There is a conspiracy in the guest house to make me gain weight. I’m not being paranoid; the staff and Ashook freely admit and discuss their plans in front of me, complete with gestures that demonstrate just how big I should get by the time I return to the U.S. I usually eat dinner early, at around 5:30 or 6, and I routinely come back to the kitchen around 7 or so to make myself a cup of tea, which is when Ashook is preparing his dinner. When he sees me come in, he says, “Claire, please. Let me get you some fish or something. Come, you must eat something. Something light, like a steak and chips or a lamb chop, perhaps?” I sip my tea, smile, and thank him for the offer, but assure him firmly that I’ve already eaten dinner and am full. This is met with a worried look from Ashook. “Claire. Please, just have a steak. Please? Will you have one?” When I further decline the offer, he shakes his head with a troubled look on his face and says, “We want you to go back to the States nice and fat, you know. We want them to know that you were well taken care of here.”
Speaking of food, I don’t know that I’ve really given the Swazi cuisine here the proper blog space it deserves, considering how much of a foodie I am. As you might expect, there is a lot of food here that is out of the question for me, since I’ve found wheat to be just as ubiquitous here as it is in the U.S. Sandwiches and toast are common, they use bread to sop up gravy, and wheat flour is in almost every processed or pre-packaged food item available here, including most of the spices they use in their stews. But, despite the inescapable presence of gluten, there is still a lot that I can eat. And just like in the U.S., my food intolerances have caused me to seek out other, more basic and traditional types of food that perhaps I would have missed otherwise had wheat bread and muffins been an option for me.
Let me start with avocados and the love affair that Swazis have with them. Avocados are everywhere here. At first I thought that corn was what Swazis loved most, but now I’m not sure. When you leave someone’s house, chances are that they will offer you one (or many) avocados to sustain you for your ride home. Swazis smear huge chunks of ripe avocado onto bread and eat it by itself for an avocado sandwich; they mash it and eat it as an accompaniment for their corn porridge; they eat it on salads; alongside big, juicy pieces of papaya; and with boiled sweet potatoes. But really, the most common way to eat an avocado here is simply to crack it open and use your fingers to scoop out the flesh and eat it plain.
That is not to diminish the starring role that corn plays in the daily diet of Swazis, though. The corn is not like our yellow American corn with small kernels; this is some serious corn. It’s white and has much bigger kernels, and it isn’t as sweet as the yellow variety. At every market, at every bus rank, and along most roads, there are women selling boiled corn on the cob umbile. Sometimes they are sitting with a big plastic bag open on the ground in front of them, waiting for passersby to approach them for a piece, and sometimes, they are walking down the road with the bag of corn balanced impossibly on their heads. If someone wants to buy one, they’ll stop, lower the bag to the ground and fish out a piece, and then wrap the bag tightly and replace it on their head, continuing along the path to find their next sale. They peel back a piece of the husk to reveal the warm piece of corn inside, and if you approve the piece they’ve chosen for you, they will remove the rest of the husk with a flick of their wrist and place it in a little plastic baggie for you to take with you. My favorite, though, is the roasted corn. You can buy this on the side of the road at little makeshift barbecue pits that sit low to the ground with small flames licking the base of the metal rods in the ground. The corn is lined up vertically along the side of the fire, and the person selling it stands there, examining each piece and carefully turning them at the right time to ensure equal roasting. The tips of the kernels turn black and the inside softens, and this tastes to me like a cross between popcorn and corn on the cob. You can buy a piece for about 4 rand, or $.50.
Pap (pronounecd “bop”) is the thick corn porridge that is a staple for most families here. To make it, you pour boiling water and maize meal into a big pot and stir until it resembles very thick and stiff mashed potatoes (which requires some muscle power). Then you cover it and let it cook for another 35 – 45 minutes over medium heat until there is a thick crust on the bottom of the pot and the pap, or “mealie meal” is done. It will look and taste almost identical to the way it looked when you first stirred it up with the boiling water, but I am assured that it is different. Some people make it with more water, and some with less, but either way, what you end up with is a very thick pot of pap. At the guest house, they make it every single night for their dinner, and one of the staff dishes it out in even portions onto the plates and serves it with a meat stew, usually made with chicken necks because that’s all the owner of the guest house will buy them (they jokingly – and sadly – call them “prawns” because it’s the fanciest meal they ever get), but occasionally chicken breasts or beef. Everyone uses their hands to eat it, scooping up some pap first and then using the porridge to collect a piece of meat. Sometimes they serve the meat and pap with boiled or mashed squash (butternut or pumpkin), beet chutney, or a lettuce salad or potato salad. That’s what all of the full traditional meals I’ve eaten here have consisted of so far. The portions are always huge, and, as the staff has told me with beaming smiles on their faces, pap will make you “strong” (code word for “will make you gain lots of weight,” something that is a luxury for many here). You can buy enormous bags of maize meal in the stores, and I see women walking down the street or up and down the hills of Mbabane nonchalantly carrying a 25kg bag of corn on their heads, even as they walk with a baby strapped to their back and hold in their hands bags of other supplies. And most families here have a plot of corn at their rural homestead, which they plant and harvest themselves, grinding it into cornmeal once it has been dried. Just last week, Ncamsile informed me that she was going to be taking 3 days off work to go home and grind her corn into maize meal. She returned the following Monday with two 75kg bags of maize meal in the back of her truck, telling me we had to stop at a friend’s house to deliver the corn that was owed her. The bags were enormous – I could easily have fit inside one of them – and after we had delivered the first bag of corn, we went to another house to drop off the second. A young woman came out of the house and several children spilled out of the door and ran up to the truck. While the older kids and woman collectively dragged the bag from the back of the truck, a very small boy of maybe two came and stood by the passenger side of the truck and stared up at me with big, round eyes. I smiled and waved at him through the open window, which will usually get me at least one shy smile out of the kids here, but his solemn gaze did not change, and he remained there, looking at me, until he was scooped up by the young woman and returned to the house. As we drove away, Ncamsile told me that those kids didn’t have parents and had just lost their grandmother earlier that week, and she wanted to give them that corn meal so they would have something to feed people at the funeral.
Sweet potatoes, or patata, as they’re called in siSwati, are another staple, and they are carried along as a snack on the road, eaten as a meal by themselves, or in pieces with avocado. The two varieties of sweet potato I have seen here are both yellow/white on the inside, and have either a yellow or a deep, beet-like purple skin on the outside. They don’t have the bright-orange, pumpkin-colored ones we have in the U.S., and the insides are much more firm than that kind. Whereas ours seem to wither and mash themselves inside the skin as they cook, the ones here remain pretty firm on the inside. Usually, they are boiled until the inside is relatively soft, and then they are eaten once they have cooled. The trick appears to be not to add too much water to the pot; I added maybe 2 inches of water to mine for my first attempt, and Jose said, “No, no, Siphiwe, it’s too much,” and poured off at least an inch of the water. Some think it’s best if the potatoes never actually touch the water; Celiwe steams hers by placing them in a plastic grocery bag, and then placing the bag in a covered pot of boiling water for about 45 minutes. Once they’re done, you let them cool, and then peel and enjoy. They are quite delicious and filling and have become one of my favorite things to eat here.
The last thing that I’ve come to love here is something that I happened upon by chance. I was walking through Mbabane after going to the Plaza on my lunch break, and I passed an old woman who was sitting next to a big bin of what I thought were roasted peanuts. When I got a closer look, though, I saw that they were actually small brown beans. I bought a bag and tried one, and then I tried another, and then I couldn’t stop munching on them. There was something slightly sweet, yet deliciously salty in their flavor. When I got to the office, I asked my colleagues what they were, and they told me that they are called tidlubu in siSwati, but no one knew the English name for them. An internet search revealed them to be jugo beans, or African groundnuts, or Bambara groundnuts. They are actually packed full of nutritional value and protein, and there’s a movement to make them more widely available in rural parts of Africa. To make them, you simply boil them for about 2 ½ hours, adding salt in the last ½ hour for them to soak up. When you drain the water from them and turn them onto a plate, they look almost like candies, sticking together with a caramel-like steadfastness.
I should say that all of my Swazi friends find it terribly amusing that I’ve taken to eating these traditional foods. “Oh!Siphiwe, you are eating patata….you like patata??” “She’s a real Swazi, that one – look at her eating the pap.” But even though I’ve adapted, there is still nothing I’ve found yet that can replace a delicious, crumbly gluten-free muffin as I watch everyone around me munching on cookies and bread. And there seems to be nothing that will stop everyone around me from trying to get me as “strong” as possible before I return home.