Eating in Cameroon

Market Day Beignets
I’ll be the first to tell you that nothing kills your appetite like living in Cameroon for nearly two and a half years. While the food may be ‘exotic’, fine, and maybe even good for the first few months, after the repetition of the same dishes day in and day out (multiple times a day), it gets old…fast. For about a year now, I have little appetite for anything a Cameroonian serves me, nor much for what I cook for myself given that my dishes all revolve around the one vegetable I can buy once a week in my village: onions. Nevertheless, I’m sure once I return Stateside and have fully satiated my appetite with fresh fruits and vegetables, Chipotle, sushi, Chinese, and basically whatever else I can get my filthy maw and paws on, I’m sure I’ll mutter every once a while “Man, I wish I had a warm plate of folere/gombo sec/koombie!” Oh, who am I kidding! I don’t think I’ll ever satiate my appetite for America’s variety in fresh produce!

This is a post I should’ve done probably when I got to Cameroon, but I feel it is particularly salient now that I despise nearly every Cameroonian dish (except folere…that doesn’t get old unless I get it 15 times a week) and now that I’ve tried just about every standard Cameroonian meal, both of the Grand North and the Grand South. I also want the rest of the world to recognize the food problems that us volunteers in Cameroon live with.
Folere and Couscous Dinner Chez Moi

But before I describe the typical diet of a Cameroonian, I need to explain something about Cameroonian cooking culture: its immutability. Seriously, Cameroonians never experiment and deviate from the rigid recipes they are taught. Okay, to be fair, I did know one Cameroonian who experimented, and that was my old neighbor in Lomie who opened up an American bakery with my recipes and even sold black bean and carrot brownies - but he is unique. If a girl is taught how to make folere sauce from her mother, she never deviates from this way of making it - she won’t add more peanut butter or more Maggi, she will keep everything the same every time. While there are some regional varieties of dishes, for the most part, they are all synonymous.

Speaking of Maggi, everything in Cameroon (except beignets) has ubiquitous amounts of Maggi in it. What is Maggi? It’s a little MSG cube of random spices (most of which is salt) that kind of tastes like an Asian spice, but also just kind of tastes like what it is: an MSG blob of salt. I once cooked a big pot of American-style bean chili for my landlord’s family, and while I was finishing up dumping my taco spices and hot peppers in the pot, my landlord’s wife came over and crushed 10 cubes of Maggi into the pot as I screamed “NO!!!!!”. She wouldn’t have it - no dish tastes good (apparently) without ample amounts of Maggi. The product of my labor was an Asian-Mexican-fusion chili.

Also, using a sauce for something other than eating with Cameroonian-style couscous, well, that’s a big no-no. I once was taught how to make folere sauce by my neighbor, which lead to a dispute over my not wanting to add a cup of oil and her insisting that 1 cup of oil is absolutely necessary since that’s the recipe. When I begrudgingly let her pour in 1 cup of palm oil to my displeasure, I then served the folere on top of Moroccan-style couscous, to the utter appall of my neighbor, who insisted that what I was eating was not a meal unless I eat Cameroonian-style couscous, which is a blob of corn, manioc, or rice mush and not remotely similar to its homonym.
So Much Oil (Beans for Breakfast)

Oh and speaking of oil, Cameroonians love their oil - red palm oil, regular palm oil, cotton oil, you name it, they love it so long as l’huile is in the name. Everything (and I mean everything) here is dunked, fried, or sitting in oil. Cameroonians are quite apt at taking a perfectly healthy leafy vegetable, boiling it down to a nutrition-less pulp, and then boiling it in a liter of oil, ready to serve over a plate of nutrition-less corn couscous. I never knew something so healthy could become something so inexplicably perverse. My realization that Cameroonians love oil and frying things came to a fore when at the last fete de Ramadan in Lomié my neighbor brought me a fried baguette loaf as if the un-fried variety was somehow substandard or too banal.

Now that you know the basic food culture of Cameroon, or perhaps the lack thereof, let us now turn to what we volunteers eat:

    1. Folere: The typical Grand North food, and the only Cameroon dish I like at this point. It’s made with hibiscus leaves that are cut, boiled down, and added with oil (duh), Maggie (duh), and peanut butter along with some piment peppers. Served on top of a blob of corn or rice couscous.
    2. Sauce de Feuilles de Manioc: This sauce is one I was familiar with from Sierra Leone, and it’s likely my second favorite meal in country, especially when cooked in lots of piment. This sauce is made from manioc leaves that are once cut, boiled down, and added with oil (duh), Maggie (duh), and maybe some vegetables if they are available…which they aren’t in Ngatt. Served on a blob of corn or rice couscous.
    3. Gombo and Gombo Sec: Gombo is an okra sauce. Regular gombo takes the viscous okra, cuts them up and perhaps grinds them, boils it forever and then is added to oil (duh), Maggie (duh) and perhaps some meat, and what results is a super slimy thick sauce that falls off your blob of couscous far too easily. Gombo sec (dried okra sauce) is the same thing but instead of fresh okra, dried okra is used. This is common during dry season when fresh okra isn’t available. I much prefer this variety since it is less slimy and thick, and therefore far easier to eat. My landlady also puts more piment in the dried variety, which gives it some flavor, as apposed to the bland fresh version. Served on top of a blob of corn or rice couscous.
    4. Bokko Haako: Not to be confused with Boko Haram, this sauce is made from dried and ground up baobab leaves. This green powder is sold in our market year-round in little plastic bags. It tastes unremarkable, at least the way my landlady makes it. It’s pretty  much like green, grainy water that tastes faintly like a leaf, but mainly like piment and Maggi, and, of course, served on rice or corn couscous. I liked it the first few times I tried it, but during dry season my landlord’s wife made this twice a day nearly every day, which got old…fast.

      5. Kélé-Kélé: I despise this dish. It’s probably my second to least favorite dish in Cameroon. It’s slimy and doesn’t taste like anything but perhaps drinking viscous snot, and also tastes and feels similar to when I add Metamucil or Psyllium Seed powder to a bottle of water for some fiber and leave it in there until it congeals. Yes, not pleasant at all. In Ngatt we don’t have fresh Kélé-Kélé like in Lomié, so they use dried Kélé-Kélé instead, which sits in our market week in and week out. It is probably as void of nutrients as a leafy green can get. My landlord’s wife loves making Kélé-Kélé during dry season, since it is really one of two things that are available in dry season. I’ve never seen how it is made, but I can’t imagine it is prepared in any other way than boiling cut and dried leaves in water till the sauce congeals and then adding some Maggie and lots of oil (for flavor…). Served on top of rice or corn couscous.
      Market day Beignet Options
      6. Sauce de Pistache/Arachide: This sauce, either made from peanut butter or pumpkin seed butter, is also quite tasty when not consumed every day. It’s pretty easy to make, it’s just oil, water, Maggie, piment, and then mixed with either paste from peanuts or a paste from pumpkin seeds. It’s not a thick sauce, so this one is usually served with plain rice. This is more of a Southern dish, so I hardly ever eat it in my village.
      7. Ndolé: I’m not even going to waste my breath on this one. Hands down the worst sauce in Cameroon. It consists of these big leaves that are ground and boiled down, mixed with dried fish, and God knows what else. Literally the worst.
      8. Tomato sauce: Oh, don’t go thinking this is tomato sauce as in what you add to your pasta at home (be content with those veggie or meat-stuffed sauces, you American snob!). No, this sauce is made from tomato paste, which is sold in plastic sachets in every village, and watered down and mixed with ample amounts of oil. That’s it. Mmmm tasty. Nothing like eating watered and oiled tomato paste with white rice. How appetizing!
      9. Poisson Braissé: Grilled fish is common in Cameroon, especially up here near Lake Mbakaou. This is not a meal you eat during the day. Don’t ask me why, but fish mamas don’t come out until after dark. Basically any fish can be grilled, but my favorite is carp (tilapia), which is from Lake Mbakaou and my least favorite is mackerel, which is all that Spencer has in his village. I love a good grilled tilapia perhaps once a month when I’m in a big city, since I can’t really get them in Ngatt (we have fish, but is isn’t grilled fresh, but rather is grilled and then walked around village on a plate all day). When buying grilled fish, you can order either the head, the tail, or the whole fish. It’s served in its entirety, bones, eyes and all, and you use your fingers to pick the meat off. “Red Sea” in Bertoua had the best grilled tilapia (coincidentally from Lake Mbakaou) - they were huge and she served them with lemon wedges dipping sauces which included mustard, piment, mayo, and a pesto-like sauce (condiment vert) for dipping.
      10. Bush Meat: This was more of a thing in Lomie, but it’s also consumed by the Gbaya in Ngatt, who aren’t Muslim and therefore have no restrictions of the nasty crap they can eat. Bush meat can be anything that isn’t beef, chicken, fish, or pork - so that means it ranges from antelope, to pangolin, to monkey or dog. I always avoid this, and if I wasn’t trying to, the smell itself would be enough to deter me.

        11. Beignets: How could I forget beignets, which are literally the one food sold consistently in my village day in and day out. These friend dough balls, not unlike American doughnuts just without the icing and chocolate, are sold in many varieties: there are plain flour beignets, there are corn flour beignets which my landlord’s wife makes every day and they are fantastic when piping hot, there are white bean flour beignets which taste like chicken nuggets when eaten really hot but are disgusting when eaten day-old, there are flour beignets that are served flattened rather than in a fluffy ball, there are rice beignets, there are banana corn beignets, there are manioc flour beignets…and on and on and on. Who knew there were so many different ways to eat various types of fried flour without adding icing! I’m quite partial to my landlady’s hot, fresh corn beignets and the manioc banana ones that are in Spencer’s village. In Ngatt, every market day and Friday (prayer day) dozens of young girls line up with their basins of beignets in front of them to sell to the shoppers. 10 little beignets cost about 20 US cents. I’m always amazed on market day at the number of girls who line up and all the beignets there are and the fact that my small village somehow manages to consume them all.
        Baton de manioc and Chicken in Yaounde
        12. Bouille: This is a traditionally breakfast food, or a food served frequently during Ramadan. It’s usually served alongside beignets. Bouille is a porage made from flour, rice, lime and peanut butter. It’s quite tasty and tastes like any other porridge. Other Cameroonian breakfast foods include omelets, which are eaten all day but aren’t available in my village, or rice with a sauce, or beans in lots of oil.

        While what I listed above is ‘village food’, I have to admit, we do have more variety in Yaounde and regional capitals. For example, in Yaounde we can eat shawarma, Turkish food (super expensive), Indian (closed for renovations), Chinese, pizza (again, expensive), grilled fish, Lebanese, grilled chicken (Spencer’s favorite), or hamburgers (aka nasty frozen patties), milkshakes (super expensive, again), or salads (my favorite). Eating out in regional capitals and Yaounde is quite expensive, however, if you are there for more than a day or two, which is why I usually opt to make use of the fresh vegetables and cook for myself to save money. But sometimes, even spending a ridiculous amount of money is worth it for the taste of a mediocre pizza.

        Well, there you go - that’s an idea of my typical diet when I don’t cook for myself (which consists of eggs, popcorn, oatmeal or lentils). I’ve got 3.5 months left in Cameroon before I travel to Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia and Armenia. That means just 3.5 months left of my un-diverse un-nutritious Cameroonian diet until I can finally be reminded how good food is elsewhere - not to mention be reminded of my mom’s amazing homemade cooking, which I haven’t had for 2.5 years! My mouth is already salivating and my grocery shopping list for my mom is already quite extensive.

        Manioc Leaf Sauce Way Back When in Bokito During PST


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