Monday, June 21, 2010

Hunger Pangs

Let’s talk about the one thing that is constantly on every Volunteer’s mind (besides the opposite sex): food. It is curious how when your life is more basic, so are your needs, although I suppose that this revelation should come as no surprise. After all, we really are simple creatures at heart. Shelter, sustenance, sex, isn’t that how that saying goes? And let me tell you, the subject of food is one that is discussed, lamented, expounded upon and described in every possible way with obscene detail and fondness.

See, here’s the thing. Food in Zambia isn’t bad, per se. It’s just not good either. And when I say not good, I don’t mean that your average fare isn’t entirely palatable or edible or filling, because it is. In fact, village fare can be downright tasty. However, the deliciousness of a fully prepared meal with different food groups and American flavors, and the ease with which this can be acquired…well, that’s something that is a rare treat. I bet you didn’t even know that America had a flavor. I am here to tell you that not only does America have a flavor, but it also has a smell (car exhaust, perfume and new shoes) and a sound (English, lawn mowers and engines). Ah, the things that you don’t realize are there until they’re gone.
But back to the point at hand. The national dish in Zambia, and in variations in many other African countries, is nshima. Take a pot full of cornmeal porridge, boil for 30 minutes, then add more cornmeal until you need a cement mixer to stir the resulting mush, then scoop out in lumps and serve. Shockingly, it is even more tasteless than it sounds, and just as equally devoid of all nutritive value. The good news is it’s full of carbohydrates… Nshima is served with what they call relishes, which usually some type of leafy vegetable that had been boiled into anonymity with tomatoes, onions and a heart-stopping amount of salt and oil. Sometimes, you’ll get the odd beans in oil sauce, or impwa, a small eggplant type thing that is honestly the only food on the face of this earth that I absolutely cannot manage to swallow (I used to think that was bananas, however not only are local bananas delicious, but when you’re hungry and the only snack you have is some ‘naners...) If you’re lucky, you’ll get a meat dish, usually chicken or fish, beef and sausage if your hosts are really bwana.

Now, I won’t lie. I’ve had some delicious dishes here. The cabbage relish is my favorite, and when veggies like rape or sweet potato leaves or pumpkin leaves are mixed with groundnut (peanut) powder, it becomes ifisashi, and it is really only a degree or two less than delectable. Similarly, my host family would fry fish and it was amazing. Also, there are a few foods here that are actually better than their American (or Chilean/Mexican/Canadian) counterparts: the aforementioned bananas, fresh guavas and avocados, canned butterbeans, and sweet potatoes. Moreover, there are some yummy brands of South African cookies and sweets that you can buy at Shoprite. Part of the fun has been trying all of the new and unfamiliar packages to see what they taste like.

However, when it really comes down to it, the subject of food is a sore one among the PCV population. Here the crux of the matter: when you get that inevitable craving for eggrolls and chowmein, or chips and salsa, or pot roast, or pizza, or lasagna, or fresh greek salad, or ice cream, or fried chicken, or pitas and hummus…you are left staring sadly at your unlit brazier with a heavy heart and an empty stomach. Suddenly your plain rice and inferior soy sauce is no longer appetizing. Sure, you can find most of these things in Lusaka. You can get creative and cook some of these things at the house. The point is, however, that you have to bike into town, buy ingredients, improvise ingredients when critical components like kalamata olives or sour cream are nowhere to be found, slave away over tortillas and salsa from scratch, and are rewarded with the result of “just not quite the same.” It’s enough to make even the most apathetic eater depressed.
Thus, we PCV’s have created a game. It’s simple really, with the only rule being not to drool on your neighbor. We sit around in a circle and describe with aching detail what we would eat at that very moment if we were in America. We talk about dishes, sauces, sides and hors d’ourves, and wistfully dream about the appropriate accompanying beverages. It’s almost pornographic, really. The Volunteer’s definition of Hell: you are blessed with television, and the only channel you get is the Food Network.

In Zam-speak, “we manage.” And I will say that when you do get the odd pizza or fries or ice cream, (I am looking forward to IST in August with anticipatory delight, Lusaka has some awesome take-away), it makes it that much more wonderful. Which then begs the question, is it really that good, or does desperation numb the palate? Probably a bit of both… You have a lot of time to think about stuff like this in the village, and the only thing I have conclusively come up with is a surefire way to make my millions. In four words, "Iron Chef: Peace Corps." Take note, television producers, and remember that I thought of it first.

peace. xo

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