December 31, 2011

What do they eat in Sudan?

This question is better asked as a “how” rather than a “what”, and the
answer is communally. The first meal we were given was lunch on the
long drive here. We stopped at a small roadside restaurant that would
make the filthiest, oldest, broken-toiletest McDonalds in the US look
like heaven. It was a tent, permanently erected over the sand, with a
mud brick kitchen on one side and a mud brick “café” (selling Pepsi)
on the other. More tents flanked the sides. There were young boys in
dirty white galabiyas and all the same ill-fitting foam sandals
hanging around, chatting and glancing at us. The floor was sand. The
chairs and tables, broken long ago and repaired many times, sat
awkwardly on the uneven surface. And then they brought out the food.
I may have mentioned foul (or fool) before – it’s basically
fava beans mushed and cooked in excessive amounts of oil. A single
large bowl is placed on the table, and everyone is given bread. There
are also small bowls of chili powder (shata), cumin, salt, and white
goat cheese (jibneh). What I thought one was expected to do is to
break off a piece of bread, scoop up the beans, and then add the
seasonings and cheese. I was wrong: one was expected to season their
own “portion” of foul in the bowl, only with the right hand,
break off a piece of bread, and then scoop off the foul and
seasonings. Also, the way to do this is not to make a small “bread
sandwich” thing, but to use the bread and one thumb to hold it all
I tried. I felt ill. The bread and cheese were redeeming. I tried to
act as if I were scooping, while only getting the bare minimum of oil
on top of the beans. Beans make me feel sick under any circumstances,
and now I have to have them touched by everyone at my table, and who
knows how clean the kitchen is. Apparently last year they ate
foul nonstop. I considered running away – apparently hitchhiking is
not uncommon. We asked where the toilet was and received a smile, so
instead we got back in the Land Rovers and drove five minutes down the
road to an empty stretch with some bushes (often roadside stands don’t have a place for women to use the toilet). Nice and clean, the desert.
We stopped again for some tea. The Sudanese drink a lot of tea, black
with sugar. It comes in small glasses and is steeped in the kettle
while it’s boiling. Glasses are brought out upside down on a tray and
everyone pours for themselves; when one finishes, the glass is
replaced on the tray right-side up.  If there’s any concern as to
whether the water has been filtered, tea is an appropriate replacement
as the water’s been boiled. I still wonder about the little bits of
wash water in the bottom of the glasses, though no one else seems
Once in the village, we were informed that we were not going straight
to the project’s house but would stay in another house 250 meters
away. (A point of contention between the archaeologists and the
director is the lack of information, like why we were staying there,
or the fact that we should have kept our sleeping bags out.) I found
out later that our house was filthy after a year of being uninhabited,
and that the other house belongs to Salim, who also owns our house. We
sat down at a table in what appeared to be a combination entrance
hall/guest bedroom and a gaggle of women set out food and then
disappeared. To no one’s surprise by my own, it was foul. Fortunately
there was also salad and some kind of tasty vegetable that I can’t
remember now. However, before this meal everyone made a big deal of
following Salim out to the tap in the yard and washing hands. No soap,
but at least the gesture was there. After that, everyone continued to
eat in the same communal manner.
Ok, I know I’m supposed to have my anthropologist hat on all the time,
but I really can’t get over some things. Like the lack of soap in all
the washing. A lady comes here once a day to wash our dishes and uses
only a sponge after they’ve been sitting out in the sun and dirt.
Nobody washes with soap before cooking or eating. They use a little
watering can in the “toilet” which I guess pseudo-eliminates the need
for washing your hands since you don’t touch anything, but… it’s just
not ok. I know the Global Soap Project exists to send soap to Africa,
but clearly that’s not an issue in this particular place because they
sell it in the village shop and it’s quite cheap. Some Sudanese brush
their teeth, with actual toothpaste. Soap is just not a thing. And my
anthropologist hat can not deal with that. (I’ll write more about this
in a later post, as this one is supposed to be about food.)
Anyway, the foul was presented, and I did my best to try to eat, to my
stomach’s dismay. There were also falafel, which hardly ever agree
with me. This was the start of a long stomach illness, I was to find.
The next morning we moved into our house and began a massive cleaning
project. I spent hours sweeping, including a futile 20 minutes
sweeping the kitchen only to find that it has an earthen floor. When
lunch came, we were all starving, and it was foul once again. I
thought I might cry. Fortunately by this time I had the evidence to
back up my claim of “beans make my tummy bad” so I was able to eat
just the bread with the jibneh (which is delicious, by the way). I was
promised different food for dinner. At that point, our cook, Mohammed,
was just setting up the kitchen. Cooking in Sudan is a female
responsibility, but Mohammed owns a restaurant so it’s ok. For dinner
we had spiced lentil soup flavored with coriander and shata, and I was
very happy. When we eat as a team (instead of as guests) we each get our
own tin bowl, spoon, and cup. Forks and knives are not used here,
which I find a little odd as each meal is accompanied by salad.
The rest of our meals soon fell into place. At 6:30am we have tea and
biscuits before heading out to the dig site. Breakfast is at 10:30,
and we have bread stuffed with various things. The first one I was
sure was meat, but turned out to be egg; after violently vomiting
following the next three egg meals,* I was able to get plain bread for
breakfast and supplement it with my stash of Luna bars. (Thank you,
Luna Company (subsidiary of ClifBar) for providing entertainment as
well as protein. But your whey protein bar tastes like sand, for
serious.) Breakfast is accompanied by tea and fruit. (I heard amazing
things about the fruit here, but so far we have only been presented
with flavorless oranges and mushy bananas.) Lunch is at 3, back at the
house, and is the biggest meal of the day. It’s usually some sort of
vegetable stew or curry or stuffed vegetables. The food here is
flavorful, but the flavors mostly consist of cumin, coriander, and
chili. One of Mohammed’s best is a pumpkin-potato-onion stew that
has some kind of curry powder in it; I’ve looked in the
kitchen, but none of his jars are labeled. We eat the vegetables with
a spoon or sop them up with bread. There’s always a salad with
cucumber, tomato, carrot, dill, and some kind of Sudanese parsley.
It’s a good combination but would benefit from some dressing. After
lunch is tea and cigarettes, so I drink my tea quickly and go have the
first shower while everyone sits around smoking. Dinner at 8 is some
kind of lentil-based meal – soup or chili – along with leftovers from
lunch, which have been kept unrefrigerated for hours as we have no
fridge. We had meat for the first time this Friday, as Friday is
slaughtering day and it has to be eaten fresh. It was beef cut into
fatty chunks and stir-fried, served with a beef broth that made my
chapped lips feel great (yay for animal fat). After dinner there is
sometimes custard, which everyone avoids, and then more tea, which I
avoid so I can sleep. We were also invited out for a big lunch meal on
Friday at Salim’s. We were told to arrive at 3:30, which we did, and
then sat around awkwardly for another 45 minutes since none of his
guests spoke English or had any intention of talking to us. Some men
lounged shoeless on a big mat on the floor. Suddenly the food arrived
and everyone on the mat jumped off; a big tray was placed in the
middle and a man threw breads onto the floor where everyone’s dirty
feet had just been. Everyone followed Salim to wash hands. We all sat
by a piece of bread while women delivered the food, which consisted
-two salads of cucumber, lemon, and Sudanese rocket (lettuce)
-two chickens stuffed with yellow rice
-beef kofta shaped like little sausages
-bamia, an okra stew
-curried potatoes with beef fat
-eggplant stuffed with rice
-chili sauce (incredibly spicy)
-cumin, shata, and salt to taste
Again, the method was to break of a piece of bread and plunge it into
a dish to get the food, using the thumb as a pincer. Nobody has
individual plates. There are no utensils. Only the right hand is used
(the left is for “wiping” although this really means for washing with
the little pitcher). This presented a problem with the chicken;
apparently the method is for two people to work together to break
pieces off and then share them. At the end, everyone had a perfectly
clean left hand and a filthy, greasy right one, and we all proceeded
to wash again. The meal concluded, as always, with tea and also some
fruit. Bananas and oranges.

(We are going camping in the desert for New Years. Will keep you posted.)

Happy new Year!

*later note: I had never had a sensitivity to eggs before, but after this experience in Sudan it took two years before I could happily eat eggs again. Maybe it was some bacteria?


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