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The joys of eating out —way out in Africa

March 1, 2011

In yonder boyhood days when I was riding my bicycle all over Starkville, I thought a trip to the superette for a Slush Puppie was a pretty good long ride. When the family wagon took us all the way to the metropolis of Columbus to go to the mall and eat at Morrison’s Cafeteria, I thought we would never get there. Then a few minutes later, give or take a decade or two, I sat down to dinner in Kenya.
For many moons I had heard about a restaurant outside Nairobi that served wild game. I had visions of giraffe steaks (long and thin), elephant burgers (which I would never forget), and rack of hyena (maybe I could find the funny bone.) The name of this restaurant is, as you might have guessed, The Carnivore. Vegetarians need not make a reservation. A token salad and a potato of some sort may have been served alongside the endless skewers of meat, but the memory of all other food groups at that meal has been devoured. And my imagination was not far from reality. The Carnivore, I was told, featured a different variety of wild game every night. Like Forrest Gump’s chocolate box, you never knew what you were gonna’ get. On top of the nightly specials were all manner of what most of us on this side of the pond would consider “normal” meats: beef, chicken, pork, etc. All of it was grilled over giant pits in the center of the restaurant, and the waiters would bring the skewers to each table to cut and serve any size portion requested. On that very special African evening the featured game was zebra, crocodile, waterbuck and hartebeest. At least I had heard of half of them. The zebra was great, a simple steak that I would eat again any day. Sadly, the crocodile was disappointing; I had eaten alligator tail before and had set high expectations for this cousin. The waterbuck was decent, though not as good as the zebra, and the hartebeest had been made into meatballs. So far in life this “carn-ucopia” evening was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I hope it doesn’t stay that way forever.
As an adult I revisited South Africa. I was thankful for the chance to rectify some of the travel naiveté’s committed on my ninth grade excursion. This time I was a bit more mature, did not spend all my money on chocolate bars, and was much more aware of what I should be eating. I made sure at my first braai (the Afrikaans term for grilling out) to try some boerewors, which is a sausage, often made as a very long link, and usually made of beef and pork. South Africa is also known for biltong. When I first heard about biltong, it was in the days long before I was brave enough to actually eat tongue, and I had some doubts. Turns out that biltong is basically just dried meat. The beef jerky of the southern hemisphere. Or the ostrich jerky. Whew. In addition to the meat options in the country, we also met a man early in the journey who owned a chain of specialty ice cream stores. We made sure to stay in touch with him as often as possible during that trip.
On the way to South Africa we stopped in Ethiopia, the first of several visits to that very unique African country. But the first time we landed in Addis Ababa was not the first time we had experienced Ethiopian food. Ethiopian friends in our host country had invited us to their coffee ceremony and often cooked something we called zigni, but is also known as a variety of doro wat. For us, zigni was chicken cuts and boiled eggs swimming in a spicy red sauce (I could not begin to tell what all was in the sauce) all served over injera, the Ethiopian bread. For many, injera is an acquired taste – it’s a flat, spongy, slightly sour-tasting bread made from teff flour. If done right, injera serves pretty much as bread, plate, and fork – this is a meal best eaten with your fingers. When we actually visited Ethiopia, we had the chance to eat other kinds of wat, which could have made it difficult to get information about the food: “What is this? Wat. Yes, what?” Sort of an Ababa and Costello thing. But no matter the wat, the injera was always there, ready to serve in its multiple capacities. We noticed, too, that Ethiopians seemed to enjoy a thick, green avocado milkshake. I’m still waiting to try that one.
The camel is coming.

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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