I got really into cooking the year leading up to Cameroon. Healthy, vegan, gluten-free recipes were not only a passion, but were also my preferred method of procrastination during my last few quarters of college. Here in Cameroon, I went through cooking withdraw during PST when I couldn’t get my hands dirty in the kitchen, with the exception of making the occasional palm oil drenched omelet. But now things are different. Now, I have money to buy ingredients. Now, it is rainy season so there is food on food on food! Now, I have the time to whittle away the afternoon hours in my kitchen after a long morning of meetings and work and making ‘the rounds’ around village. What all this means…I’ve been doing some serious work lately…in the kitchen that is. And I’ve had the added bonus of introducing my friend and new neighbor, Didja, to typical
American Karen cuisine.
Cooking in Cameroon is no easy feat. First of all, while there are some normal/American/traditional ingredients here, some are not at all traditional (kok, folere, zome, folone, millet, kelen-kelen, manioc…). Secondly, we don’t have grocery stores (obviously). While this is to be expected, it makes preparing your average meal quite a hassle if you lack the necessary ingredients and necessary utensils. In Chicago, if I was out of baking soda, it was a matter of me going down my elevator to the Dominicks grocery store below, which is now apparently a Whole Foods – jealous!! Here, the lack of baking soda means me taking a trip to Bertoua, my banking city, which takes between 8 and 24 hours depending on the day. (A side note about the baking soda: this actually has been an ongoing problem, but I realized that if you crumble up this rock-like thing sold in the market, which I initially thought was concrete, it turns out it is a substitute for baking soda!!) Thirdly, there is grave lack of normal kitchen appliances and utensils. Back stateside you have ovens with thermometers, microwaves, food processors and coffee makers! Here, we've got tamis for sifting things, makeshift Dutch ovens for baking and roasting, instead of cast-iron utensils we’ve got some aluminum pots which work pretty well so long as you don’t hope to sauté anything in them (they break), and most of our cooking revolves around a skillet…a non-stick one if we are lucky. While cooking gets easier with time here, it pushes one to be creative and resourceful. Nonetheless, not a day goes by that I don’t realize how much easier I had it back in the States.
In order to get an idea of what cooking in Cameroon is like, here’s a glimpse into my kitchen.
Oh, the lovely land of dishwashers! Thankfully, I was quite habituated to washing and drying dishes by hand, since my mom was always paranoid that our dishwashing machine was broken from lack of use (mom, I keep telling you, if you used it, you wouldn’t have to worry about it being broken from lack of use!). But, because of my mom’s insistence on hand washing dishes, doing all dishes by hand here is no problem for me, unlike my postmate Danny, who has to motivate himself for a hour before he does dishes (which is just a biweekly occurrence). I find myself doing dishes all throughout the day so that I always have a clean (and pest-free) kitchen. The only challenge to dishwashing here is lack of running water. I have two large bowls I wash dishes in, one for soaping and washing, and the other for rinsing. After doing just a few dishes, the ‘wash’ bin gets a bit…gross. That’s if I don’t wash my large marmite which often gets soot on the bottom. Needless to say, I go through a lot of water, and when I’m out, it’s a trip down a little hill to my neighbor’s well (which is perhaps 50+ feet deep) and it usually involves me walking into the middle of some domestic dispute, which is needless to say quite awkward.
Not that long ago I was terrified of baking in-country. The thought of setting up a Dutch oven seemed a daunting task, and I barely knew how to bake in the US with a proper oven, so I figured there’d be no hope to try to bake in a country where you are essentially cooking in a large pot with whacky temperatures. But my fears diminished with increased determination and experimentation (and not to mention with increased appetite for something sweet every once and a while).
Setting up a Dutch oven involves buying a huge marmite that holds perhaps 15 gallons or more, filling the bottom with 1 inch layer of sand, and placing a few empty sardine or condensed milk cans in there to prop the baking dishes on. When it comes time to bake brownies or slow roast vegetables, all I need to do is pre-heat the oven for about 30 minutes at full flame, after which I plop the dish in the oven and turn the flame down to its lowest setting. The only hassle now is that without a temperature setting, it’s necessary to check on the dish every 5-10 minutes. And if your neighbor comes by and distracts you…you can bet that your desert will be brittle and burnt the next time you check on it.
Oh, where to begin?! Thankfully, my house is nothing like my house during PST. That house was crawling in rats, cockroaches and vermin to which I don’t know the name. I clean my house obsessively (2 hours a day, which makes my postmates question my sanity), but at least this keeps the cockroaches at bay (helped by my weekly RAID bomb), the spiders away, and the biting ants out of sight…usually. The mice on the other hand, are not too easily deterred, and they have amazing climbing abilities. No matter how high and out of place I put my lentils or rice, the mice find them. Despite the fact I now keep everything in Tupperware, the mice still eat through the plastic to get at my goods! I tried every type of mouse and rat poison in Lomié but to no avail. My cat was quite worthless and would merely watch in fear as mice ran across my house. Thankfully now my cat, Metis, is bigger (and hungry since I stopped feeding him), which has meant a significant drop in my mouse roommates. And now that my cat has found a way into my attic, I can now confidently say that I have no mice or rats in my house and the insect population is close to extinction.
I never understood the purpose of those vegetable sprayers in the produce isles in America. Now I do. Sure they are to keep the vegetables crisp and looking nice, but also to keep them clean! Oh do the vegetables you buy here look filthy compared to America! Everything I buy, whether it be fruit, vegetables, or dried beans, is always covered in layers of either mud, dirt, or dust and bugs. I usually get home and put everything in one big bowl of water with bleach (to sanitize) and apple cider vinegar (to keep crisp and fresh). I soak that, then scrub everything, dry everything and put in my fridge. While I probably obsessively clean my vegetables, given my long history of being on medhold, I really don’t want to risk getting some new illness caused by unsanitary vegetables.
So there you have it, cooking in Cameroon. But as I said, despite the hurdles, I’ve managed to become quite creative in my kitchen of limited resources. Cooking is often a struggle, but it’s a fun challenge. What’s more fun is sharing American cuisine with Cameroonians and finding out what they like and what they don’t like. Because of that, I thought I’d begin to share some of the recipes for those of you to try at home, and for future PCVs coming to country to save and make for themselves once they move to post so they can share some American cuisine with their neighbors. So keep your eye open for upcoming posts on what I’ve been making in my kitchen. Until next time!