We spent a month in the U.S. (and France) as a family, and then I stayed in the U.S. for two weeks longer because my mother, who was already very sick, was in dire health. It was good I stayed instead of coming back to Congo and then going back to Michigan; she passed away just a few days after I got to the house. We had all spent a lovely Christmas together, including my birthday, and her birthday, with my family and my sister’s family. My poor sister had traveled all the way back to Yangon (where she lives with her family) and flew all the way back to Michigan to be there for my mom. We both arrived back in Michigan on the same day, and we were by her side, along with my dad and the dogs, every minute until she died. She passed away peacefully, at home in bed, with all of us around her. It was the saddest and most difficult thing I’ve ever experienced. I came back to Brazzaville last week, and am just about over my jet lag, but still quite out of sorts. So this blog post is about cooking in Brazzaville! It’s all my brain can handle right now. Enjoy!
So why a whole post about cooking in Brazzaville? Because it’s interesting, and took a lot of getting used to. I’ve lived overseas before, so I had some experience with the methods, but this is obviously my first time running a household in a place like Congo. I like to think I’ve learned a lot.
When we first arrived, if you can remember, the internet went down across the entire country. All we had with us was one cookbook: Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. The cookbook was perfect for my needs; I had to re-learn how to cook. All of my go-to recipes when we lived in DC wouldn’t work here. For example, I used to cook with ground turkey at least once a week, as well as sweet potatoes, broccoli, yogurt, grape tomatoes, etc. None of those things are here. Well, that’s an exaggeration. There is yogurt, but it’s like $6 for a super small container. There are sweet potatoes, but they are white and often rotten. There is frozen broccoli. I grow grape tomatoes. Mark Bittman’s book allowed me to take a step back, assess what was available, and try new things. The book taught me how to simply and quickly roast chicken, which is now a staple dinner in our house. He also taught me how to make macaroni and cheese from scratch, which is super easy but I think I’d only done it once or twice before moving here. Now I make a big batch of it once a month and freeze it in portions for Lily’s lunches. He also has instructions on how to prepare and cook just about every vegetable. Thanks to his book (and his website, and the NYT cooking site), I now make my own tortillas (corn and flour!), make a mean baked ziti, can roast chicken breasts without drying them out, and have a plethora of Congo-friendly recipes.
When buying vegetables, you’re never guaranteed to find what you need, even if you just need something as simple as a pepper or potato. In fact, potatoes are imported. I bought a 5kg bag of potatoes from a guy outside Lily’s school today; I didn’t even need potatoes, but they looked great, the price was right, and they’ll keep for a long time in the fridge. I may not find them again when I need them. There are some local green peppers, but only seasonally available. They import bell peppers, and I’m trying to grow them, but they are insanely expensive in the store, and not always fresh (or even available!). Freshness is a big problem with local and imported veggies. The local vegetable growers have trouble moving their product to market quickly, and crop storage is almost poor. The imported veggies obviously travel thousands of miles to get here. There is a jet fuel shortage currently that has caused many flights to be canceled, meaning the big grocery stores are struggling to keep imported items on the shelves.
Once bought, the vegetables need to be deep cleaned. The Embassy instructs us to use bleach when cleaning vegetables. Bleach seems like overkill, but we do use from time to time. I usually use vinegar and water, which has worked well for us. Ah, but the water, we can’t use the tap water. The tap water is for washing dishes only. We have a giant distiller that provides clean water.
Meat is sold at the big grocery stores but it rarely looks appetizing. We pretty much only buy meat at the butcher (see previous post about the Boucherie du Rail). Friends of ours found a place near the port that sells, wholesale, giant boxes of frozen meats from Europe. We haven’t been yet, but I’m looking forward to buying a box of chicken! So, a simple shopping trip will often involve the big grocery store, the vegetable market, maybe the other grocery store because the first one was out of something, and the butcher.
As you’ve seen from previous posts, there is plenty of imported cheese, but strangely the entire country is now out of cheddar. Did we eat it all? Maybe. There is no fresh milk, however, only UHT milk. The UHT milk is fine for cooking, but it tastes weird in my coffee so I’m training myself to drink black coffee. My mom always drank her coffee black. I always thought she was crazy but here I am, giving it a go. There are no other fresh dairy items. There is sour cream, imported from France, and great butter, also imported from France. Thank you, French people, for placing such a high value on sour cream and butter.
Once you’ve cleaned the veggies and are ready to cook, the frequent power outages make baking tricky. The oven will shut off completely (the generator takes a minute or so to turn on), and you’ll have to reset the clock (the oven refuses to work without the clock being set!) and reset the temperature. For timers, I sometimes use my Echo (Lily LOVES talking to Alexa) as one does in the Western world, but she turns off during a power outage, too. It’s a gamble! To put it in perspective, the power has shut off approximately 15 times today alone. I’m not exaggerating.
But then after all that, the meal is done and ready to eat. There are plenty of desserts here for Lily’s enjoyment, including Belgian chocolate, ice cream, ice cream bars, frozen fruit bars, etc.