Robot Hand Jobs, Xima, and Goldilocks: Food in Mozambique

I do not like coffee. Mozambique does not have much coffee to offer. I am happy with this arrangement, or I am at least indifferent. Other volunteers are not so pleased. They search (vainly) for solace in the powdered Recofry that is available: instant coffee grounds that look as though someone scooped up some dirt from my front yard and tossed it into a can. Another trainee described drinking Recofry in the following terms: “Its like getting a hand job from a robot: I just know it’s not the real deal.”

A lot of food in Mozambique is not the real deal. Milk. Cheese. Dairy products in general. They require refrigeration. The milk available comes in a carton that does not need to be refrigerated until after the first use – “long lasting, full cream milk.” Another trainee recently wrote a love letter to cheese. I’m not that desperate yet, Cathy. That is not to say, however, that I don’t have my own shameful moments. Such moments usually come late at night or in the seconds after meals when I can steal away from my family. I try to be respectful about it, to hide my desperation. I call these private seconds, “Gato Preto nas Sombras” – Black Cat in the Shadows. Black Cat is a brand of peanut butter imported from South Africa. Chunky Black Cat exists, but smooth is more common. They come in glass jars with red lids (green if chunky): 270 grams, 400 grams, or 800 grams. I’ve taken down an 800-gram jar in one week. Shameless, I know.

I’m trying to cut back. My biggest fear is to over-consume and develop a peanut allergy. But Black Cat is calorie dense and – even if it produces the occasional fart on my morning run – at least it sticks in my stomach better than rice, or bread, or pasta, or saltine crackers, or xima. Xima is the go-to carbohydrate of Mozambique. It is incredibly cheap and incredibly flavorless: cornflower boiled in water with salt until it forms a kind of thick porridge. It is left to sit, to form unremarkable, congealed blobs. We then use it like bread to eat the rest of the food on our plate, often a meal of chicken and salad. The worst part is, once I start eating xima at a meal, its tough to stop. There is always so much of it. And it always tastes like nothing. And it does so little to fill the belly. Until an hour later I realize I’ve eaten over a pound of the porridge and I waddle around with a little xima baby inside of me.

If there is no xima at a meal, there is rice or bread or pasta. Mozambicans are generous people, and they demonstrate this by attempting to force massive amounts of carbohydrates down your throat. My host family’s biggest complaint about me: James não gosta de pão. They tell this to everyone: James doesn’t like bread. I do eat bread – all the better with peanut butter and banana – but I do not eat an entire loaf of bread each time I sit down to have chá, tea. The other day I watched my host sister cut open a slice of bread, add French fries and ketchup, and call it her breakfast. They call breakfast matabicho, literally “kill bugs,” because of the noises the stomach makes in the morning. My host sister’s favorite food: plain white rice. Most meals at my home consist of the following ratio: 2 parts rice, 1 part nutritional substance.

However, my rejection of certain Mozambican eating habits is often reciprocated. In my second week here, I ate a banana with peanut butter. I sat at the table, scooped mantega de amendoim out of the Black Cat jar, added it to my banana, and savored the conjunction of flavors. The whites of my fifteen-year-old sister’s eyes roared in shock. She fled the room. She called our mãe to tattle on me. My mãe asked her to put me on the phone. I confirmed that I was indeed eating mantega de amendoim com banana. There was a silence on the other end before she told me that Americans are weird.

 

A lot of food in Mozambique is more than the real deal. When was the last time you had to butcher the chicken you wanted to eat for dinner? That’s about as real as it gets. Each time my family eats frango or perú or porco, we have to kill that chicken or that turkey or that pig. The first time I watched my host mother decapitate a chicken, an adorable white puppy trotted over to lap up all the blood in the dirt with the little tongue he usually uses to lick my fingers. Several weeks ago, our língua groups (classes of 4 or 5 trainees that receive Portuguese lessons together) cooked a meal for our host families. Kelly is from Colorado. She has loud blonde hair and was in a sorority at UNC. Amanda is from Washington D.C. She is proud of her Latina heritage and was the vice president of the Catholic student group at Columbia University. I took photos as each of the girls pinned a chicken to the ground and used a dull knife to relieve the bird of its head. Blood sprayed onto their sandals, onto their bare feet. After the deed was done, I helped one of the mães remove the guts and organs. The lungs fell apart a little, so I had to spend some extra time scraping the inside the rib cage with my fingers. Before leaving the United States, I had mentioned to others that I looked forward to “being more connected” with my food sources. I have never, ever, been so “connected” to my frango before I eat its leg or its breast or, now, its liver. This connection has birthed an appreciation for meat: protein is expensive. Protein is hard work.

 

Thus far, I’ve delineated a spectrum of food in Mozambique: on one end we have “not the real deal” and on other lies “more than the real deal.” Talk about defining things by what they’re not. But Goldilocks found the porridge that was just right for her, and so have I: matapa, carril de amendoim, and feijoada. No discussion of Mozambican cuisine should exist without matapa, a dish found in all regions of this long country. It is made from folhes de mandioca – cassava root leaves – crushed into a paste and cooked with coconut milk and ground peanuts. The result is a thick curry – not spicy in the least, but with delicious notes of coconut and peanut – served over rice. Depending on who makes it, or in what region you are in, it may contain fresh or dried shrimp. Carril de amendoim is a dish similar to matapa. The literal translation would be “peanut curry.” Take the recipe for matapa, remove the leaves, add a lot more peanuts, and serve over fish or chicken on a bed of rice. It’s like eating a hot coconut peanut butter for dinner. That is, it’s like heaven. Lastly, we have feijoada. Originally a Brazilian dish, it consists simply of beans cooked with meat and often vegetables such as onions, bell peppers, kale – whatever you want to throw in. It’s easy to make, but tough to perfect. My mãe cooks a mean feijoada. I envision feijoada, or at least feijão (just beans), as a regular dish once I move to site: it is protein rich and it is cheap. Last week during my site visit, a bag beans that cost less than one U.S. dollar fed five of us.

 

A professor I once had defined culture simply as the interaction between a person and his/her environment. Food, according to this definition, represents one of the most concrete aspects of culture that exists: I took this from the earth and I put it in my body. Food is the energetic relationship between human being and environment. So when we take people from different continents, different hemispheres, opposing food preferences demarcate the line between cultures. For example, I find the presentation of the fish that we eat so often difficult to overcome: about six inches long, the carapáu are not filleted, but rather left whole and either boiled or cooked in oil. Their gelatinous eyes eyeball me from my plate. I find it even more disturbing to watch my host father eat the fish’s head with absolutely no regard for the bones. He just crunches and swallows. On the other hand, he shakes his head every time we take chá together and I refuse to eat a loaf of bread or add extra spoonfuls of sugar to my tea. My family is appalled by my healthy application of peanut butter to all situations. But we’ve grown accustomed to the peculiarities of each other. Everyday we still sit at the same table together and eat our meals in our respective manners. Every now and then we try something different, we cross the line – me tasting some internal organ I’m not used to, my sister trying a little peanut butter on an apple slice –, two different cultures blurring the border between.

 

How to Prepare a Chicken for Consumption:

  1. Hold the chicken upside down by its feet. Carry it to a spot of dirt that you don’t mind getting bloody.
  2. Pin its feet beneath one of your feet and its wings beneath the other. Firmly grip the chicken’s head.
  3. Using a slightly dull blade – sharp would be too difficult to come by – cut into the chicken’s neck. It may shudder or spray blood, but do not hesitate. Cut the head clean off.
  4. Lift the headless chicken by its feet and dip it into boiling water to soften the feathers.
  5. Pluck all of the feathers. You may need to dip it back into the boiling water. Rinse.
  6. Cut off the feet at the base of the knee.
  7. Make an incision into the middle of the chicken’s upper breast. Pulling the body in opposite directions, slice down the center line of the torso. Careful not to puncture the intestines.
  8. Using your hands, detach and remove all of the internal organs. Be sure to pull out all of the pieces of the lungs. Careful with the intestines. Save, depending on whether or not chicken guts titillates your taste buds. Rinse well.
  9. Cut off the tale bone.
  10. Partition the meat into different section: thighs and legs, right chest and wing, left chest and wing, esophagus. Do not waste any meat. Make incisions into various sections of flesh, such as the breast, to add garlic and lemon.
  11. Mix in garlic and lemon.
  12. Place over a fogão de carvão – a coal barbeque – and cook until the meat is tender and delicious.

 

A Love Letter:

Dear Cheese,

I know it’s been a while. Too long, in fact. Mozambique is great, but I really wish you were here with me. I miss you. I’d love it if you could come visit sometime, even make a quick appearance. I need you; I can’t be without you for much longer. Please come back to me. I’m sorry I ever left you in the first place–you deserve better than that.

All my love,

Catia

(Check out Cathy’s blog: http://wherescathy.wordpress.com/)

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5 thoughts on “Robot Hand Jobs, Xima, and Goldilocks: Food in Mozambique

  1. Hey James,

    Another great post! A couple ideas came to me while reading it. First and foremost, the curry you described sounds amazing. Second, Cha is also the pronunciation for tea in Mandarin! I don’t think that’s a coincidence, but who knows… Third, liver is by far one of the most nutrient dense foods available anywhere in the world. Make sure to eat your organ meats!

    Like

    • Hey Sean, (1) Matapa is delicious – I definitely recommend trying to find and/or make it; (2) I agree that the Portuguese “chá” probably comes directly from Mandarin, or some other eastern influence, due to the early Portuguese contact with that region of the world (most other romance languages refer to tea as “te” or something similar); (3) I’ve been getting as much organ meat as I can! I have to mentally overcome the texture, but the flavor itself is great. Hope all is well with your new son!

      Like

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