Thursday, March 22, 2007

Better Housekeeping, Bamako Edition

I am not Martha Stewart, by no means, but I have been known to derive pleasure from cleaning, cooking, and decorating when I am in New York. I like setting the table with my jadeite dishes, lighting all the candles, moving the flower arrangement a little to the left, just so that it’s perfect, and having friends over for dinner. I don’t have a huge repertoire of dishes, just a couple (and they all involve dairy, as we know), but they are pretty tasty, if I may say so myself, and usually get me rave reviews. But I don’t like working hard, I like working smart: even for those meals that include an appetizer and desert I have never spend more than 4 hours on preparing, and that includes shopping for the ingredients. When I plan on cooking I think about the potential labor involved, and I look for short cuts wherever possible, smart city girl that I am. For instance, when was the last time you scrubbed carrots clean? They sell them in a little plastic bag, all scrubbed and washed, don’t they? Shelling peas? Why, they sell them shelled and frozen! And so while I felt quite competent in the domestic arena when I am in New York, I now am in a new and very different environment and I could trade my skills in for a bag of peanut shells! They are completely worthless, and I am a total failure in the housekeeping department.
I will explain….

The Kitchen. The kitchen here is the courtyard. Period. Then there is “le magasin”, which is a windowless room with a door. Like a pantry, it is used to store all the kitchen supplies: dry goods like rice, spices, grains, and some pots, pans, and platters. (Because eating here is done with hands off communal platters, there are usually no plates or silverware.) The women use a small charcoal burning stove, on which they place the cooking pot. They sit on small stools around the cooker while they wash and prepare vegetables, pound millet, mash onions, and so on. Other women come and sit for a while, chatting or listening to the radio. Part of the courtyard is a faucet and a “sink”: a large, enclosed area on the ground with a drain. It is here that the food, the dishes, the clothes, and the kids are washed, all with the same soap. Kitchen activities start early in the morning and continue throughout the day into the night.

[Editorial: Ok, that may sound all picturesque and back-to-our-roots-y to you, dear Reader, but I don’t know…. First of all, I don’t want to do everything on the ground. I like sitting on a chair at a table, or standing by a counter, and cutting my vegetables that way. On a chopping board. Sitting on those little low stools, bending over, cutting everything in your hand gets a little tiring - if you’re not used to it. Secondly, I like to have running water near by. You don’t realize how often you need water while preparing food until you have to walk across the court to get it.
Furthermore, cooking on charcoal stoves is very different from cooking on a gas or electric stove. Where is the little dial thingy that you need to turn it on or off, and increase or decrease the temperature? Then there is the whole business of the public display. I like having company while I cook, and I always regretted not having an eat-in kitchen, so that friends can sit and chat with me, or help in the process, but to cook in such an exposed manner is an altogether different story. Everybody is in your pots and pans, so to speak: all the neighbors, kids, visitors, workers, chickens, goats, sheep… The other interesting thing to me is that even what we would consider to be middle class families have their kitchen this way. The occasional stove that I have seen in “European-style” kitchens usually is used as a storage area. Even newly built houses do not have running water in “le magasin”.

Then there is the refrigerator issue. Since they are very expensive here, only really well-to-do people can afford one. Everybody else just does not keep perishables: there is never any left-over food (whatever is left-over goes to somebody hungry); whatever you need for the day you buy that day; nobody needs to store butter or milk or yoghurt the way I do; eggs are stored at room temperature; water is stored in a clay pot; soda drinks are expensive and –if need be, on rare occasions- can be bought chilled at the corner store. Those people that have a fridge do not put it in “le magasin” but place it in the living room. There it stands like a piece of furniture, like the status symbol that it is. Even if you wanted to, you could not put it into the kitchen room because there never is an electrical outlet in there.

Another thought on cooking with charcoal. Aside from the fact that it is just not as easy for me to use, there are some other things I am concerned about. Mali suffers from really serious deforestization, and what national and international projects they have here to plant trees cannot keep up with the rate at which people fell them. The wood is sold as fire wood, or turned into charcoal, which then is sold on the side of the road to women who need it to cook. The pollution produced by turning wood into charcoal, or by burning wood and charcoal also contributes to the already overly polluted air here. There are gas cookers available, and it’s cheaper and cleaner to cook with gas than with wood or charcoal, but I suspect that most people here lack the initial high expense of buying a gas tank. Other may have the resources but just never think about the environmental implications.]

Shopping. Shopping here is a daily event, and the stores and stands stay open until late at night. Fresh fruits and vegetables are sold at stands scattered throughout the city on the sides of the roads. Easily available here in Bamako are: lettuce, beets, potatoes, onions, garlic, yams, green bananas, okra, carrots, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, (bitter) melons, bananas, oranges. If you look a little harder: green peppers, mint, apples, avocados, pineapple. (There are huge mango trees everywhere with thousands of mangoes on them, but they are not ripe yet…Other items that should be available when in season: green beans, radishes, papaya, guava…) The rest is sold in little stores (“la boutique”). That’s where you can find canned goods and dry items. Everything that you would want is sold in minuscule quantities: a 25 gram bag of sugar, a tiny pouch with dried milk, a little plastic bag filled with cooking oil, etc. Of course it would be a lot cheaper to buy a kilo of sugar, but again: the family may not have a place to store it, or they may only have the small change to buy a small bag.

Each neighborhood has an accumulation of stores and stands, and that is called the market, “le marché”. It usually is packed tightly with people and merchandise, and as you wind your way through the maze you can also buy – in addition to fruits, vegetables, and dry goods - your (live) chickens, your meat (alive or dead), and all other kitchen equipment. Sheep usually are sold at a separate market. The sheep market. Ditto for cows.

[Editorial: If you are like me you have never really thought about supermarkets, and what they really are. Being here has made me worship them, and the way they have facilitated the life of women! Here I have to go from stand to stand, from store to store, looking for items that I may or may not find. Each store has one or two brands of one item, but only that particular day. Or each store has all the same merchandise as the next one. All the items are behind the counter, so you can never pick up anything, read the label, that sort of thing. Nothing is priced, so the store keeper has to tell you the prices. The stands selling the vegetables and fruits are all selling the same merchandise for the same price, all next to each other, so you have nothing to base your choice on. And then there is the customer service piece: missing all together. (I admit that after 22 years in the U.S. I have been spoiled by the American standards of customer service, and even shopping in Europe easily disappoints.) The vendors rarely greet you, nor do they offer a smile or a “thank you”. Take the supermarket, on the other hand: aisle after aisle of merchandise that is priced, that you can pick up and compare. You can choose your favorite from multiple brands, and everything that you may need is all there under one roof: paper goods, cleaning supplies, meat, dairy products (notice that I did not mention dairy items in the section on the market…), beverages, dry foods etc. Because everything is so easy and self-explanatory you don’t really need to interact with employees until you check out, and you usually can get a greeting out of them, even here. The supermarket is clean, quick, convenient, and for those of us who do not like going to “le marché” or “la boutique” every day (or do not have the time), it is goddess-send. There are exactly 3 supermarkets here in Bamako, none close by to where we are staying, and none in Timbuktu. So, please, next time that you are in a supermarket like it’s no big thing, pause and give thanks. You would really miss it if it was gone….]

[Another curious observation about shopping and gender: I have never seen a man food shopping at the markets. The supermarket aisles, however, are teeming with African men who do their food shopping. I wonder: have they lived abroad and have learned to help out their wives by shopping? They don’t shop at the markets here because they, too, find it time consuming and difficult? I would love to interview them about this issue….]

Salt & Pepper. I had already been here for over two months and I had not yet cooked, even though I have the time while Malé is running all over town. I just could not get myself to cook with charcoal, on the floor, in the courtyard, etc. Malé, infinitely patient, let me be, and we ate with family and friends and in restaurants. I finally identified the bare minimum of equipment that I needed to even think about cooking: a refrigerator, a gas cooker, and some plates and knifes and forks. And chairs to sit on. So when we moved into this apartment here he went and got me what I wanted. I also had access to a supermarket which was next to the hotel where I would occasionally spend time. Shopping there put me in the mood to cook, and I bought everything that I needed to make Spaghetti Bolognaise, my grand début. (Especially after I found crème fraîche, an important ingredient in the Spiller’s Spaghetti Bolognaise!) But I forgot to buy salt and pepper. Later that day we ate dinner with Malé’s friend Bokum, and I asked his wife Sétou if she had some salt and pepper for me. Sure she did. Did I want to grind it, or should she do it for me? Well, that never occurred to me. Grind it with a grind stone??? (She was not talking about a salt and pepper mill!) No, I did not want to particularly grind it myself. So she had somebody grind away, and later I received a container of freshly pulverized pepper and salt. (Except that the salt was pure MSG crystals, more about that below.) I did not say anything and gratefully took the containers. I knew that the next day we would be at Malé’s sister “La Veille” (=the old one, more about that in another blog), and I would ask her for salt. Sure, she had salt, and happily offered me a rock of salt the size of an orange. Even if I had a salt mill I would have to break up that baby to make it fit. I humbly asked her if she could grind it for me, and she did, with her grind stone.

[Editorial: The point here is that acquiring even something basic and ordinary as salt and pepper has unexpected nuances and challenges that I am completely unprepared for. It just makes me realize how easy everything has been made for us, the consumers, and how spoiled we are. (And how much I like being spoiled…) The next time that I was in the supermarket I looked for salt and pepper: yes! They have salt grains in a nice little container, and it’s even iodized. (Betcha you don’t know about goiters and why we don’t have them anymore…) They also have ground pepper.]

The meals. The meals here are enormous, and are served seemingly round-the-clock. The African women that I have spend time with cook from morning until night. Most women have maids (“la bonne”), and several at that. So there may be two to four maids plus the housewife in the courtyard preparing meals. The meals usually involve rice and meat with sauce, or French fries and meat with sauce, or couscous or tôt with meat with sauce. Occasionally fish with sauce and rice/couscous/French fries, and sometimes a salad with potatoes, beet, eggs, cucumber, tomatoes, etc. Even breakfast involves meat with sauce and bread, to soak up the sauce, or occasionally a sweetened type of flour soup with grains. Often several types of sauce are prepared for each meal.

Meals are served in groups: usually children together, the women eat together as they cook, and the men are served whenever they show up. The women never really know when somebody will show up to eat, so they are always prepared. The more affluent ones have lots of thermo dishes, where the rice and the sauce are kept warm. And they also never know how many people will show up. That’s why the pots are always filled to the brim.

[Editorial: Dear Reader, do I really have to comment on this? I am not sure what I will be doing here day-to-day, but I will not prepare endless meals every day for random people that will show up whenever and want to eat. Also, when and if I do cook, I will want to eat with my husband, not before or after him. So I guess our household will be a little different, and we can always visit Malé’s friends and family for a little more authentic Malian experience.]

Cleaning. The Malian women clean a lot. All they long you can see women and girls sweeping, washing, and scrubbing. All the laundry is washed by hand, of course, and my clothes have never been cleaner than since they have been washed here. They wash the laundry in the river, or in tubs in the courtyard, or in tubs on the street. (The only thing that everybody has to wash by him- or herself is the underwear. It must be done in secret because it is considered very private.) The house, the courtyard, the area in front of the house: everything gets swept at least once a day, usually more. All the surfaces that can be mopped will be, also once a day. All the big platters and pots that were used for cooking and eating get washed in the “sink” in the courtyard, and it’s not unusual to see piles of them come up to the waist. Even the cars get washed all the time!

[Editorial: I used to really like cleaning. I will self-disclose now: I would dust everything once a week, vacuum once a week, clean the bathroom once week, mop once a month, wash my windows once every two months, clean the fridge, the stove, wipe down the door frames, the floor boards, etc. It felt very therapeutic and satisfying, and afterwards I would relax on my sofa and feast my eyes on how nice and clean and tidy everything looked, and how good it smelled. (I am not kidding you: this is the truth.) And my apartment would stay good-looking for about a week, until it was time to vacuum again.

Let’s start with the dust here: there is a lot of it here. Partially because most roads are not tarred (even here in Bamako), partially because of the air pollution, partially because of the lack of vegetation, partially because of all the construction, partially because it’s the dry season – even if you sweep twice or three times a day it’s as if you have not swept in a week! If I sit down here to feast my eyes and blink it’s like I never even swept! Well, that right there takes the fun out of it for me. I can’t imagine any vacuum cleaner motor being able to survive this type of dust, so that’s no solution either.

Furthermore, about the laundry issue: even if I wanted to wash our clothes by hand (let’s say for the sake of exercise), they would never be as clean. In addition, Malé likes to wear white shirts and light colored pants – try getting them clean! I have no problem washing our underwear (in secret), and I will wash some of my shirts and skirts, but I admit that I will continue to give our laundry away to be washed. There just is no way that I will wash jeans and sheets and towels and white shirts… All in all, it’s going to be challenging to re-create my cleaning pleasures that I enjoyed in NYC here in Mali… ]

Their dirty, little secret. My suspicions arose when I noticed that Mali is littered with billboards advertising MAGGI. I know MAGGI products from Germany, where we buy their bouillon cubes to make soup. Since I had never seen anybody eat soup here I was wondering why Malians would be interested in MAGGI cubes. The second give-away was the fact that all the sauces here taste very good, and very similar. I wasn’t sure what spices they were using, but no matter at which dusty, dingy road side shack, or at whose house we were eating, the sauces were all similarly good. Very good in fact. Too good… Then there was the day that I was poking around at the market and I saw lots of bags with big white crystals being sold. Kind of like what you would see in a New Age store, you know the quartz crystals that you use to cleanse yourself or whatever? Except that we were definitely not in a New Age store, so they were not quartz crystals. I asked the vendor, and he told me it was salt. A closer inspection of the label confirmed my suspicions: MSG. I realized then that women here grind up and use pure MSG as “salt” in their sauces, and their salad dressings. Or they use MAGGI cubes, which is also MSG with some other spices. And mostly they use both! That is why Sétou gave me ground up MSG when I asked for salt. That explains the sauces and their similar taste. It’s a little hard to avoid eating meals prepared with MSG, but at least I don’t have to use it myself.

Well, dear Reader, as you see there are some challenges ahead for me…Stay tuned for more wild tales about my stay here in Mali!