Monday, August 20, 2007

Coma Peixes! A Field Trip to Mozambique

Seven hours may seem like a long time to drive for a meal of fish and chips. But when you live in a land-locked country and you know that, at the end of the road, the fish will be fresh from the sea, the chips will be thick and crisp, and the flames of piri-piri sauce will leave an addictive, lingering tang – well then, seven hours is nothing at all. This is the thought that passed through my head as I chased a garlic-y crumbed prawn, judiciously dipped in piri-piri, with a cold 2M beer on the first night Mark and I spent in Mozambique.

We were eating at a restaurant called Solange in bustling, 100-year-old Beira, a rough-around-the-edges port city located just where the country pinches in to its thinnest point. From our hotel room, we could see a small slice of the sea, wedged between two run-down concrete apartment buildings. The building to the left had a grey, concrete rooftop patio jutting out from its lower floors. At night, from 11-2, that innocuous patio emitted a throbbing, electrified African beat, to the great pleasure of an equally throbbing and electrified crowd. We had been told that Mozambicans like to party late into the night. Mozambicans did not let us down.

During our week-long holiday in Beira, Pemba, and Ibo Island, one impression stood out to me most: the sense that, although the country was once among the poorest in the world, and despite enduring scars from a 17-year civil war (1977-92), today Mozambique boasts an unremitting energy and optimism. We heard it in the animated chatter that rose above the blaring music on the rooftop patio. We saw it in the fresh paint on tiny roadside stores and newly-paved roads, in women’s clothes (vibrantly-pattered wrap skirts and dresses and, in urban areas, second-hand, neon tank-tops from Brazil), in the busy hubbub of curbside bike repair shops, in the mass of little kids playing in the ocean – splashing, somersaulting, and diving for joy – and in their older siblings, strolling back and forth along the beachfront, preening and posing for their peers.

You, as a visitor, need to capture this optimism, too, and put your faith in the fact that Things Will Work Out. Because although more and more tourists are traveling to Mozambique, there are few helpful signs or maps, limited transport options for getting from point A to point B, and tourist facilities full of smiling people who can’t really help you very much. Nevertheless, Things Will Work Out. To wit:

1) When it appears you will be stranded on the island of Ibo in the Quirimbas Archipelago of northern Mozambique, you will, at the last minute, secure seats on a tiny plane, befriend a Zimbabwean who drives one of the two vehicles on the island, and catch a ride to the grass-runway airport. This will be your view from 1000 feet:

2) When your 4x4 gets a flat tire and, seconds after you notice the spare is secured by a lock, you realize that, since you borrowed the vehicle from a friend, you don’t have the key…well, a friendly man will walk by who happens to be a mechanic. He will ingeniously remove the lock without the key.

3) When you are visiting the local street market in Pemba and – for the sake of this very blog – purchase some sweets from a snotty-nosed girl who, with one grubby hand, is waving away a swarm of flies, while, with the other grubby hand, passing you your selections…miraculously you will not get food poisoning.

4) When you spend the whole week trying to order a traditional Mozambican dish called matapa, only to hear repeatedly that, although the dish appears on the menu, it was not made today…on your last night in the country you will return to Solange and gleefully discover they offer a special weekend buffet that includes not one, but two types of matapa.

5) And, finally, when you fruitlessly search market after market for cassava leaves, the critical main ingredient in matapa, eventually realizing that cassava must be something everyone grows at home rather than buys…you will make one last market stop and meet a man willing to bike 15 minutes to cut cassava leaves from his own garden and bring them to you. Which he does.

Yes, Mozambique is the place for optimism.

It is also the place for excellent food influenced by African traditions, Portuguese cuisine (the Portuguese claimed Mozambique as a colony for more than two centuries), and the curry and coconut-inflicted Swahili cooking that Arab traders spread up and down Africa’s east coast. Knowing this was Opportunity ’07 to eat fresh seafood, Mark and I consumed frutos do mar at every meal – warm cod in a turmeric, coconut and parmesan cream sauce; cold cod served with a tomato curry (caril) sauce; smoked marlin; curried prawns speckled with dried mango; and garlic-drenched prawns (camarões), calamari (lulas), and fish (peixe), sometimes grilled (grelhado), sometimes fried (fritado), always with lashings of piri-piri.

I’ll feature four of Mozambique’s culinary revelations in subsequent posts: piri-piri sauce, matapa, cassava root (mandioca), and the sweets sold in street food stalls. The dishes I recreate in my home kitchen may not be as flavorful as the ones we ate in Beira, Pemba and Ibo. But, I’ll just have to be optimistic. Things Will Work Out.

A Summary of Food and Drink “To dos”
Beira, Pemba, and Ibo Island, Mozambique

In Beira:
Eat at Solange. There is amazingly varied buffet on Friday and Saturday nights for about US$12/person and a unique green piri-piri every night. (Thanks, Emily, for the tip!)

In Pemba:
- Watch the sunset from Aquila Romana, an Italian restaurant on the far end of Wimbi Beach, past where the paved road ends and the sand road begins. Your table could be the one in the opening photo, and your view will look like this:

- Visit the nearby JPS for Mozambican and Portuguese cuisine (matapa some nights).
- Watch the kids frolic in the ocean as you eat fish and batatas fritas on the deck of Pemba Dolphin on Wimbi Beach.
- Be greeted with calls of “Salama” (“Hello”) as you explore the vegetable market in town; you can answer “Salama” in return.
- Buy some better-than-Maldon sea salt from a vendor, and check out the stalls with dried fish of all shapes and sizes, chilies, onions, tomatoes, cabbage garlic, rice and flour.

On Ibo:
- Visit the newly-opened Cinco Portas, run by the extremely helpful and accommodating Isabelle, which offers quaint, basic rooms and serves excellent Portuguese and Mozambican food, with a strong Swahili influence, from a vibrant, open-air kitchen. If you aren’t staying there, arrange your meals with Isabella in advance so that she can make sure her team of local cooks prepares enough food.
- Watch the sunset from the courtyard at Cinco Portas while enjoying one of the local beer brands: 2M or Laurentina. The luscious, chocolaty dark version of Laurentina, Laurentina Preta, is highly recommended.
- Try a homestay with a local family – a new community tourism initiative on the island. You can arrange for your hosts to cook you lunch and dinner, and will always receive some sort of light breakfast – like these fried UFO-shaped treats made with rice, coconut and, I believe, a bit of lemon zest. Contact Ibraimo Assane at +258 825511919.
- For a splurge, stay at Ibo Island Lodge, a beautifully restored house with fantastic architecture, a great view, and fabulous staff. We didn’t stay here, but wish we could have!

If you are in interested in traveling to northern Mozambique (both Pemba and Ibo are in the north), a good resource is Kaskazini.

Many thanks to Mariana (our traveling companion to and from Beira) for her insights into Mozambican food, and her translation assistance!

Gratuitous extra photos!

A day’s catch – Pemba

The old market – Pemba

Downtown Pemba – a Goat Town

Baobab trees line the shore of Pemba Bay

Bananas, anyone? – A truck on the road to Beira

Shells, with tiny, edible snails inside, drying in the sun – Ibo

Check out my previous “field trips” here:
Rome
Zanzibar

8 comments:

Maninas: Food Matters said...

what a great post! a very good read! thanks!

neroli said...

So lovely, this post---thank you.
Things Will Work Out: a simple and simply beautiful outlook---and with it, you were so welcomed.
Things Will Work Out: it's a good thing for us to practice.
Thank you!

Jakeukalane said...

Hellooooooooo!!

This is a very interisting blog!!! Really!! You discovered me many things about Zimbabwe!!!

Thank you!!!

Congratulations for the great blog...

Greetings.

Salvatore said...

I just found your site and the photos are wonderful. I don't think there are enough blogs that deal with Africa or its food. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Keep it up.

Carolyn said...

Maninas, Jakeukalane and Salvatore - Thanks so much for your encouraging words! And Salvatore - all the credit for the photos goes to my husband (who often reminds me that I don't credit him enough! :-)

Neroli - You are right, Things Will Work Out is an outlook we all need to employ more regularly. I know I do! It is an outlook based on having faith in humanity, and there are many reasons why this faith can be shaken. It is important to renew it often - allowing Things to Work Out helps!

Rahin said...

hey carolyn , very gud post,its beautiful , also i wud like u to accept the Rockin Girl Blogger award which u will find on my blog , http://lazzat.blogspot.com/

Sheila said...

i just came across your blog ,I love it , Im from USA, and just read Alexandra Fullers book " dont lets go to the dogs tonight" That got me interested in Africa , which I never really knew about. How did you get to Zimbabwe? Is it as bad as I hear? Sheila

Jeanne said...

What a wonderful post! Mozambique is one of the countries I've always wanted to visit. My mom remembered family visits there as a child - mostly to Maputo (then Lourenco Marques) - and wonderful seafood meals. She also had a collection of those little cowrie shells what appear in one of your pictures. Thanks for jolting my memory :)