Wednesday, September 19, 2007
African finger foods
African Finger foods
In Tanzania, corn dough balls make for sticky hands, full tummies
Wednesday, September 19, 2007 1:56 PM CDT
Taste bud travels | By Emily Parrino
Emily Chappelear had never eaten African food before moving to Tanzania at age 20. She’d never bargained for meats and vegetables at an open-air market. And as a missionary student accustomed to eating dormitory food, Emily had never learned to cook.
“We ate spaghetti noodles with butter and salt the first week,” she told me recently as she moved through her kitchen, alternately flipping fat chapatis in a skillet and chopping vegetables for a traditional East African stew.
Emily and her husband, Ryan, moved to Hopkinsville in July, bringing with them Africa For Jesus, a non-profit organization they founded 5 years ago before that first trip to Tanzania.
The Chappelears were kind enough to treat us to a home cooked meal, and my husband, Joe, and I were eager to try a new ethnic cuisine.
On the menu for the evening: Ugali, a dense porridge ball made from finely ground corn, used for scooping up a curried stew of carrots, beef, tomato, peppers and onions. A warm salad of shredded cabbage, green peppers, carrot and spices rounded off the meal along with chapati, pan-fried flatbread rounds, used as additional scoopers.
Emily learned to cook the Tanzanian meal by scrutinizing her house-helper, Monika, in the kitchen. It wasn’t easy, because Monika, and Tanzanians in general, didn’t use recipes.
Another thing typically absent from the African table is forks and spoons. Africans eat with their fingertips. Traditionally, all eat from the same serving dishes — plucking off a small piece of ugali and rolling it into a ball, then making a divot in the center to scoop up mouthfuls of runnier dishes.
Digging in might seem unsanitary or uncultured to the Western opinion, but in Africa there’s an art to eating.
“They’re really tidy,” Emily explained, flicking drops of stew onto her plate.
My fingernails were already full of ugali, and stew was making its way up my husband’s wrists. Our host said we were doing OK for our first hand-held meal.
“They laughed at us because at first we had stew dripping down to our elbows,” she said.
Despite the mess factor, scooping up food with food has its advantages. There’s nothing metallic standing between the savory flavors and the tongue.
The starchy ugali sits like a rock. By the time our dinner party was winding down, there was still a sizeable mass left untouched. The dish is filling by design, the Chappelears explain.
“After walking for miles and miles each day, you begin to crave the feeling of ugali in your stomach — the feeling of fullness,” Emily said.
Though the corn mush was once a staple for the Chappelear family, they only eat African food every couple of months now.
“We eat it sparingly, since we have to import it from Africa ourselves,” Emily said.
The Chappelears’ twin 4-year-olds, Esther and Phillip, are always excited when they can eat a meal of African finger foods. Their mom pre-rolled a dozen marble-sized ugali balls for them to dip.
But when ugali isn’t available, the Chappelear kids improvise.
“Because of learning to dip ugali, Esther likes to do that with all of her American food,” Emily said. “She’ll just dip whatever she’s eating into her drink.”