The Olfactory Safari

Ayanna Nahmias, Editor-in-ChiefLast Modified: 01:28 AM EDT, 20 August 2009

African Women with Buckets on Head
African Women with Buckets on Head

Recently, I have begun to cook Ethiopian cuisine with the help of a cook book purchased at one of my favorite Ethiopian restaurants. My first experiments making Doro Wet (spicy chicken stew) as well as Doro Alicha (mild chicken stew), Yebeg Wet (spicy lamb stew), and Miser Wet (spicy lentils). Though I haven't mastered the art of making Injera, I have prepared a reasonably good facsimile of these dishes, which are among some of my favorites.

That was until a friend prepared some dishes for our Shabbat meal. Only then did I realize that I needed to spend an afternoon taking a lesson from her in how to cook these traditional dishes. Like many people who have restricted diets and non-American palates, I learned to cook East and West African cuisine from both my mother and friends.

After my Orthodox Jewish Conversion, though my palate had not changed, my ability to eat a lot of foods that I had not personally prepared diminished considerably. I believe we essentially yearn for the tastes and smells of the foods our mother's prepared. A mother's kitchen is like a mother's embrace, and if one is fortunate enough to have had a mother who had the time, energy and inclination to cook, these tastes are the bench mark against which all others are measured.

My mother cooked during most of my childhood, and though it was not one of her favorite tasks; I loved and still do love her cooking.  She mastered the fine art of Deep South southern cuisine, and when we moved to Africa, she was equally adept at picking up the local dishes.

There is nothing like the aroma of African cooking; the pungent, heady afterglow of cardamom, cumin, curry, Berbere, ginger, garlic, onions, cloves and other spices, linger for days as a haunting reminder of the delectable feast enjoyed hours or days previous. My mother's long, elegant hands, veined and brown lovingly stripped every leaf from its stem, expertly sliced plantains thick and thin, and kneaded bread for each meal.  Her bread, and its freshly baked scents inhabit an olfactory space between my eyes, the thought of which makes my mouth water.

Some of my favorite dishes she prepared during my childhood were Ewa (beans) cooked with red palm oil and seasoned with dried fish, Egusi Soup (made with ground melon seeds, onions, tomatoes and crayfish), Foufou (made from Cassava or Yam), Dodo (Plantains fried in red palm oil), Jollof rice, Smoked Fish, Coconut Curry Chicken, Wali wa Nazi (Rice in Coconut Milk), and Ugali (an East African side dish), which is similar to FouFou but is made with maize.

I probably liked this most of all because it reminded me of corn bread mushed up in various Southern dishes like collard greens and pot liquor.  On a recent trip to a local shop where I buy my spices, I was ecstatic to discover that they sell freshly made, sizzling hot Chapattis (an Indian flat bread) and Mandazis (a pastry similar to donuts but not as sweet).  This brought back memories of driving from the university campus into Dar es Salaam.

Our route would take us along Bagamoyo road, bracketed on either side by dusty shoulders, where women dressed in Buibui's (the East African equivalent of the Burka), balanced atop their heads impossibly heavy loads of water, legumes, and sometimes building materials.  Strapped securely to their backs were more often than not, a sleeping baby, head lolled to one side or the other, brown sometimes dark chocolate legs swaying to the rhythm of their mother's hips.

This narrow turf was host to a tenuous pedestrian sanctuary, where ambulating humans and cattle, competed with vendors hawking freshly prepared foods.  Tanzanians love meat, and I remember, to the chagrin of my mother, that I loved the meats prepared by these roadside vendors best of all.

I loved Nyama Choma (roasted meat) because each time it smelled and tasted as different as the twigs and sticks gathered to ignite the fire upon which it roasted. I particularly craved Nyama Mbuzi, goat meat roasted on sticks. I will never forget the acrid but pleasant smell of the burning flesh mixed with the dust of the hot afternoon earth as it released its heat into the trade winds blowing off the Indian Ocean.

Even now, when I smell the salt water moisture in the air, my nose instinctively seeks the complimentary smells of cooked, chared Nyama Choma and smoked Samaki (fish).

From a visual perspective, I was amazed at how nothing was wasted, as discarded petrol barrels, were pounded and fashioned into cooking cauldrons, filled with a sea of oil, upon which a panoply of floating pastries, either Sambusas (triangular pastries filled with meat or lentils) or Mandazis, sizzled, popped and bobbed.  For a few Shilingi an entire meal could be purchased and dispensed in the previous day's discarded newspaper, or some other windblown, hand straightened piece of paper snatched up off the street.

Thus, I circle back to home, where, until I can take my son to see all the places and experience the sights, sounds and smells of the continent, I shall continue to build his memories, through the scent of effervescent spices. I inhabit a peculiar world, balanced between the traditional and modern, wherein I work full-time, but prepare each one of my son's thrice daily meals.  I hope to provide him with a road map that leads to the comforts of the home we inhabit, and compasses to one day guide him back to his roots in the places I grew up.

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