February 15, 2012

Sudan: Sudanese Restaurants – Would you like more oil with that?

Every Sunday we have a day off. Mohammed, our cook, uses his day off
to visit his relatives, so we have to fend for ourselves. Sometimes we
go on a trip to see other sites, necessitating a breakfast stop, and
sometimes we just go for breakfast because nobody bothers to cook. As
such, I have now been in a number of Sudanese restaurants and have
taken extremely careful notes, and am now able to reproduce a sample
menu for you. A typical Sudanese restaurant will have:
-Foul (fava bean mixture), eaten with bread and fingers
-Lentils, eaten with bread and fingers
-Fried fish, eaten with fingers
-Tea or coffee

This exhaustive list is only a sample. For instance, there is often
cheese with the foul.

All jokes aside, there are really only three main dishes. I commented
on this to Ruth, who assured me that at least all the food is fresh –
if they run out, that’s it. They only have what’s available, and they
also sell it really cheap: a typical lunch for eight is 35 Sudanese
pounds (6 British pounds / less than $10!). Foul, the national staple, is by far the
most popular. It often comes with jibneh, the sheep cheese, or another
type called “hair cheese” (because of its shape) that’s a bit saltier.
There is also salt, chili sauce, and sometimes a little salad of
cucumbers, herbs, and lime.

The lentils come in two styles, depending on the location. The first,
which I much prefer, is a chunky stew flavored with chili or peanuts.
In Kerma I had a really excellent one that tasted pretty much half
lentil and half peanut. Like foul, it’s served less than hot so you
can eat it with your hands and a piece of bread. The other style is
actually bread soaked in lentil stew. It’s not as good because – as
one might guess – you’re just eating a bunch of soggy bread that
tastes like lentils.

The third dish actually varies between restaurants. A common dish is
fried fish. I am not a fish person, so I have no idea what kind it is.
All I know is that it is an entire fish, about 8 inches long, gutted
and fried. When one eats it, they have to remove every tiny bone,
since they’re all in there. Sometimes the cooks cut up the fish first,
and woe to whoever gets the head since it doesn’t really have any meat
– it’s all bones. One restaurant we go to in Dongola has a dish called
fizik, which looks immensely more appetizing. Fizik is a stew of
pureed fish mixed with peanut sauce. It even lacks the repulsive fishy
smell I hate, but I’m still not willing to risk it. This is served in
a bowl on top of a flatbread – either ghurassa, a puffy pancake-like
bread or kissera, which is more like a crepe. The restaurant in
Dongola appears to be unique in that they usually have fish and meat.
The meat is always a beef stew served on flatbread, which I got really
excited about the first time but have since resigned myself to eating as the place doesn’t make lentils. It’s a beef stock with onions and
lots of chili, which is very tasty, but the only meat to be found is
one big bone in the middle. (There is really very little nutrition in
the beef stew.) Occasionally there are little chunks of what you think
are meat but are actually gristle. It really sucks to think you’re
about to eat a piece of meat and then get gristle. Plus, it’s all
communal bowls, so there’s nowhere to spit unless you have stealthily
removed a tissue from your bag with your greasy right hand and keeping
your left hand thoroughly uninvolved.

Which brings me to how people eat. I have given up on actually eating
the Sudanese way and now bring my LightMyFire, my combination
spoon-fork-knife Swedish utensil, to all our restaurant excursions. As
I wrote earlier, in Sudanese eating the bread is held in the four
fingers, and the entire hand is used to scoop food onto the bread.
Everyone shares the same bowls. This is why Sudanese food is always
served as a stew – so you can scoop it onto bread. Everyone’s right
hand becomes covered in beans or lentils or whatever in some sort or
horror movie made especially for obsessive-compulsives and Miss
Manners. Anna, being celiac, requires her own bowl. (Her being left-handed presents another issue entirely!)

Water is served in restaurants, but we don’t drink it since
it’s not filtered. It’s brought to the table in a plastic bucket with
an empty bowl. The bowl is for drinking: you scoop up some water,
drink a bit, then pour the rest to the ground. It’s quite convenient
that the ground is made of dirt.

Oh wait, I didn’t tell you about the décor? Let me tell you about the
décor. Most buildings around here are mud brick. The walls are all
plastered and painted pretty colors – blue, yellow, pinkish. The
ordering system is kind of like a burger joint where you order at the
counter and then sit; the kitchen is open for all to see, with big
pots bubbling away. And behind them, the walls are stained with grease
and char. The tables and chairs are plastic and can be rearranged in
any combination, but they are usually crowded together. The restaurant
we frequent in Dongola is actually different: it has a back section
made of mud brick and a front porch of corrugated metal and blue
tarps with holes in them. (That’s what puzzles me: why do they never
fix the holes? This country isn’t made for the obsessives.) All the waiters – generally young men – wear yellow
smocks. The cooks – slightly older men – also wear the smocks; the
Dongola restaurant has one female cook who just wears regular clothes.

Most of the customers are male, but there are always a few women
around. I’ll write about women later, but they apparently have a lot of
freedom compared to the more religious Muslim countries. As I was told, they don’t go to
restaurants so much because they’re often cooking at home, not because
of any prejudice against them; it’s still almost entirely a “men out of the home/women in the home” spheres of behavior thing. I don’t see many children, but Sunday
is a school day here.

After the meal, we always have tea or coffee. The tea is served with a
bowl of sugar (no milk – milk tea is only for the evening), which it
never needs. If you tell a Sudanese person that you don’t want sugar,
they’ll put in one heaping spoonful. One place in Mushra had at least
3 spoonfuls in a 3-ounce tea glass, and I had to subtly pour it out
under the table. (Thank goodness for dirt floors.)

Time to go – we’re supposed to be finishing up, but we keep finding
more graves! Up to 90 by now, but the end is in sight!

EDIT 3/9/12: I forgot to write the key restaurant experience that gives this post its title! We were sitting in a restaurant with a bowl of foul, and the waiter comes over with a plastic bottle of oil – basically, a water bottle with a hole punched in the lid – and squirts a ton of oil into the foul. No questions. Just more oil.

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