African Spirit – The Food of Cameroon
A friend of my son is relocating to the Cameroon this week for business; it’s a beautiful country with really friendly, really hospitable people so he’ll probably be very happy when he’s got over his initial homesickness. For the sake of clarity, bear in mind that when I talk about people, it excludes politicians. Cameroon’s history hasn’t been awfully well recorded but archaeologists believe the country known has been inhabited since pre-history, at least for the past 50,000 years, maybe more.
The ancient Cameroonians traded with the Mediterranean exchanging ivory, natron, exotic pelts & feathers for bronze, textiles & beads but migration pretty much dominated life in the region. The best known kingdom, the Sao, arose near Lake Chad around 500 AD and reached it’s pinnacle from the 9th to the 15th centuries, after which it was conquered & destroyed by the Kotoko (who came from the north of Cameroon & Nigeria); Kotoko then became part of the Bornu empire and became a Muslim country.
- In 1472 the Portuguese arrived on the Cameroonian coast & when they saw that the rivers were teeming with prawns and crayfish, they christened the country Rio dos Camarões.
- In 1884 the Germans were emerging as a major power in Europe and established a colonial settlement here but after the war in 1919, it became a League of Nations Mandate Territory and was split between French Cameroons and British Cameroons.
- After the second World War, the mandates were converted into United Nations Trusteeships and self-government was granted to Cameroon.
BANANA AND PINEAPPLE SALAD
- 2 firm ripe bananas, peeled and sliced
- 1 small pineapple, peeled and sliced
- 1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and sliced
- 1 tbsp roasted peanuts, chopped
- 1 tin coconut milk (because most of us don’t have coconuts growing in our gardens & need to use tins)
- Boil the coconut milk until it thickens and set it aside to cool.
- Pile the bananas, the pineapple and avocado alternately in layers into individual glass salad bowls, top with chopped peanuts and pour over the thickened coconut milk, chill & garnish with mint and serve cold.
The Cameroon is well known for the climatic, geographic and ecological diversity that allows local farmers to grow a wide variety of crops. Rain forests, deserts, steppes and seashores are home to 253 ethnic groups originating from most of Africa. This enormous diversity, combined with the European influence is reflected in the Cameroonian cuisine which consists of a combination of exotic and local spices, indigenous plants, meat and sea food – truly unique and truly delicious. Due to the French influences and because the country finds itself on a crossroad, the cuisine of Cameroon is one of the most varied and exciting in Africa – with the French influence, a legacy of the colonial era, ensuring a magnificent African menu. The national dish of Cameroon is ndolé, a dish consisting of braised bitter leaves, spices, nuts and either fish or goat, depending on where you are in the country. Thanks to the French, bread & pasta can be found on most menus and thanks to the Brits & their love of puddings, the Cameroonians have a great dessert menu. The staple food of Cameroon is traditional & consist of yams, plantains, potatoes, rice and cassava which is usually accompanied by beans, maize and millet. Locals prefer maize to rice. Because of the fertile soil, fresh fruit and vegetables are easily available, both local and imported species! One can easily find okra, eggplants and cassava leaves at the market – not forgetting a vegetable known as bitter leaf.
NDOLE (BITTERLEAF SOUP)
- 500 ml dried bitterleaf (if you can’t find it in your area, substitute it with spinach, kale, collards, or turnip greens)
- 500 g cooked shrimps (if you can only find dried shrimps, use about 250 ml)
- 250 ml natural peanut butter – in other words, not sweetened.
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 500 ml water
- 2 generous tbsp fresh ginger, grated
- 2 large cloves garlic, crushed
- 6 large sweet fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 2 to 3 tbsp vegetable oil – or olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- (If using greens other than bitterleaf, skip this step – soak the bitterleaf overnight; drain in the morning and press out the excess water.
- If using kale, collards, or turnip greens, wash the greens, chop them, and cook them in a pot of boiling water for 5 minutes; if using spinach, wash the leaves well, rinse properly and then chop the spinach.
- Heat 2 tbsp of oil in a large pot and add the onions, the garlic and the ginger and sauté for a few minutes until the onions are translucent & then add the chopped tomatoes, reduce heat and simmer for about 3 minutes before adding the greens and then simmering again for about another 5 minutes.
- Now add the peanut butter, stirring well to combine everything, cover the pot and continue simmering until greens are tender, about 10 – 15 minutes; if the mixture is a little dry, add some of the water, a little at a time.
- Cut shrimp into smallish pieces and simmer them until they are just cooked, then add the spinach and check and correct the seasoning; serve with rice or boiled plantains and fufu.
Locals eat mainly fish because poultry and meat is tad too expensive and usually reserved for special occasions. Bush meat is commonly consumed with the porcupine and the pangolin the most popular but unfortunately exotic bush meat is also eaten in some regions. A common local menu would feature brochettes (barbecued kebabs – either goat, beef or chicken), sangah (a combination of maize, cassava leaf and palm nut juice) and ndoleh which is made with loads of spices and consists of meat, shrimp, pork rind, bitter leaf and peanut butter). In the larger cities, however, most restaurants offer a huge variety of Western, Indian and Chinese food and the American junk food outlets have made their mark, offering burgers and host of unhealthy fast food to willing public. Cameroon is divided in 10 regions (Adamaoua, Centre, Est, Extreme-Nord, Littoral, Nord, Nord-Ouest, Ouest, Sud, Sud-Ouest), each region home to many ethnic groups, each with its own culture and cuisine. The largest tribes are the Cameroon Highlanders, the Equatorial Bantu, the Kirdi, the Fulani, the North western Bantu and the Eastern Nigritic.
CUISINE OF THE CENTRE AND SOUTH EASTERN REGIONS
Here the plantain is probably the staple with maize coming a close second and rice being reserved for high days and holidays- among the specialities are:
- Kwem (young cassava leaves with the juice from palm nuts),
- Nnam ngon (marrow puree cooked with plantain leaves),
- Nnam owondo and Ndomba tsit (parcels of meat enclosed in plantain leaves).
CUISINE OF THE NORTHERN, EXTREME NORTHERN AND ADAMAOUA REGIONS
Cereals and millet are the staples here but maize is eaten almost everywhere, especially in the western part of Adamaoua. The most commonly eaten meat is beef from the huge herds that makes Northern Cameroon so wealthy but they also eat insects (termites, the karite caterpillars and so on) and small hunting animals like field mice, squirrels, frogs and local rats. Before anyone pulls up their noses, I’ve eaten fruit bat and they’re not that bad at all; if that’s what there is to eat, that’s what you eat!
CUISINE OF THE LITTORAL REGION
Cocoyams, cassava, beans, kalokaschia, leaves, grains and nuts are cultivated and thrive here; in some parts they even grow spontaneously. This province is home to a plethora of cultures and culinary traditions – like, the Bassas and Bakokos who adore palm nut (mbanga) soup that has been made with either fish or meat and they eat it with cooked cassava rolls. The Dualas tribe have a thing about the bitterleaf soup when it’s cooked with squash pips or peanuts and they enjoy it with a spot of boiled plantains on the side. The regional speciality of the Littoral Province is Ekoki: a dish made with beans known as vigna beans and it’s made with voandzou (matobo) seeds and is served with plantains, cocoyams or kolokashia. Yellow soup served with cocoyams is another speciality that get’s the juice flowing.
CUISINE OF THE WESTERN, SOUTH WESTERN AND NORTH WESTERN REGIONS
Here fufu is the staple food – it’s made with maize and eaten with almost everything. Over and above maize, tubers like yams, cocoyams, sweet potatoes and cassava are traditionally eaten and something found very often on a family’s daily menu is a dish made with tubers and bananas cooked with a combination of meats (like goat, sheep, pork, beef, chicken and bush meat). These dishes are known as kondre and they are served with maize fufu, pounded kolokashia or yellow soup. A large variety of leaves from the kolokashia, cocoyams, cassava and beans serve as vegetables. They are usually cooked with palm oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. In some parts of this region the locals eat more exotic dishes that consist, amongst others, of snakes, insect larvae (considered delicacies) and an unusual fruit known as mbu (a purplish-blue fruit resembling a small plum). Sauces play an important role and no meal is complete without a sauce of some kind. There are two kinds of sauces that feature most prominently – a sauce known as Nkui and a delicious groundnut sauce that is often a basis for fish or meat dishes.
Over and above the normal cooking methods, Cameroonians employ some rather interesting methods:
- Fish can be consumed either fresh, sun-dried or smoked – large types of fish are chopped into small sections and dried in the sun – either flat, on mats or suspended. When smoked, they are subjected to such intense heat that they are slightly charred outside.
- Cameroonians heat a variety of roots as well as shoots – the young shoots of the Palmyra palm are very popular in Cameroon. They are simply boiled and cooled, then sucked as a thirst quencher!
- Millet, after being harvested, is stored in granaries either as ears or as grain. The grinding techniques used by families produce flour that can be used either as it is or first sieved. From this a paste is made which is the most common form in which millet is eaten. The pastes are made by pouring the flour in boiling water and stirring the mixture with a stick, leaving it to cook, covered, for a few minutes.
In the Cameroon, most families have mud stoves outside their home for cooking and because smoked fish is such a vital part of the diet, most homes will also have a smoking stove! Dried fish is a firm favourite which is why, in most Cameroonian kitchens, a biltong box can be found – it’s used for drying large strips of fish. In rural Cameroon, the fuels used for cooking are firewood, charcoal, kerosene, cow dung and crop residues.
TRADITIONS AND FESTIVALS
- National Day (May 20),
- Assumption (August 15th),
- Christmas (December 25th),
- New Year’s Day (January 1st),
- National Youth Day (February 11th)
- Labour Day (May 1st).
All of these celebrations include specific food traditions. The two important religions in Cameroon are Christian and Islam, each with it’s own specific traditions and celebrations. Christian holidays include Good Friday (which is also celebrated by eating hot cross buns), Easter Sunday and Easter Monday. Muslim celebrations include Eid-al-Fir and Eid-al-Adha. Apart from these holidays, there are traditional festivals held by each ethnic group. Once a year during the dry season, Douala plays host to the Ngondo festival which is a great gathering of the Sawa people where traditional dishes like Dakéré (millet flour, steamed and eaten as it is or with milk) or Brochettes (a kind of barbecued kebab made from either Chicken, Beef, or goat) take pride of place on the menus. In the northern part of Cameroon, each tribe organises a grand annual festival, especially during the tourist season. Such festivals provide a suitable occasion for extensive and unparallel cultural and artistic displays, punctuated by very colourful and diversified attractions.
This is the case especially with the
- Festival of the Lamidat of Ngaoundere,
- The Great Cultural Weekof Garoua,
- The Maroua festival,
- Finally there are the traditional feasts of a number of sultanates and chiefdoms in the Kousseri, Mora and Mokolo regions.
In the Cameroonian culture, women do everything related to cooking – they organize the meals of the day strictly in accordance with the husband’s preferences and taking the financial constraints of the household into account. A good Cameroonian wife should be adept at cooking a delicious meal with whatever she has available. The people of Cameroon consider food essential to hospitality and go out of their way to feed their guests – regardless of what little they have to offer. There’s a huge difference between rural and urban cuisine in Cameroon. In the larger cities, like Douala and Yaounde, there are loads of restaurants where skilled local and foreign chefs ply their customers with a wide variety of western, Chinese and Indian dishes but traditional dishes are often served as well and meat with groundnut sauce, Nnam Owondo (a complicated dish made with shrimps, groundnuts and pepper) or mashed plantains served with beans braised in palm oil can often be found on a restaurant menu.
- 350 g long grain rice
- 600 ml coconut milk
- 1 onion, chopped
- 1 tsp saffron (optional and not typical)
- 2 carrots, diced
- 1 lemon, grated zest only
- 1 yellow pepperoni (sweet pepper), seeded and diced
- 1 tsp allspice
- 5 ml dried thyme,
- 1 fresh, hot green chilli, chopped finely
- 30 olive oil
- Heat the oil in a large, heavy bottomed pan and fry the onion until soft and translucent before adding the saffron strands dissolved in a little milk and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Pour in the coconut milk and bring to the boil and then stir in the carrots, the pepperoni, the thyme, allspice, the chilli, the lemon zest and the rice and bring to a brisk simmer.
- Cover this and cook over low heat until the rice has absorbed almost all the liquid – stirring every now and again.
- At this point, cover the pot with aluminium foil, put the lid on tightly and steam very gently until the rice is cooked.
- Serve hot.
Cameroonian cuisine is rich in fruit and vegetables and grilled fish, the famous fufu, endole and cassava are commonly eaten. The food here is amongst the best that Central Africa has to offer and a visit is well worth while – a fascinating visit for any foodie. The Cameroonian love for sauces is legendary and the sauces are often served on rice, mashed potatoes, couscous, fufu and pae - fufu can be made from rice, maize, manioc, plantains or bananas. The staples of the Cameroonian diet arrived with the Portuguese who introduced hot peppers, maize (corn), cassava (a root vegetable) and tomatoes to the locals. Whilst the French influence is reflected in some foods (omelettes and French bread) and also in the preparation of some dishes, for the most part, Cameroonians prefer to prepare their own traditional foods.
SAFOU A LA SAUCE TOMATE
Safou (Dacryodes edulis) is a fruit tree native to Africa that’s also called African pear but it is a delicious sauce & can be made with tomatoes as well.
- 20 large, soft prunes
- 250 ml water
- 500 ml fresh sweet tomatoes, peeled, drained and pureed
- 2 tbsp peanut oil
- 500 ml cooked rice
- 1 large lemon, grated zest only
- 1 tsp lightly cardamom seeds
- 1 tsp sugar (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Rinse the prunes, slice them in half and remove the pips.
- Simmer the prunes in a saucepan with the water until they are quite soft – then drain (it shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes.)
- In a frying pan, heat the peanut oil over medium heat and fry the prunes with the lemon zest and the cardamom seeds –for a couple of minutes.
- Pour the pureed tomatoes into a saucepan, add the prunes, the spices and the zest and simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Check and correct the seasoning, adding a little sugar if it’s too sour – often tomatoes can be just that little bit too sour.
- Serve with the rice.
*(Bamiléké, Banen and Bassa)