Archive for the ‘sweet potatoes’ Category

When I graduated from college I was antsy to travel. Young, liberal, and idealistic, I was ready to leave the United States for a dose of worldly reality. I had no real understanding of life outside of my comfy home and it was time for me to gain some perspective. So Scott and I left with only a few personal possessions shoved into a couple of dirty backpacks and a rough sense of where we wanted to travel.

While we didn’t have our backpacking trip planned out completely, I knew I wanted to visit my friend Leanne in Mali, Africa. I was drawn to Africa—lush, colorful, harsh, and severe. It was the polar opposite of the world I was used to and seemed like the perfect place to start our trip.

When our jet landed on the single dirt runway of the Ouagadougou airport in Burkina Faso, and I saw the bright red landscape and shanty houses of the city, I thought that maybe it wasn’t such a hot idea to visit sub-Saharan West Africa. Leanne eased us into the country by having us stay in a decent hotel with running water, clean beds and air conditioning our first night. The second day, when we left the city and moved into the countryside, that was a different experience altogether.

On our second night, while sitting in a decrepit little room with a jagged shard of glass for a mirror and roaches the size of small house cats, I freaked out. The foreign scariness, grime, and the possibility of permanent insanity from the Malaria drugs all began to mess with my nerves. Two days earlier I lamented the short amount of time we would be visiting Mali, and after we landed I was terrified at the notion of being there close to a month. Rocking back and forth, knees pressed to my chin, I schemed about how to catch the next flight out to Europe. This was no sheltered safari. We were four “rich” white kids in our early twenties in a very black, impoverished country. With my pale Irish skin there would be no blending in. Children swarmed us, touched our clothes and spoke to us in their native dialect. I felt like I was trapped in a National Geographic photo, only not the glamorous and romanticized image that the glossy pictures depict in the magazine. I wasn’t prepared for Mali or the realities of a third-world country. It was the poverty that rattled me. A quick visit to Mexico a couple of years beforehand did nothing to prepare me for the dire conditions.

Leanne planned out our visit with stops at several different villages throughout Mali after crossing the border from Burkina Faso. About half way through our stay we spent four days at the village she had been living in for two years. Temperatures in Mali topped out at 120 degrees in the shade–this was during the cooler, rainy season. I spent the first day in her village alternating between lying on the clay floor of her hut and staggering to the well to pull up buckets of water to pour over my hot body. Mali is a Muslim country so even though the heat was deathly, we had to keep our legs covered.

Leanne warned us before hand that we would be taking all our meals with the dougatigi, the chief of the village, and that each meal of the day would consist of millet porridge (commonly known as bird seed in the U.S.) and a green baobab leaf sauce, the color and consistency of vending machine slime. Fully aware of the affect of baobab sauce on the psyche, Leanne purchased a bag of humanitarian-grade rice (usually laden with small inconspicuous rocks to be discovered later during mealtime) to give to the dougatigi’s wife and asked that we be fed it for breakfast. It was Leanne’s idea to start the day off with a rice meal and then struggle through the mashed millet and baobab sauce the rest of the day.

Our first meal with the dougatigi was somber. We stooped around the common bowl and carefully stuck our hands into the steaming hot food. I felt awkward. I’ve eaten family style before but not with strangers with whom I didn’t share a language, eating out of the same bowl with dirty hands and crouched on the ground in a squat. Eating millet and baobab sauce required an element of skill. After inserting your hand into burning hot food, you had to dip it into a pool of slimy baobab goo sitting in a well of millet. In order to keep the baobab from running down your chin, you needed to swing it around your fingers a few times and then insert more than half of your hand into your mouth.

The dougatigi’s wife, aiming to please us, added a dried fish to the baobab sauce for “flavor.” Even Leanne, who had spent most of the last two years eating the same meal everyday and had grown accustomed to baobab and millet, was not enthused by the fish flavor. By the third day, the mere thought of dinner caused my stomach to cramp up into a little ball of protest. Scott and I had put our vegan eating habits on hold during our travels, especially during our stay in Africa, and I almost wept with relief when Leanne sacrificed one of her chickens for our last meal.

It was for the best that our hosts didn’t understand English because in all honesty, the millet and baobab sauce was foul. We crouched there forcing back hot millet with the sole intent to not offend our hosts by shunning their food. “Just keep eating” I grunted at Scott with a smile on my face to camouflage my real feelings. My mantra, “just keep eating, just keep eating” was broken intermittently by Scott’s request to cease the meal. We were like two kids, forcing down cold, canned vegetables, praying that our parents would take pity and excuse us from the table.

Eight times in four days, we repeated this task of eating millet. We’d sweat in the heat and focus on pushing past the gag reflex. On the last day, as we sat quietly swearing, encouraging each other through gritted smiles to continue with the meal, the dougatigi, normally a stoic and quiet man, addressed Leanne. She replied in his native language, turned to us and chuckled.

“What did he say,” I asked, mouth brimming with food, hoping we hadn’t done anything to shame Leanne or offend his family.

“He said your friends are good eaters.”

Our trip to Mali put my cushy life at home into clear focus. All of a sudden the slew of things I had been taught to fear all my life seemed trivial. I watched a three-year-old girl, her mother somewhere working the fields, play with a rusted, jagged-edged metal box that someone had thrown away, and it dawned on me that we worry way too much about hurting ourselves. A stop for street food to eat an amazing fried egg sandwich made with hot mayonnaise that never saw the inside of a refrigerator felt exhilarating and risky. Eating from a common bowl didn’t make me sick, but instead taught me humility and the importance of respecting a meal, no matter how modest the food or surroundings. Africa helped me shake off the comfortable, overprotective cloak of home and it was a liberating experience.

But after three weeks in Mali, I was ready to leave. For all the lessons I learned, it wasn’t easy to adapt to that country. I escaped drug-induced insanity (but not the hallucinations) and embraced a flexible approach to life that I never had before. And today, when I start to fret dirty little hands, and feel the urge to overprotect my kids, I stop and remember my time in Mali.

Below is not a recipe for millet and baobab. Instead I am leaving you with my favorite Malian dish called tiga diga na. This peanut stew was my street meal of choice. It is easy to make and, unlike the millet and baobab dish, kept us full and happy long after our jet left the country.

Tiga Diga Na– serves 6

-12oz peanut butter
-¼ cup of tomato paste
-one cube of vegetarian bullion (or the African bullion of choice)
-½ head of cabbage cut into four large pieces
-one to two sweet potatoes cut into large chunks
-Any other random vegetables cut into big pieces (cauliflower, broccoli, etc.)
-three cloves of garlic (or more depending on your love of garlic) cut in halves
-Enough water for desired consistency (I like it thick and soupy)
-Salt and pepper to taste


-Blend peanut butter, tomato paste and water together and place over low/medium heat (be careful, the sauce can stick to the bottom of the pan easily so make sure that the heat isn’t too high and stir frequently)

-Immediately add all the remaining ingredients and let simmer until the vegetables are cooked (the longer the better, at least for 45 minutes)

-Serve over white rice, preferably not humanitarian grade


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