Five types of cookies sold around town, each costing $0.05. Spread with Nutella or dipped in coffee the Glucose Malted Milk version is my favorite.
Little baggies of snackable items sell for between 25 – 100 cfa ($0.05 – $0.20) depending on the item and the quantity. The photo above shows a tray carried on a woman’s head full of snackables. In the photo below are five $0.05 goodies I recently bought in the market. Clockwise from the top: fried dough cut into large chunks; pasta that’s been boiled then fried; rice that’s been boiled then fried; tapioca that’s been boiled then fried. The bag in the middle is the same fried dough as above it, just in smaller pieces.
A “cafeteria” has a specific definition in Benin. Cafeterias have a permanent seating area including a roof and a lunch counter. Some of them have a television. Most non-cafeteria lunch stands have only a bench to sit on by the side of the road, sometimes with a shade cover and sometimes without. Women invariably cook the food at roadside stands, but not at cafeterias. Serving coffee, tea, spaghetti and omelets, cafeterias are overwhelmingly the domain of men. I’ve asked why and, despite numerous answers, haven’t learned much. I’ve heard that women can’t afford the more expensive buildings required for a true cafeteria and that women don’t like running cafeterias. My favorite answer, however, is that men from Nigeria came to Benin and shared the secrets of the spaghetti omelet with men here, but the untaught women remain ignorant of its secrets.
I haven’t been let in on the secret but have carefully watched the cooks and think I’ve deduced the keys to success. Toss a pile of boiled spaghetti in a pan with oil, raw onions and raw scotch bonnet peppers. If you are feeling ambitious, add some slices of hot dog into the mix. Or fry some tomato paste in with the onions and hot peppers. Top that with an omelet seasoned with the same raw onions and scotch bonnet peppers. Or go eggless and top your spaghetti with a can of sardines. Finish the dish with a dollop of mayonnaise. What do you get? A greasy, tasty gut bomb.
Anyone who claims not to love fried dough is of questionable character in my book. He or she is not to be trusted.
There are several different types of fried dough available in our town, some made with wheat flour, others with manioc flour or with mashed beans. Fresh out of the oil and burn-your-mouth hot, they all have their winning qualities.
These baseball sized dough balls, however, could put many an American doughnut maker out of business. Made from a slightly fermented batter that fries up light, chewy and tangy, these are my favorite. This vendor lives around the corner from our house and fires up her pot of oil each day around 6 pm – a dangerous temptation on the way home from work.
Note that the pot of oil is sitting on an old car wheel with a notch cut out for feeding in wood. This is a typical set up for a roadside food vendor.
Fish frying in vegetable oil over a wood fire. Chunks of fish are added to other dishes and are priced according to their size. The range of fish chunks generally goes from 50 cfa ($0.10) for a small chunk with a couple of bites of fish up to about 1000 cfa ($2.00) for a whole fried mullet or other fish.
French baguettes abound, at least in the south of Benin. Sandwich vendors offer a variety of spreads and toppings. Most sandwich vendors have only one or two options. This vendor’s seven options is an important find in the quest for culinary variety. The options include, clockwise from the top: hardboiled eggs and onions in a tomato and palm oil sauce; hardboiled eggs and mashed smoked fish in oil; boiled potato and carrot chunks; another type of tomato and palm oil sauce with unidentified chunks of something; palm oil; a different type of mashed smoked fish with oil, onions and tomatoes; and in the middle, spaghetti and omelets. A plain baguette costs 125 cfa ($0.25) and toppings can be added for a supplemental cost. An egg is 100 cfa ($0.20). Some smoke fish in oil, boiled potatoes or a combination can be added for any price you want: 25 cfa ($0.05) gets about a teaspoon full while 200 cfa ($0.40) gets about four or five tablespoons full of toppings. Everything is priced according to how much you want. I usually go with a total cost of 200 cfa which includes the 125 cfa of bread and 75 cfa of toppings.