Cachupa, Cape Verde’s national dish, is a slow cooked stew of hominy and beans. Preferably, it is cooked over a wood fire so that it gets infused with smoke. Fish or meat, whatever you might have, help it to stick to your ribs. In our town in Benin, cooked hominy and cooked beans are sold seperately as meals in themselves. Combined into one dish with a fried egg on top, each bite takes me back to Santiago. This quick version doesn’t come close to our host mother in Cape Verde’s cachupa, but Guta would be proud nonetheless.
For our town’s festa day, Adam and I hosted a giant party at our house. We bought a few kilos of freshly butchered pig, mountains of kale, enough beans to feed an army, twice as much booze as seemed advisable, and made as many cakes as time allowed. From 6am to 6pm we were in action prepping, serving and hosting our former language instructors, other volunteers, and friends from town who passed by. In the evening, we headed down the hill to see the live bands. Despite my best efforts to stay awake, I had to throw in the towel at 5am, and I missed seeing Ze Espanhol, who came on stage at about 6am.
It doesn’t look like much, but this is my favorite Beninese food lately: vanzu beans with sauce and gari. Vanzu are big, perfectly spherical white beans that cook down to a creamy mush. They are delicious. There’s a woman in town who always has a big pot of these for sale. I eat them every chance I get.
Adam and I have been doing a lot of hiking lately! Here is a trip we did a couple weekends ago through Boca Larga, a sparsely populated zone in the interior of Santiago. We started and finished on the main road. Our hike climbed up to the ridge top and then snaked along the rough cobblestone (sometimes dirt) road, finally descending into a small valley and ascending up back to the main road. Along the way we got views of everything: ocean, mountains, ridge lines, and valleys. As we passed near houses, we received several invitations to txiga (‘stop by’). (Though we didn’t personally know anybody along the route, people here customarily invite passers-by to stop and talk.) We stopped a few times to shoot the breeze, get directions, and talk about beans. We finished up at a restaurant near home with a big bowl of katxupa and a glass of Strela.
Lately, Adam and I have received a whole lot of beans.
A “grocery” haul from my friend Joanna.
Most people who live in our region have non-irrigated family plots where they plant corn, beans, and squash during the rainy season (beginning in July). The harvest season here officially kicked off with Corn Eating Day on November 1st. In honor of that occasion, our neighbors began picking midju verde (fresh corn). During the couple of weeks before and after that day, we awoke to corn on our doorstep, arrived home in the evening to corn on our doorstep, helped pick corn, and ate grilled and boiled corn.
Zenia works with me, and has to walk past our house to get to one of her plots. I’ve gone to help her a couple times.
At the time, I naively thought the outpouring of corn was a unique event inspired mostly by the festa (holiday/party). That was silly.
In traditional dryland agriculture here corn is planted along with several types of beans. Each of the bean varieties ripens in turn; depending on a particular year’s rainfall, one bean or the other will perform well. This year, sapatinho failed completely, because there were too many large, consecutive storms. On the heels of corn came bongolon (black eyed pea), followed by vaj (green bean), mbonje (lima bean), and fijon kongu (pigeon pea).
Pigeon peas, before and after.
Right now, the tasty and delicious kongu verde (fresh pigeon peas) are ripe on the bushes. I’m told it’s been a good year for kongu (more or less), and believe me, our neighbors are not stingy! This is a pretty normal conversation for me to have on the street these days:
JEN: Good morning. Happy New Year! How are you?
NEIGHBOR: Happy New Year! How are you? Where is Adam?
J: I’m great. Just heading to Joanna’s. Adam is at home.
N: Do you like kongu verde?
J: Yes, they are delicious.
N: OK, I’m going to give you some. When can you come to my house to get them?
I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. These days, if I’m out and about, I often end up toting a bag of beans.
The leaves and pods of pigeon peas are sticky and they make your fingers black. If they are perfectly ripe, a little twist opens the pod neatly.
Luckily, I’m not lying when I say that these beans are delicious. I rarely, if ever, ate pigeon peas back in the States. If I did, they came from a can, and it was an experimental recipe. Cape Verdeans say that the way to cook pigeon peas is to pinta aroz (paint the rice) with them, or make a caldo (stew) of boiled kongu and sautéed meat. At our house, Adam prepared pigeon pea pesto with spaghetti. Yum. He made plenty to share.
Five or six pounds of pigeon peas, made into pesto.
If any readers out there know American recipes for pigeon peas, particularly fresh ones, please share in the comments or send me an email. People always ask if we have fijon kongu in America. I would love to tell them about a traditional American preparation.
I’ll be sad when the harvest peters out. It feels really good to know that our neighbors want to supply us with fresh, tasty produce. I’ve had a lot of fun (and learned a lot) helping with agriculture, and shelling beans is a nice way to pass time with friends. Most importantly, both of these things have given me activities to do with people, helping me to get over the hump of being acquaintances to being friends.
After an afternoon picking beans. For some reason, people think the sticky hands are hilarious.
For now, we have a little while to go until the beans are spent, and I’m anticipating the surprise of whatever crop is next.