Tuesday, May 5, 2009

the first round of tea is bitter as life.

The national drug of Senegal is attayah. Usually served in liquid form, attayah is heavily sweet with hints of mint and a strength that will knock your socks into next week. Attayah is a type of tea.

Besides being the "national drug", attayah is also Senegal's national pastime. I mean, people drink tea all day. But this is not just any tea. It is made in a tiny tea pot, with strong flaked green tea, nana or fresh mint, and about a pound of sugar. The preparer pours the tea in an artistic fashion until a gentle and bubbly foam forms in the shot sized glasses, and then the steaming hot tea is poured in. Attayah is served in 3 rounds, each round with added sugar to symbolize the growing sweetness of friendship.

I was told that the first brew is bitter as life.

The second is bittersweet as love.

The third one is sweet as death.

The facts of life in three gulps of rugged wisdom.

We drink attayah almost every day. Sometimes we drink it multiple times every day. Why did I wait so long before writing about it? Because I think it beautifully sums up the time I spent in Senegal. I am leaving in 3 days, and as the time comes continually closer I feel like I am going to spontaneously combust from all the opposing feelings running around inside my head and heart.

The first round of tea is bitter as life.

Don't be discouraged by this description. While the first round of attayah is pungently strong and sometimes downright difficult to swallow, it widens your eyes. Such is life and such was my arrival in Senegal. Darting about, new smells, new sights, new people, a new way of life. Pungently strong like the first sip of attayah that sets your viens ablazing. Sometimes, it was difficult to swallow, the village, the calls of random men on the street, the longing for familiar surroundings. But it widens your eyes, and it certainly has widened mine.

The second is bittersweet as love.

The second round is my favorite. The strength of the first round is still ever present, however the addition of fresh mint dampens the bite and sweet sugary flavors compliment the bitter aftertaste just enough to leave something desired. As I gradually adjusted to my surroundings, and the pangs of what I had left behind dissipated, I certainly did fall in love. My new found awarenesses sharpened and the bite of this strange culture became second nature for me. I saw everything around me in a sugary glow, sweetened immensely by the friendships I was forging. And just like love, I was left wanting more, more of something I knew I could not have. More of this country, more of its people, and more of the way things were.

The third one is sweet as death.

The third round gives you diabetes. Not really, but it does have a hell of a lot of sugar. Death has many sides, many faces. For some it is a welcome relief, for others it comes too soon. Death is both an end, it is sad and sweet, but it is also a passing, a movement and a beginning. Such is the end of my journey here. Enough said.

The facts of life in three gulps of rugged wisdom.

Monday, May 4, 2009

i guess it's time for a food blog....

So as you know...village life was pretty slow, days revolved around meals, and if you are a woman in Senegal you spend most of your daytime hours preparing meals for your extended family. So I decided to put my gender to use and learn how to cook Senegalese style, with the intention of making a Senegalese cookbook when I return. The lack of gas stoves in the village means you have to start your wood fire early on if you expect to feed your family in a timely manner. It also means I will be coming home with a lovely case of black lung.

While most meals in Dakar consist of ceeb-u-jen for lunch and some variation of salad or fish or rice for dinner, here in the village we eat meat and potatoes. I still haven’t fully understood why almost every night for dinner we eat a goat and potatoes, when this village is considered a “bread basket” and the fields that stretch miles around us produce beautifully succulent tomatoes, corn, lettuce, squash and other yummies. But at least I’ve become an expert in cooking meat and potatoes while I’ve been here (I suppose my step-dad will be quite excited about that). We can have meat with French fries, we can have meat with sweet potatoes in an onion sauce, we can have macaroni and meat, we can have little tiny spaghettis and, guess what…meat!

So now that you know the principle ingredients here are the other indispensable items that MUST be used in every meal in Senegal. Whether you are making an omelette or a plate of ceeb-u-jen to feed twenty people you will always need this:

Lots of onions.
Lots of garlic.
A handful of whole black peppercorns.
Have on hand anywhere from 2-8 bouillon cubes.
A handful of small dried red peppers (like the crushed red pepper you put on pizza).

Making any meal starts with these ingredients. You then put them all into a giant mortar and pound them with a pestle. When they are sufficiently pulverized you add them to whatever you are cooking. If cooking meat mix in spicy yellow mustard and make a marinade. If making Nyaari Chin (“deux marmites” or “two pots”) put all ingredients into hot oil, simmer and then add water and lots and lots of bouillon cubes until you make a sauce.

Then thoroughly over-cook any vegetables you might have until they are utterly unrecognizable, add your carbohydrate of choice, and plop some deliciously gooey and piping hot dead animal on top.

And there you have it! Wash your hands and dig in, Senegalese style, using a piece of bread as your spoon or just rip that goat apart with your hands, and don’t forget to thoroughly gnaw on all the bones at the end so you don’t miss any of the good chewy bits.

I hope you’re all excited for me to cook for you when I get back ☺