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An Undesirable Diet

Last month I discussed some unusual foods, namely kumis, doogh and the sausage with a hole down the middle. I haven’t tried, nor do I intend to sample the latter. There are some foods that I regard as absolutely disgusting, yet have had to try out of good manners.

In Luanda, I was taken taken out by my host (a caucasian, not an Angolan man) for an evening snack prior to sampling as many beers as possible (his idea, not mine). He suggested we eat local food, which I was comfortable with as I’m always willing to try anything once. We went to a market near the harbour and found a table in the shade of a rattan screen. Although it was late afternoon, it was still hot.

We had a beer, and he ordered the food because I couldn’t read the Portuguese menu. ‘You’ll love it,’ he claimed.
What arrived was a piece of meat so tough I thought of strapping it to my shoes to save the soles. My jaw ached at the thought of trying to chew it had it not been boiled so long that it was devoid of any flavour whatsoever. A one inch thick layer of off-white fat clung to one edge of this grey lump. My cholesterol level went up just looking at it. Even at -40C in the far reaches of Siberia where they eat that sort of thing to keep warm, I would not have touched it.

But that wasn’t the worst thing on the plate. That honour had to be granted to a thing that resembled the top of a jellyfish – a hemispherical pale grey mound that wobbled at every jog of the plate. I’ve eaten manioc in several forms: as tapioca pudding when a child, as yuca in South America and as cassava in some other places. It’s a staple in many parts of the world. The trouble with it is that unless it is properly prepared, it can be poisonous because it contains cyanide. In West Africa, manioc is rendered harmless through a number of means, one of which is boiling it.

In Gabon, in a private house, roasted manioc was served, and it was excellent, rather like roast potato. But what they did to that jellyfish mock-up in Luanda, only they would know. I’m tempted to say it was bland, but that would be inadequate. The taste was virtually nothing until a slight bitterness came through. The texture was that of a coarse jelly. If you imagine chewing into a turmoil of slugs, you’ll get the right impression. Absolutely disgusting.

Manners or not, I could not face that meal and stuck to beer. My host guzzled it down. I think he’d been there too long.
On another occasion, an engineer colleague and I were in Kinshasa, DRC, training and checking the local electricity company pilots and maintenance staff. Over the weekend, the gentleman who hosted us insisted we go to his home for Sunday lunch. We looked at each other without hope, knowing we couldn’t get out of it. There was nothing else to do.

There were plenty of little eats to nibble on while our host’s wife prepared the main dish: Deep fried this and that, I don’t know what, but it was tasty even if a bit greasy. The lady worked in silence while we battled in pigeon French and our Congolese friend tried pigeon English.

The main course arrived. A soup with bits: huge gobs of fat floating above fish heads and a hacked chunk of meat complete with bone splinters. I looked at the engineer and he looked at me and we struggled to neither gag nor laugh.
I mustn’t be unkind. Our hosts had gone out of their way to be generous in their hospitality, especially as they were plainly not affluent. Although the dish as a whole tasted quite good, crunching a fish head is not my idea of an enjoyable lunch.

I’ve eaten and thoroughly enjoyed dishes in many countries: America North and South, Europe, Russia, Central Asia, India, China and South-East Asia, but some of the offerings in Africa I would rather not repeat.

Publishing news is that Running Forever, the sequel to Thirty-Four, is now ready for editing. The designer and I are talking about the cover, which I will publish here when it’s finished. At last – signs of progress are apparent.

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