The 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 me.

“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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