activities, little bits of music I need to try later, or personal revelations. I am sure, if I can get back in the habit of blogging, I will use this as an effective resource for remembering what happened and relating it back to you, dear readers. But now is not that time.

I have been briefly scanning some of my compatriots blogs now and again and I have noticed that they talk much more about what sorts of projects or developement plans/needs they have for their communities. I have posted little in regards to specific "work" that I am doing here for one simple honest reason: I am not doing much of that...yet.

As has been quoted in inumerable marketing materials, briefings, handbooks, and support resources, "every peace corps experience is different." For me, my first 6 months in Niger have been much more about personal exploration. I have been freed from my time devouring hobbies, constant media bombardment, and the avenues of data addiction (this last is something I will probably talk about at great length sometime).

Through learning (or relearning) to play the guitar I have developed a new found love and interest in music, especially music theory and construction. I quickly snatch up any resources on this material and ferret them away to my hut to properly digest and apply them. Though I am also exploring music with Kurt who is teaching himself the banjo. Whenever possible we get together and mess around with what we've learned and discovered.

Aside from that I've spent a lot of time marveling at the world and exploring philosophy and spirituality, as those two go very much hand in hand. Coming here to this culture and environment that couldn't be more different from my home pretty much shattered my prievious world view. I have spent the last several months picking up the pieces, along with many new pieces, and putting them back together in some way. What I think about the world is gradually becoming clearer to me and I feel much less lost now that I did initially.

Both of these adventures I could, and probably will, explore at great length here. There have been other things too, but for the most part this is what I have been spending my time on. Don't interpret this to mean that I do not actively interact and explore my village, environment, and potential projects. Only recently however, have these activities come off the backburner and I now feel comfortable enough in my new home to actually start doing things.

As I recently explained to one of my villagers when he asked why I haven't started any projects yet, before I can do effective work, I need to be happy where I am. The past 4 months at post, and 6 months in country have been a rollercoaster and it's just finally getting to the smoother bits so I can begin to work on my project goals. Initially however I see most of those projects being home improvement type things as I very much see the role of the first volunteer in a village to be that of making the place comfortable and making the village understand how Peace Corps works as opposed to other developement organizations.

So that, I hope, gives you some idea of what I've really been up to in the past 6 months.