'Come on brother, I will take you to the best places,' Kamara, a taxi driver, said in not so many words. He has lived in the Gambia all his life and his jalopy, a pre-owned Mercedes Benz painted yellow--the public symbol of taxis in the Gambia--is the lifeline of this jovial man. Gambians opt for this type of car, he explained, ostensibly to withstand the humid conditions by the seaside city of Banjul, the capital.
But Kamara wasn’t so interested in talking about cars. This trip was in fact heading elsewhere: where there is plenty of food. His favourite, he said, was dry fish stew with rice, a grain many Gambians spoke of fondly. Some have gone to the extent of accusing current politicians of making their lives miserable after the cost for a bag of rice went up from 1000 Dalasis ($17.06) to 2,200 Dalasis ($37.54).
But I digress. In Banjul, food can be easily found in most places. But the fun place is Senegambia Street, Kamara said, and he was quite eager to show me around. Tourists beaten by the hot sun, locals used to the heat, and random musicians trying to catch the attention of visitors and locals eager to sell a plate are common here. Senegambia is a portmanteau of Senegal and Gambia, of which the latter shares the only land border and is surrounded by the former, but it is the busiest street in Serrekunda, the suburb of Banjul.
Legend has it that returning exiles who had fled the tyranny of Yahya Jammeh came back with money. They found the bushes of Serrekunda and began erecting real estate. Now, the night life is mostly in this part of the city, leaving the old Banjul area to the boredom of civil service offices and other formalities.
Back to the food, Kamara dropped us at Reos restaurant and suggested we try the pounded yam and fish or meat for a taste of the local cuisine. And Haddi, the local chef, wasted no time in preparing a meal for us. In the background was celebrated songbird Sona Jobarteh, singing softly in the local Wolof, the tongue also spoken in neighbouring Senegal. The catch was, however, the whiff from the kitchen, where yam, meat and other delicacies were coming from.
“We need one and a half hours to prepare this,” Haddi explained, years of experience written all over her face.
“The fish has to simmer well before we put the onions, okra and pepper. After several minutes, we use palm oil,” she added. Most of her customers prefer foofoo, the pounded yam, with fish or beef stew.
Made from yam, or sometimes cassava, the procedure for making foofoo (also written as fufu).. varies across West Africa.
In the Gambia, they boil the yam, peel it, mash it, and then stir using wooden spoons to get a consistency almost like mashed potatoes, only that it will feel stickier on the fingers. After this, the foofoo is rolled into balls, which can then be eaten with stew. I ordered mine with spicy okra fish stew which cost 400 Dalasis ($6.83). And boy was it spicy hot. And despite this, some people still add more chilli at the table!
Seeing my discomfort after I tasted the peppery stew, Haddi urged me to take my food with some coconut milk, saying it makes it more palatable for people who do not take a lot of pepper. The milk is presented in jelly coconut, a kind of immature but juicy coconut fruit partially pealed to allow one to drink its contents using a straw.
The name is derived from the appearance of the fruit’s flesh, which is soft as jelly when immature, but hard when it is ripe. The coconut milk tends to disappear as the fruit matures. Once you drink your fill, the burn of the pepper becomes a distant memory as your stomach smiles in satisfaction.
“The jelly coconut is natural medicine. We love spicing food but we found something to cool it down for those who are uncomfortable with it. It is happiness for all of us,” Haddi explained.
In spite of the pepper and heat of Banjul, jelly coconut may be your insurance to keep experimenting with Gambian cuisine.
Do you have feedback on this article? Please e-mail: [email protected]