African Anecdotes #3: Let’s Eat – Ivory Coast, South Africa

Let’s Eat

There are a great variety of delicious local dishes to be tried in Ivory Coast, although it can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. We found that in general, hotel restaurants are over-priced and the food is not that great, especially if they try to cook French dishes.

The first hotel we stayed in – the rather touristy Hamanieh – had three meals included with the price of the room. It would have been better if they also had the option of paying a bit less, and not taking any meals, because frankly the food was crap – tough chewy bits of meat badly cooked, barely warm vegetables, not to mention the unfriendly and very slow service.

The Grand Hotel had excellent food (both African and European specialities), although the prices were expensive (basically what you’d pay in a European restaurant). What we found to be the best deal was to eat in the Maquis or even buy stuff from little stalls on the street. Here you could get delicious Atik�e (made from manioc) and fish for 200 FCFA, washed down with a Coke or a beer for about the same price.

Other stuff available in the street or maquis included foutou/plakal� (mashed bananas/manioc) with fish or meat sauce, rice with various sauces, aloko (fried plantation banana – a banana less sweet than what we’re accustomed to eating in Europe) with fish and chili sauce, grilled kidneys, and all kinds of fresh fruit such as pineapples, oranges, mangos, papayas, bananas, grapefruit. The pineapples were more or less straight from the tree – ripe, juicy, and sweet – the best I’ve ever tasted.

Coconuts were available almost anywhere for around 25 to 100 FCFA each. It was a new experience for me to drink fresh coconut milk and then eat the pulp from the inside – the first one I got was near the beach in Grand Bassam. The women selling them skin the coconut, then cut a hole in the top for you with a machete, you drink the cool, sweet, refreshing milk inside, and then they split them open with the machete and cut a bit of the husk which you can use to scrape out the pulp inside. You can also get the hardened coconuts which are available in Europe, but these are not nearly as nice as the fresh, mushy, pulp scooped out from a coconut straight off the tree.

A lot of the stereotypes about Africans eating snakes, lizards, insects, etc were not lived up to. Although going out into the villages in the brousse we did eat some more ‘exotic’ things like snails (huge ones which had 10 cm diameter shells), frogs (the whole thing, not just the legs), and viande de brousse (meat from the forest) – things like squirrels and large rats.

It was a bit of an eye-opener to see teenagers running after a rat that they spotted in the village one night, beating it to death with bamboo sticks and then going off to eat it; or to see a cousin of Rocheline’s coming back from his traps in the forest with a dead squirrel strapped to the back of his bike. Supposedly they eat monkeys whenever they can find one, but they are becoming rarer and rarer, since they are over hunted.

Mostly though in the village, we ate chicken in a spicy sauce with rice or aloko. Chicken was their main source of meat, and as a sign of respect people would come and offer me one or two live chickens, which I accepted, taking the chicken by their scaly feet (as was the customary way of saying thanks). Then I handed them over to Rocheline’s mother or one of her aunts who would go off and kill them, pluck them, and cook them.

Meat is a scarcity, and more or less every last bit of the chicken (apart from the beak, eyes and crown) is eaten. The intestines are cleaned, fried and then given to the children to eat; the claws and neck are added to the sauce along with the rest; the bones are crunched on and the marrow and juice sucked out of them; gristle and fat are gladly devoured. In fact, I did feel a bit guilty being allowed to choose the best bits like the legs or the wings, and even then someone would sometimes take my left over chicken bones to crunch on.

In the village, nothing is wasted. People don’t go hungry or die of starvation, at least not in the villages we were in. However, some people, particularly the children, do lack meat, protein and vitamins – we saw some young children with swollen stomachs from eating mainly rice all the time.

People typically eat with their hands (cutlery is a bit of a luxury), washing them in a basin first, although when several people wash their hands in the same basin of water, hygiene takes a bit of a nose-dive. I usually tried wherever possible to wash my hands by pouring on clean water from a basin which no one had used yet or from a bottle of water filled from the pump.

We knew that drinking water from pumps, taps, or else where was inadvisable, so we tried to stick to mineral water, although it wasn’t available in some places. We added the anti-bacteria tablets that we’d brought with us to bottles of water from the village pumps (you’re supposed to leave the tablets dissolve for at least an hour before drinking).

Despite all our precautions we both had diarrhea quite a lot (especially me – I had one bout in the village which lasted three days with fever, vomiting, etc., so bad that I had to get medicine and an injection from the village nurse).

One unusual aspect concerning food in Ivory Coast, is that it is often served or stored in containers that you wouldn’t expect. Water, juice, milk and ice-cream are commonly served in knotted plastic bags, which you can either un-knot or simply bite a hole in to get at the stuff inside. Water is also stored and served in old engine-oil bottles – imagine going into a restaurant and having plonked on the table in front of you two grimy glasses and an engine-oil bottle which looks like it’s just been used by some mechanic to top up a car with oil. Food, such as Atik�e, is often served in a big green leaf, sandwiches are wrapped in paper ripped off an old potato sack, peanuts are stored in old whisky and wine bottles and kids stick chewing gum behind their ears to be chewed on again later.

All in all, though the ‘food experience’ was a good one – where else would you get to try things like cocoa and coffee beans (surprisingly sweet), and sugar cane (deliciously sweet and crunchy) cut straight from the plant. Ivorian beer (Flag or Bock) was good and very cheap – as little as 600 FCFA for a litre bottle. They also make Guiness there under licence, but it’s not as good as the real stuff back home. Strong alcohol is made locally from sugar cane (coutoucou), or from palm oil (vin de palmes – palm tree wine). I didn’t think much of vin de palmes, but coutoucou was quite nice. I would have liked to have brought back a bottle, but we had too much luggage as it was. We did bring back some fruit and dried fish though, which Rocheline bought on our last day in Abidjan.

Bon appetit!