Oh, God. Food. Among PCVs, food is possibly the only topic of conversation more popular than the previous day’s bowel movements. Turns out, food is comfort, and familiar food is often what we miss the most on a daily basis. I live in the Big City, so in theory, I should be able to get all of the Western food I want. Oh wait. Most grocery stores are a 600CFA round-trip. And western food is expensive. I don’t eat a lot of packaged western food. Occasionally, I’ll indulge myself, if I’m already in that part of town, and buy a Diet Coke, but for the most part, it’s pretty far out of my budget.
Luckily, being in the Big City also means that even the local vegetable ladies have a great selection (cucumbers! carrots!). I eat a lot of salad. Salad as in egg salad, cucumber salad, pasta salad. Occasionally, I’ll make myself up a regular garden salad with lettuce and the rest, but I find bleaching my vegetables to be a hassle (yeah, I do still bleach them . . . some things aren’t worth messing with), and once bleached, lettuce doesn’t last all that long, so I can’t do a couple of days worth at a time.
There are a million variations on pasta: spaghetti with garlic, spaghetti with red sauce, spaghetti with 5-minute tomato sauce, spaghetti with theresa’s famous DAMN STRAIGHT I LET IT REDUCE FOR AT LEAST AN HOUR sauce, and all of the aforementioned with wagasi (cheese . . . sort of). I stir-fry like a champ, which is excellent because I’m such a vegetable freak. That’s served over rice, of course, and when I’m just feeling lazy, there’s always street food.
Street food is amazing here, and will get its own entry at some point. It’s traditional Beninese cuisine, cooked right there before your eyes buy what we call street-food-ladies, or night-ladies, depending on when they’re cooking. Yeah, there really isn’t a word for it. The best thing about it, is that when you find a good lady, the food is heaven, and it’s much cheaper than cooking for yourself. Street food snacks are also tasty. Mmmm. Potates-doux. Mmmm.
And when I just want something fresh (or I’m constipated, whatever), there’s fresh pineapple! Women carry it in basins on their heads. You tell them you want one, and they cut it up for you right there. At first I was embarassed because I could eat a whole pineapple in a sitting, but turns out, that’s pretty normal for us PCVs. Oranges are also super-cheap here, as are citrons (tasty citrus lemon lime type thing), which means lots of orange juice and lemonade.
Every Friday, I sit down and plan out my meals for the next week. Saturdays are always a treat, usually involving wagasi, and hunting the marchés for weird ingredients, and yes, even hitting up the Western grocery stores if I need to (like for chickpeas!). Sundays are for trying new recipes, but only simple stuff, since it really is my day-of-rest. Then during the week, it’s whatever I feel like. I have to buy vegetables about three times a week, since they don’t really last that long sitting out on my counter, which means that if I’m feeling lazy, it’s pasta and garlic for three days straight, haha.
The toughest thing about cooking here is making sure I’m getting the nutrients I need, and not just empty carbs. Protien is tough, but there’s always beans, nuts, and wagasi. Vitamins, I do okay with, because of my vegetable addiction, but cooking veggies destroys a lot of good stuff really quick. Calcium is tougher, because I don’t eat any dairy products. Ever. Benin is making me very aware of what I eat, because eating right is the first line of defence against getting sick. I’ve never been so aware of what is and isn’t going into my body in my life.
If you’re looking for food things to send to me or any other volunteer (hi Mama Garrett, Mama Sara, Ben’s whole family!), boxed prepared foods (ramen, rice-a-roni, etc) are great for days when we can’t hit up the marché (rainy season, what?). Spices are really expensive, but if your volunteer doesn’t know how to cook, s/he may or may not actually need a lot of them. :) Cookies and crackers are also good. The latter don’t exist here, and the former are very different.
I’m so lucky I came here knowing how to cook (thanks Mom and Dad). The other night, I went out to dinner with two girls who don’t cook, and ended up giving an impromptu cooking lesson (although verbal) on how to make a good spaghetti sauce (they came over last night to learn how to make stir-fry). As it is, I’ve got a good enough base to figure out how to work with what’s actually available and affordable here, and that’s made a huge difference in my first few weeks of service.