MP, CA — “Eat strange things.” These were my friend Lera’s last words to me before I departed for Tanzania. I knew I would disappoint her, for not only is Lera the world’s most brilliant, eloquent, and charming expert on language and thought (get a load of Lera on yesterday’s “All Things Considered”), but she is also the bearer of the most inquisitive taste buds and lax disgust reflexes that I know.
And I? I am a vegetarian, 20 years gone. Although I count myself among the most adventurous of my ilk, I stop short of rolling up my sleeves with Lera and tearing into the oxtails, or the entrails, or the offal, or the tripe, or the smoked sea monster.
Despite my chaste herbivority, Lera embraces me as both sputnik and dinner guest. When breakfasting in, say, Aceh, Indonesia, and served fish heads in spicy rice, Lera gets two servings of fish heads and I get two servings of spicy rice. Because she has mad Bahasa Indonesia skills, she delights in ordering “noodles in crab sauce without the crab” for me. Back stateside, she tolerates my gustatory shortcomings with admirable aplomb: although she wants nothing more than to roast a whole hog, and is lactose intolerant, she always has a vegan entree and six gourmet cheeses for her benighted plant-eating guests.
Traveling through Tanzania, though, I tried to snap pictures of things that I would eat if I had Lera’s omnivorous proclivities. I found the first candidate in the Stone Town meat market: unidentified ruminant heads, gleefully butchered. (see above)
Fresh squid? She would take two–one for now, one for the road.
Salted lake fish, padlock-style? Check.
Of course we would share the bicycle of jackfruit, although Lera would pass up the chance to ride the demon machine.
I’d eat the durian just to show that it’s not the smell of rotting flesh that bugs me, but the fact of flesh itself.
I’m a little embarassed to admit that what I ate over there strongly resembles what I eat over here: a bolus of starch coupled with vegetables spiced just so. In Tanzania, this combo is called “ugali and sauce.” The East African innovation is that the ugali–stiff grits–doubles as the utensil: Using the non-toilet hand (i.e., your right hand), you pinch off a mouth-size bit, roll it into a ball, press a thumb in to make a scoop, rake up some sauce, and pop the savory profiterole into your mouth.
(To round out the meal, you buy cashews wherever possible and eat eggs for breakfast because Tanzanians haven’t quite yet quite learned that “vegetarian” does not mean “does not need protein.”)
I also drank loads of Tanzanian coffee, such as the brew that this man serves in the center of Stone Town.
Recently, Lera has developed her weirdest yen yet: She needs blog posts. Two a week, in fact–one from me, and one from that beguiling Irish wordsmith, Dervala. Otherwise, blogmonster LB gets hongry. And we can’t have that.
So from now on, Dervala and I will be posting to our blogs at least every Tuesday, whether we need to or not.