Masai Don't Cook
The world over, only sex rivals food in importance to life. Not
only do both sustain creation, but they bring creation great pleasure.
I could talk about the many prostitutes crowding the clubs here
and turning tricks for sometimes less than a dollar, but that
is a sad tale better let be, especially given the aforementioned
rates of AIDS. Plus, if I had to go without one or the other,
I’d choose food every time.
It’s hard to go hungry in Tanzania, as the midday meal being
quite a heavy one, and street snacks available every few paces.
Orange peddlers turn their bicycles into makeshift shops, panniers
woven from palm fronds to cart the fruit and catch the green peels.
(As in Guinea, oranges are shorn of their skins before purchase,
so as to easily suck out the juice as the fiber isn’t eaten).
A heartier snack is the “chipsi” omelet – fries
re-fried with egg and topped with a kind of slaw and ketchup.
The national dish is ugali, pounded cassava served in a compact,
stomach-sized ball, often served with fish or some kind of meat,
beans, sweet cabbage and spinach compartmentalized on stainless
steel hospital trays. You can find this standard meal served on
a wooden bench in a simple shack or in a slightly more upscale
open-air restaurants set in the bottlecap-spangled dirt, furnished
with flimsy red plastic tables and chairs, drifting music a blend
of Tanzanian hiphop, reggae, high-life, and American R&B.
Dar being on the coast, fish is also a mainstay here. The fish
market is surprisingly sleepy for one of East Africa’s largest
ports, at least if you come in midday, when most of the fishermen
are sprawled out like corpses in the hot grass, while others clean
their boats and fish. The market is a full-service station –
the fisherman bring in the catch of the day, from baby shrimps
to barracuda, buyers make their picks and name their price, and
before long it reaches the women at the market’s far end,
who serve it up freshly fried. I sampled bits of grilled squid
on a toothpick from a wandering salesman’s platter, making
me feel like I was at some kind of slummy outdoor cocktail party
where you have to pay for the hors d’oeuvres and the maitre’d
has traded in his bowtie for old flipflops.
Then there is Kariakoo, Dar’s Asian quarter, where much
of the city’s large Indian population lives and trades.
The Indians are to Tanzania what the Lebanese are to Guinea, from
what I have seen and am told: they are the local business Mafioso,
with the government in their back pockets, running the real estate
market and much of business in general. Indeed, most of the tea
estates where I will be conducting my research are managed by
Indians. I don’t know enough of the politics yet to care
or judge it, but the good news is that Indian food is plentiful
here, from curry restaurants to little stands selling sambosas,
chapatis and sugarcane juice.
I always love to pick up local food and drink to bring home and
share with friends, regaling them with travel tales over a bottle
of hearty French wine, salty Dutch licorice or sweet Moroccan
figs. So when I saw a Maasai tribesman selling various spices
from unmarked glass jars, I jumped at the chance to try something
new. (The Maasai are that famous East African semi-nomadic warrior
tribe, unmistakable from their monk-look -- shaved head, sandals
or shoeless low-hanging pierced earlobes, red plaid cloth draped
around their frame, lean from their simple diet of milk and meat.
They look like anachronisms wandering around Dar among the rest
of the Tanzanians, who have all adopted Western dress, at least
the men.) I took a whiff of them all, surprised that none smelled
the least bit familiar, and settled on one without bothering to
ask the name. Given that Zanzibar, just off Dar’s coast,
is known as the spice island, I was sure I had come across some
rare and exotic spice.
I relayed my experience later to a Tanzanian colleague to see
if he might be able to identify the fragrant brown powder for
“Spices? The Masai don’t really cook,” he said,
puzzled. “But they do sell a lot of herbal medicines.”
Good thing I found that out before I tried to marinade with the
stuff, and suddenly tripled my libido or cured goiter I didn’t
know I had…
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