Saturday, December 15, 2007


Some Americans spend their childhood in suburbs – backyards, front yards, bike-riding in the street. Some are raised in cities – hubbub, playgrounds, concrete, culture. Some sprout in rural areas – porches, animals, tall grass, big sky. Others grow up in central Zaire.

Or maybe that’s just Ruth.*

Two weeks ago, in a transaction that looked suspiciously like a drug deal, my friend Ruth handed me an expired prescription pill container half-filled with brown-grey powder. I opened the child-proof lid, took a sniff – woodsy, with a peppery bite – and placed the goods in my purse. Buamba, she called it, a spice mixture from central Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) that goes with everything. Her family no longer lives in Congo, but they always keep some buamba close at hand.

I can’t decide if I should describe buamba as African MSG or fairy dust. Sprinkle it on slow-roasted tomato, a fried egg, a green salad, some soft cheese and va-voom, every taste is amplified. I am tempted to become a buamba evangelist, plying the streets of Harare trying to convince people to stop using so much salt and convert to buamba.

First, however, I need to figure out what goes into the stuff. Black pepper – that’s for sure. What else? Ruth herself is uncertain. All she knows is that buamba does not contain salt (sodium chloride), but
potassium chloride instead. A Google search for buamba turns up nothing, nothing at all. If any reader has the secret recipe, please let me know!

In the meantime, I will begin toting some buamba in my purse. Watch out unpalatable overcooked veg at the hotel buffet. Pay heed lifeless leftover. Here comes buamba. Va-voom!

*And, speaking of growing up, I should mention that Ruth is one of those women you want to be when you grow up. Even when you are already grown up.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Dear Salad

Dear Salad,

It is a sunny Sunday afternoon here in Harare – a day just calling out for a salad – and I decided it was high time I write you a short note of appreciation. After all, I have enjoyed salads my whole life.

I’m not certain which came first – me liking salad or me liking the praise adults showered upon me whenever I ate raw vegetables. In any case, I started eating salad young. Growing up, my mom prepared a salad to accompany almost every dinner meal. To our great fortune, she saw right through the pale, watery leaves of iceberg lettuce and introduced us to romaine and red leaf and Boston lettuce way before the Jones’. We might not have had cable until 1995 or an answering machine until 2000, but we were eating tasty, nutritious salads.

My dad dressed you, salad, with his special vinaigrette. He has tried many times to show us how to accomplish this perfect balance of olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, pepper and dried oregano, yet we can never make it quite the same. Whatever dressing remained at the bottom of the bowl was (and still is) carefully absorbed with a slice of Italian bread.

The other three salads I remember my mom serving were tomato salad (only made in August with tomatoes from our garden and, again, with my dad’s vinaigrette), chef’s salad, and ravioli salad – a “keeper” recipe my mom clipped from the newspaper that combines ravioli, fresh tomatoes, shredded zucchini and grated parmesan. I still make this salad today.

College might have expanded my brain, but it did not expand my repertoire of salads, even though I ate daily from the school’s salad bar. Since the cafeteria charged students according to the size of the salad bowl we used, I learned how to maximize the “small” bowl. I selected the sturdiest slices of cucumber and lined them up around the edges of the bowl, effectively adding another inch to the bowl’s height. Salad, I valued you, but I valued my precious “food points” more.

Once I began cooking on my own, I experimented with salads formed around bulgur and tofu, and learned to appreciate egg salad – now I not only like this
Africa-inspired version, but also one by Mollie Katzen that mixes hard-boiled eggs with gremolata and ricotta. When my husband and I moved to Australia to study, we quickly adapted to ordering sandwiches “with salad.” As you know, in Oz, “with salad” does not translate to “side salad;” rather, it is the lettuce, tomato, and, oftentimes, beetroot, placed inside the sandwich itself.

Yet, it has really been over the last two years that I’ve discovered how diverse a genre you really are, salad. Since I began experimenting with North Africa cuisine, I’ve learned that by looking to Tunisia, Algeria and Moroccan, I can take any abundant fruit or veg from my fridge, garden or cupboard –
carrots, zucchini, beetroot, dried peaches – and transform it into salads, both warm and cold. Now, I understand that anytime I am cutting up a vegetable and adding some sort of dressing – well, salad, there you are. Thank you.

Best wishes,

The salad I’m enjoying at the moment is a traditional grilled vegetable salad from Tunisia called mechouia (also written salata mishwiyya). It contains a cast of characters familiar to those who prepare
chakchouka or turlu turlu. I’ve seen recipes that call for blending the vegetables together after they are grilled or crushing them with a mortar and pestle; others, like this one, request a good fine chop. In addition to the topping of hard-boiled egg and feta cheese, some recipes also call for tuna. Olives or capers would be welcome additions, too.

Mechouia (Grilled Vegetable Salad)
Adapted from Classic Vegetarian Cooking from the Middle East and North Africa
Serves 6 as a side salad

2 large red bell peppers
4 firm medium tomatoes
3 medium onions
1 small chili
45 milliliters / 3 tablespoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
45 milliliters / 3 tablespoons olive oil
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon oregano
5 milliliters / 1 teaspoon salt
2.5 milliliters / ½ teaspoon black pepper
2 hard boiled eggs, cut into wedges
40 grams / ¼ cup feta cheese, crumbled

Grill the red peppers, tomatoes, onions and chili (outdoors or on the stovetop), or broil in the oven. Turn the vegetables periodically. Remove the vegetables as they become soft – the chili will grill faster than the onion, for example.

Peel the skins from the peppers and chili and remove as many seeds from the chili as you want; you can keep a few in to add additional heat to the dish. Chop all the vegetables into small pieces.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, oregano, salt and pepper. Add the chopped vegetables and mix well. Transfer to a serving platter and scatter the egg and cheese around the top of the salad. Serve warm.