Monday, June 21, 2010

My Life as a Kabaa Eater (tentative title. Other tentative titles: "How I learnt to Stop Worrying and Eat Some Kabaa.", "In America they call it candy

My preferred way of eating kabaa is with my fingers, while pacing frenetically in the backyard and thinking random thoughts (such as the ones that I'm writing now). The kabaa - along with the solom-solom, the gurun-soup, the flocks, the mborkha-bu-laka, etc. - are our version of candy/the American snack ("our version of" here not used in the sense of having a derivative product, since kabaa definitely is not a copied and changed version of candy, but rather used in the sense of two products used in the same fashion in different cultures, neither of which take precedence or claim originality over the other). Sucking on a kabaa seed it struck me how different our "candy" is from the ones in the West (and again we see the factory-ization that is a theme I have been visiting again and again lately): over there candy (and by candy here I mean all dispensed products, from bottles of coke to Pringles to those little groundnut bags) is created in factories, where programmed mechanical arms put them in bags and label them with, among other things, their caloric content and what ingredients went into their making. These are then sealed into boxes and transported in their thousands to giant warehouses, from whence they move to supermarkets and vending machines. In contrast, our "candy" grows on trees and is harvested and bought by old women, who sit outside school gates and at street junctions haggling over their price with customers. There are no laws (health of otherwise) which the producers of this "candy" have to follow (and here again I take a detour to talk about the issue of consumer trust: all over the Gambia there are men and women selling all kinds of food - from the narr selling yaapa-bu-laka ("forokh chaaya" to some of you) to the peul selling taapa-laapa - though there is a health department that is in charge of regulating all these food-selling places, it rarely does anything, except in the most egregious cases - instead we have an implicit trust in all these people to stay healthy and not, for example, cut open our bread right after they finish wiping their noses. Despite the occasional horror story about razors being found in taapa-laapa, e.g., the system works surprisingly well - there is rarely a case of food poisoning (whether because we have developed stronger immune systems a more qualified person will have to tell us) and everything goes along relatively smoothly). And while over there the end of the line is a food dispenser, programmed to work without human intervention (and, the melodramatic novelist in me wants to add: cold, distant, austere), here it is the aforementioned old woman, experimentally cutting open your kabaa for you to see if it is bad, or turning your mborkha on the charcoal fire to prevent it getting burnt (interesting-but-useless-fact-about-the-author: I actually prefer some of my mborkha to be burnt in this way - there is to me something satisfying about scraping off this black burnt crisp and chewing on it - this makes me understand at an instinctual level why people suffer from pica, eating ash, or chalk, or clay).

The kabaa's preparation is as important as its consumption. Novice (or just lazy) kabaa buyers will leave the details of the mixing (aside to the uninitiated: kabaa in its virgin form is usually a sour, almost-juiceless fruit - a mixture of sugar, salt, etc. are needed to flavor the kabaa and bring out its juices, and allow one to eat it without the mouth-tightening which is the visible result of sourness) to the kabaa seller (who usually has a mixture of sugar, pepper and salt in a plastic container ready for just such events), who adds a smidgen of this mixture to the kabaa with his knife and stabs again and again into the kabaa, introducing along with the stabs a swirling motion meant to imitate the motion of a mixing finger (one of the disadvantages of having the kabaa seller do it for you: a knife just can't reach into the inner recesses of the kabaa like a well-aimed finger can. Plus you can't lick and suck on a sugar-covered knife). And so the better way to do it is to take the kabaa home, and cut it open, and carry out the mixing ritual, yourself. The downside to this of course is that if the kabaa is a bad one (in my experience about one in every forty or so kabaas turns out irrecoverably bad (recoverably bad is when the badness is limited to just the top of the kabaa, so you can cut it out with a knife and enjoy the rest; irrecoverably bad is when the badness has spread throughout the kabaa like a disease, so all you can do is throw it away)) you have to either take it back to the kabaa seller to have it replaced, or, if they're located too far away, throw it in the bin and curse the waste of money (speaking of which, the price of kabaa has gone up quite a bit in the last two years - whereas two years ago it cost a dalasi for a small one, and five dalasis for a big one, now the starting price of big ones is ten dee and the smaller ones cost pound (hip nongo slang for currency: pound = five dalasi; sugu-fem = twenty-five; arch = hundred (geddit? arch as in the Arch which adorns the hundred dalasi note. Don't ask me what sugu-fem means)). Anyways so once the kabaa is opened (with a knife - as in when cutting open an orange you must make the lower part larger, and the upper part smaller, giving a cover and a main part - this is just one of those things everyone does automatically, which just seems to be the right thing, and does not need rationalizing), one then has a selection of condiments to add. Sugar is the most common, with a dash of salt on the side to add a hint of, well, saltiness. It is by no means the only possible combination however: I have seen people who prefer just salt; or just sugar; or sugar and salt and pepper; or salt and pepper; or any of the above but with jumbo added as well (I myself am not a big fan of jumbo in kabaa, which is funny because I liberally apply maggi sauce to every rice dish I eat, yet adding even a little jumbo to my kabaa leaves me feeling faintly nauseous). Instead of working within the confines of the kabaa shell there are some who prefer instead to offload the whole thing to a cup (including the skin, of which more later), which gives them more space to maneuver but abstracts a little from the mother-naturey feel of the whole exercise - these are also the people who will, after they have finished mixing the kabaa this way, put it in the fridge to have it chill a bit before they eat it, a practice frowned upon by kabaa purists but which I have been guilty of on occasion. (I have heard as well that doing this, and freezing the kabaa, is the only way to get it past US customs, as the whole kabaa - pod and all - seems to pose too much of a threat to national health security (not surprising, given that the kabaa - much as I love it - is not exactly the most good-looking of fruits (that award would probably go to the vain apple, or the frivolous banana). I haven't had occasion to test this yet, though I fear I will soon).

Swallowing kabaa seeds does wonders in the, ahem, fibre department, strengthening (and here I ask the more sensitive readers to skip a line or two - or in fact the rest of this paragraph - before they continue reading) what would perhaps be rather watery in nature, or, at best smearful (as in leaving smears during its passage), leading to some very satisfying, ahem, sessions in the bathroom (there is a palpable sense of relief that follows these sessions - after a particularly good one, one finds oneself feeling lighter, as if divested of a great load (which, in fact, is the case) - this relief is built up over the course of the session in increments, each release of matter increasing one's level of satisfaction, until one is finally done. The solidity of the matter being released is directly proportional to the general feeling of satisfaction and relief one feels - which is where the kabaa comes in: the swallowed seeds mix in with whatever is already in there, adding a firmness and a certain well-roundedness which contributes greatly to the final feeling result).

After one has eaten the seeds there is the skin of the kabaa (skin here having faintly cannibalistic connotations (at least to my, admittedly quite dark, imagination), but don't think of human skin, think of the skin of, say, a banana). The kabaa has a hard casing in which the seeds are contained - coating the inside of this hard coating is an edible skin, which can be scraped off and eaten, either with a spoon, or with the edges of the teeth. This is where the sugar/salt/pepper/jumbo mixture proves it second use, in addition to un-souring the kabaa seeds: by the time all the seeds are gone all is left is the kabaa juice created at the beginning of the exercise. This adds a measure of sweetness/saltiness/jumbo-iness to the skin - while one sucked on then spat out/swallowed the seed, the skin is made for chewing on. There is a certain sourness around its edges, which along with the sugar make for an interesting combination, and one which I would urge you to try if you have not already.

Home is not just a place - it is useful instead to think of it as a construction, a collection of things we have experienced enough times that they become a part of our core identity, and we yearn for them every time we are absent from them. One of these things for me in my construction of Gambia as a home is the house-shaking thunderstorms, which send thrills (thunder! lightning!) through you one moment and then gently send you to sleep the next (the gentle waft of a breeze through an open window, as voices drowned by the rain sounds attempt a conversation in the next room…). Another is the kabaa, and the experience that is eating it - silly as it seems this is one of the things I missed most about home, and is one of the reasons I can't wait to come back for good.

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