Before starting the Peace Corps, I spent my longest time outside of the U.S. studying abroad in Italy. I am crazy about Italian food and it weighed heavily in my decision to study in Bologna for a year of college. I was surprised, however, that Italians eat almost exclusively Italian food. Bologna had one American-style restaurant that served low-grade renditions of burgers, steaks and ribs. There was one Mexican restaurant that, with ample margaritas, would suffice in a pinch but whose cuisine approximated the lunch buffet at ChiChi’s. A McDonalds rounded out the international cuisine offerings alongside the hundreds of places serving Italian food. Yes, it was to-die-for Italian food. Bologna is nicknamed La Grassa (The Fat) for a reason. It is the heart of Italian cuisine, the capital of the Emilia Romagna region where Parmesan cheese, Prosciutto ham, balsamic vinegar, mortadella, tortellini, Bolognese sauce and more originate. But even with all of these delicacies, I occasionally overpaid for an under seasoned, overcooked burger at the American style restaurant. In the immortal words of Patrick Henry, “Give me culinary variety or give me death.”
Excluding its biggest city, Cotonou, eating out in Benin offers little variability. Our town near the capital, Porto Novo, has nothing outside of Beninese cuisine. No American or Italian or Thai or Lebanese or Mexican or anything else. Beninese. Rice with spicy tomato sauce. Rice and beans with spicy tomato sauce. Pate, a cornmeal or manioc-based starchy food similar to cooled and congealed polenta, with spicy tomato sauce. Spaghetti with spicy tomato sauce. Spaghetti and rice with spicy tomato sauce. More rarely, pate with vegetable sauce. Sometimes you can add your choice of a spoonful of cooked beans or a chunk of cooked fish or a hardboiled egg or a fried hot dog (low grade; no Nathan’s or Sabrett’s here) or fried plantains for an extra 20 cents, or some gari (dried and pulverized manioc) for 5 cents. That’s about it.
In terms of cuisine, New York ruined me for life. I planned weekend outings around food adventures. A typical weekend went like this: Saturday around 11 am, head to Manhattan’s Chinatown for a banh mi, a half dozen pork dumplings, a scallion pancake, and an order of Korean-style fried chicken, each from a different hole-in-the-wall place. Then a half hour digestive walk to the East Village for a beer, wings and college football. Dinner offered dozens of cuisine choices: French, German, Russian, Polish, Italian, Romanian, Icelandic, Korean, Szechuan, Japanese, Peruvian, Mexican, Brazilian, Columbian, Soul Food, Southern BBQ, American Innovative. I’d waddle home happy.
Sunday and I’m back for more: a visit to Manhattan’s 116th street. Starting with steaming-hot tamale pulled from a cooler outside the subway stop at 116th and Lexington, I’d head east, crossing back and forth across the street or venturing up or down one of the avenues. Tacos al pastor, carnitas tacos, gorditas with beans and fresh cheese, sopapillas with nopales, I’d wash it all down with an icy horchata. Sometimes I’d run into an overly greasy chorizo taco or an order of ceviche that could use a little extra cilantro. But I struggled through. After getting my fill of Mexican I’d head west on 116th Street for West African. Senegalese chicken yasa, Ghanaian peanut soup with fufu, Malian jollof rice, fish stew from the Ivory Coast. (I’d bet an Absolute bagel there was more West African variety within six square blocks of West 116th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard than there is within a 20-mile radius of our current town—a catchment area that includes Benin’s second biggest city and its capital, Porto Novo, and parts of neighboring Nigeria.) Coming home I’d pass through a Caribbean neighborhood. Should I pick up a Trinidadian roti for later? I’m not hungry now but… what if my favorite roti place closed tomorrow? Better be prepared. Make it two.
Two days and four of the dozens of neighborhoods in Manhattan. What about Polish Greenpoint in Brooklyn? Little Sri Lanka on Staten Island? The Dominican delis in the Bronx? I haven’t even mentioned the international food mecca of Queens. Good grief.
Here in Benin, eating out means Beninese food. Rice with spicy tomato sauce. Spaghetti with spicy tomato sauce. Rice with spicy tomato sauce and an egg. It’s tasty. It’s monotonous. It’s a reason to stay home and cook. Here is a sampling of some of the meals we’ve cooked so far: