The Absence of Cheese

I woke up at 3:30AM with a stiff neck from too much sitting in one place on airplanes and having a mind and body still on Tanzania time.  So I started doing the laundry and sorting through all the stuff in the suitcases to make sure things got home intact. They did, for the most part.  Not a problem beyond a couple of minor and fixable mishaps.

So lets start the blogging this morning with Swahili cuisine as I think about making my shopping list for Wegmans.  There were basically eight dishes that we got to eat over and over again no matter where the meal was served and we ate in a lot of people’s houses, especially during the last week there.  Poor people’s food is Ugali, kind of like a cornmeal mush, cooked up thick and solid.  You eat it with your fingers, by taking a bit off your plate, rolling it up like a ball, putting a dent into it with your thumb and then using your mini impromptu bowl to scoop up some kind of vegetable stew.

I like Ugali very much, even though it is bland, but I did not get to eat it near as often as I would have wanted to.  Wherever we went, Randy and I were considered the guests of honor and when guests come, the Tanzanians cook rice, mountains of rice, as the base for their stews.  So each meal started with rice and was complimented by the following:  Peas and carrots in a coconut cream sauce, beans in sauce (as in rice and beans with a rich variety of them), some form of cooked banana (roasted or stewed), a sautéed green vegetable of some kind (including pumpkin leaves) and a bit (a little bit) of roasted or boiled meat.  The meat deserves special mention because the average Tanzanian woman really overcooks her meat to make it as tough and chewy as possible.  Fat and sinews stay on.  Organ meat gets served as a delicacy.  I suppose that the draconian cooking methods make the meat safe to eat but for the love of all culinary gods, I almost became a vegetarian in four weeks of time.  The one thing I was never able to eat..ever…was when the meat was cooked in a broth and you could see all the innards the folks who don’t have much could not bear to discard.

Dessert in Tanzania is fresh fruit, wonderful fresh fruit, because God allows everything to grow there and you can basically pick it off the trees or from the ground for consumption that day. There are endless bananas, passion fruit, papayas, melons, pineapple, sugar cane, avocados, grapes, nuts, oranges, lemons and more.  There are no genetically modified, disease resistant, pesticide sprayed, watery fruits transported unripe a thousand miles in Tanzania and when you get a piece of God-grown, nature-given fruit from just outside your own front door for dessert, you remember what it was meant to be from the beginning….yum!  By the way, the campus of SHUCo has some of the fruit trees right on the pathways to the lecture halls and students in the dorms keep an eye on the ripeness of the abundance coming their way for free as they head for class.  Dr. Mwankenja said that he and his wife never get the stuff of the campus trees because the students are just faster and more observant than they are.

The one food that Tanzanians barely know anything about is cheese.  They don’t make it in that climate, they have no refrigeration,  and they are therefore not familiar with its endless varieties or its taste either.  I missed cheese a lot.  I missed pizza and Macn’Cheese and casseroles with melted, browned cheddar on the top.  All of that is on my list for Wegmans today. I am overdosed on rice for a while.  I promised Randy that there will be no peas or beans in the near future.  Rice will wait until John Mwasakilali arrives at the seminary in late August.  And I will cook everything American and German that I know how to make.  I will not char the meat until it becomes unrecognizable.  And I will eat with a fork and knife instead of my fingers..for a while.

Ugali cooking

Ugali cooking

A typical Tanzanian meal.

A typical Tanzanian meal.

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3 thoughts on “The Absence of Cheese

  1. Anne, another reason the meat is tough is because the animals have not been bred to appeal to American consumers. Their chickens don’t have huge breasts – and can still fly a bit. They are very well “exercised” and lean. No hanging about, getting fattened for the slaughter. I remember chewing, and chewing, and chewing a bit of chicken or meat.

  2. Nicholas Cekovich on said:

    This reminds me of our stint with the British living in a hostel for 3 months and eating British cuisine-breakfast, lunch, high tea and dinner (and that is an overstatement)- meals with beans or peas or stewed tomatos- to this day I have flashbacks (nightmares) when any of these are served- And of course I had to wear a tie for the evening dinner meal (I only had one tie- it was my black military tie)

  3. Anne-Rose Reeves on said:

    For those of you who read the blog, I just copied this from Ray Leiter’ Facebook page 10 minutes ago. Ray is a member of Slate Hill Mennonite and is doing a one month computer teaching stint at SHUCo for tech4tanzania. He is living in our former room at SHUCo. I laughed so hard when I read his Facebook post, I got the vapors. Here it goes:

    “I almost forgot to mention what we had for dinner. It was (as usual) rice, beans, some strange looking little seed pods and, of course, bananas and to top it all off, chicken and fish. The chicken is deep fat friend until it turns to steel. It’s VERY tough and I can’t actually eat it! The fish is completely whole (head and tail) and it is also fried in oil until it is very well-done. It’s easier to eat except you have to VERY careful about removing the bones.
    I almost forgot — we also had beef kabobs and yes, you guessed it — they were well-done, but able to be chewed without too much trouble.
    Perhaps the reason for cooking everything “to death” is to prevent some disease!”

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