Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Taste of Gambia

About a week ago my taste buds finally gave in to the attack of remembered Gambian tastes that have so relentlessly been dogging me since I came to this country. Everything I ate tasted bland and without chafka1, like the white part of boiled eggs, or cold too-wet rice cooked with no salt. My desire for food from back home had finally overpowered me, staked a mini-coup in my taste buds and set up camp, allowing no other taste in, forcing me to the conclusion that American food is tasteless (a complaint I have often heard made by other Gambians, about non-Gambian food), so I could not enjoy anything I ate here - always it fell just short of the food from back home. Chicken, e.g., tasted like chicken back home, but minus a vital component which the cooks here just cannot get right. I was at a loss what to do. I plied my food with tabasco, asked the fast food people to add extra hot buffalo sauce to the wings I bought. All to no avail - even the hot sauce tasted like a sour, older, less efficacious version of Gambian kaani, which explodes in your mouth when you eat it and produces streams of sweat on your head and a running nose.

Something was off, and I didn't quite know what it was. The same dish may taste completely different as cooked here, from when it is cooked in Gambia, and it was not just a matter of getting the right ingredients. If cooking is a language all humanity speaks, and one that with globalization contains increasingly similar idioms (the cheeseburger, e.g., seems lately to be spoken everywhere) then the difference is in the dialects spoken. The dialect of spice, practiced in the Indian countries. The dialect of cheese, which is so common here. The dialect of maggi and jumbo, spoken with such verve back home, used to express everything, from domoda to sossi chereh (and also the dialect of mayonnaise, and also the dialect of vegetable oil).

One can attempt to build up a catalog of tastes, a mental collection but one which you wished you could carry around, removing a taste to show your friends, when they ask what foods taste like back home (and also for yourself, re-visiting and re-savoring a taste in your times of greatest need, when you miss home most). Not just the taste but also the association of memories contained within it, and also its place, and its time. For instance Churaa Gerrteh (Groundnut Porridge) in the early evening, just after timis/dusk: first the slightly damp, slightly burnt smell of it from the backyard as it is being cooked, bubbling, hungrily fed sugar which it swallows with satisfied belches as the day departs and the evening comes in. And then it is done, but so hot you have to run your spoon through it for a while to make it cooler2, tasting it at intervals to see if it is ready yet. During these tastings it feels loamy or watery, depending on the cook's decisions concerning water - but in either case it runs down your mouth and into your throat almost too easily, leaving behind it a trail of sugar and a new taste which is more than the sum of the water and the groundnuts-and-rice mixture it is made of. And after the stream has run down there are left tiny balls in your mouth to chew on (all of this happening all at once, and not in the slow detached way words seem to portray). Milk (sour if you can get it), dilutes the sugar in the porridge, making it even less consistent and spreads out the tiny balls in your mouth even more, making them float about as your tongue tries to get a hold on them, all the while swimming towards your expectant gullet. For a food so light in the eating, chuura fills you up surprisingly well, having the same weight in your stomach as a good bowl of chereh - which is much heavier - getting you through the day when you heat it up for breakfast the next morning.

Another entry: Supah Kanja, of the best kind - the aku kind - creates a synergy of rice and palm-oil-okra stew which it is hard to believe could come from its constituent components. Once it is in your mouth, of course, you cease to be able to distinguish where the sauce ends and the rice itself begins (as you can, e.g., with chuurah, where you can still separate the rice-gerrteh mixture from the water, even in your mouth). It begins an assault of salty tastes on your palate, while the okra making each spoonful slide around and be ready to swallow almost immediately. (In contrast, Domoda does not have this slidy quality, nor does Benachin). One has a choice of bases too, in addition to rice, each one changing the central feel of the meal: findi, to take away some of the slipperiness and force the supah to form lumps with a grainy base, giving you more chewing time, making the meal a more ruminative one; or foofoo, which takes away the center of attention from the Supah itself and makes it merely sauce, while the main part of the meal becomes the lumps of foo-foo, whose toughness puts rice to shame.

And then there are the foods in the catalog which are eaten here too, but treated differently (it is like finding a language close to Wolof, but in which words have a subtly different meaning). Salad, e.g., is never eaten alone, as a dish in and of itself, as it is here as part of a vegetarian diet3. Instead it is always a base, a foundation on which is spread the true meal, usually fried fish (brittle and stiff from too long exposure to the hot oil) or meat sauce. Eating salad alone would be like eating rice alone, with no sauce. Then there is peanut butter, which is placed here in the category of butter and jam, with almost all of the oil removed, processed and put in a jar ready to be spread out on a layer of sliced bread to make a sandwich (the famous PBJ sandwich, whose very though turns my stomach). At home it is made at the market from fresh peanuts in machines which do nothing to the oil, leaving it all intact so when you cook your domoda, as a sign that it is done, the oil will float to the top, the meat, okras, and jahatu floating in it, little Islands under which lie the submerged mainland.

Domoda is peanut butter stew in the same way bread is flour - one would not eat raw flour, and claim they had known bread. By the time the domoda is done, the peanut butter has lost all the qualities it had which made it eligible to be spread on bread, and has come to discover the oily side of its nature, a quality which only came out over a hot fire, at a slow boil. All the chunkiness is gone by this time, and the taste of peanuts - which dominated before - has now receded into the background, becoming a more subtle taste, more sophisticated as it moves in the higher society of meat (or fish) and vegetables. At least in the best domodas - the better the domoda the less you can taste its original peanut butteriness. So well does this peanut butter sauce work with rice that you can, in fact, instead of having sauce and rice separate, mix them both together and heat it up to eat that way, and it still tastes as good (or better). Supah alone of the other foods possesses this quality.

Even the methods of food preparation are different. At Subway: Asian men standing behind counters in neat uniforms, their hands sterilized and wrapped in plastic, their smiles fixed as your just-baked bread travels down the assembly line of its conversion into a sandwich. Back home: the obese woman selling mboroe-nyebeh4 , who sits at a bench behind a table, her big bowl of beans (which will get progressively emptier as the evening progresses) still warm from the charcoal stove, set before her. What size, she will ask, and when you tell her she reaches into a bag of loaves on the ground at her side, cutting off the requested size and slicing it in half, dipping into the nyebeh5 , and liberally coating the insides of the bread with it. And what sauce, she asks, even as your mouth starts to water. Palm oil or regular oil, it goes on top of the nyebeh and drips over the sides of the bread, so you can't wait to lick it off. Perhaps there is something lost in the process of moving that lone woman selling sandwiches to a factory process, even as gains are made in the economies of scale - the feel of the process itself so different the end-result - the food - tastes very different.

I miss all these things, on a surface level. But it occurs to me that my missing is deeper, and concerns another catalog, one which lies under the main catalog of tastes, and is less well-defined but just as important. It is perhaps easier to explain it using smell: growing up in Gambia, one came to recognize a certain smell which attached itself to packages from America. Clothes and toys and books had this smell, when they first arrived - you couldn't easily describe it (how to describe a smell?) but you came to associate it with newness and fanciness, and childish excitement at getting new presents. It wore off after a while. Thinking back on this now I imagine Gambia also has its own set of smells - though I stayed there too long to be able to distinguish them - and that if the situation were reversed kids here would smell the same smell of Gambian newness on packages their Dads had brought back from trips to Gambia. It is the same with taste - there is an under-taste which underlies all the food you eat in a country - it survives in your mouth between meals, refreshed by every meal you eat, informing your belches and the after-taste in your mouth (and also, ahem, expulsions of a less polite nature). This ur-taste, underlying all other tastes and taking years to build up, is what haunts my eating, and what I search for so fervently. And of course I cannot find it - the Ur-taste of America is colder and less spicy, and also geared more towards the sweeter center of the spectrum. To revisit our metaphor, it is created by a different dialect, one that is not spoken here.

Yes, very well, you say. So you come from Gambia - of course the food there will taste better for you. What of it? But the refusal of my taste buds to adapt, to give me any respite in their continuous search for the tastes of home, is intimately tied with the difficulties I (and I imagine other immigrants) have settling in. I believe were one to cease the other would too. Puzzlingly, sometimes I wonder whether it was really as good as I remember. Now I have this new foreign experience to contrast against, the taste of my homeland is the taste of heaven, of no possible earthly compare. Everything - recalling the way ditah tasted in my mouth, a smell that reminds me of mboxa-bu-laka - will set off a wild round of sentimentality, that leaves me paralyzed. Yet there are memories of my interactions with food back home, ones that I suppress and do not often think about, ones that tell a different story. It turns out that in fact I hated Chu (a dish I dreamt about eating only the other day, waking up with tears in my eyes) - we cooked too much of it back home. My love for mbahal, at one time one of my favorite foods, had died, in an incident involving a goat.6 For days I would go without eating rice, instead going out at work to one of the restaurants on Kairaba Avenue, to buy chawarma and... cheeseburgers and pizza. I am sure if a Subway chain had opened at this point I would immediately have become a happy customer.

What, then, to make of this apparent taste hypocrisy? While my memories had been firm and without contradiction my problem had been easy to diagnose: I missed home, and the smell of it, and its taste. I missed all these things because from my perspective they were the best possible options in the World. Yet my memories had never been as firm as I first believed. All this time I had been standing on treacle, which I had taken to be concrete.

Looking back, everything is coated in the soft glow of evening after it has just finished thunderstorming7. This is the peculiar form missing home takes, and if it is anything it is the feeling of absence8 I feel, all the time. This absence makes me pass judgements on everything here, and it is easy to forget it is the root cause, to begin to think of the judgements I pass (on the food, the weather, the people) as valid ones in their own right, opinions I have reached by acute observation and actual (and fair) comparison with the things back home. Something which these judgements are not. The ideal situation would be one in which I could both appreciate everything here while still holding on to the space of home in me, always waiting to be filled. And perhaps this is impossible without first ditching the dichotomy of "home" and "over here".


1 taste, in Wolof

2 "Jay-ri", this repetitive action is called in Wolof - I am aware of no English equivalent.

3 A meal consisting entirely of salads and vegetables is as surprising, and as much of a culture shock, as the old women who pick up waste after their dogs, walking them down the street.

4 mburu bread, nyebeh beans; put together they become mboroe-nyebeh, one word running into the other just like the bread and beans.

5 the Wolof word for beans, the perfect word for their mushiness in your mouth when you chew down on them boiled

6 With a bowl of mbahal before me, I saw a news report on GRTS about a goat born with two faces. At the exact same moment they showed the goat's wet, slithery double-face I chewed on a spoonful of mbahal whose main component was a wet, slithery okra. The association was built, and mbahal never tasted the same to me again.

7 over here it rains, a gentle patter you do not know about if you have not stepped outsidel in Gambia it thunderstorms, glorious displays of power that shake the Earth and send the power company scurrying to turn off their generators before something terrible happens.

8 A word I use often to describe my homesickness - when one is far from home one becomes acutely aware of this simple word, with its many connotations of emptiness.


  1. I appreciate you mention of the Aku tribe and your indebtedness to them.

    M. Rose

  2. sa ma way ya gui tialit de!