#153 Central African Republic: bring on the home-cooked grub(s)

 

Let’s get this out of the way first: yes, I ate four plates of caterpillars. Yes, I very much enjoyed them. And caterpillars contain four times as much protein per ounce as unadorned chicken breasts, so I could even make horrible puns about eating healthy grub(s).

Hey, stop squirming! I mean you — not the caterpillars.

 

Now you might be wondering: how, exactly, does an American end up eating home-cooked caterpillars, imported from the Central African Republic?

Well… I was at a Super Bowl party a year ago, watching my beloved Denver Broncos kick some butt, and I started talking about food. (Surprise!) Suddenly, some American guy I had never met stood up, and said that he knows some guy, and that guy knows a guy from Central African Republic (CAR).

A few months later, I finally managed to meet that guy from CAR – a fascinating fellow named Erick.

Erick has done all sorts of incredible things in his life. He works as a Sangho-French-English translator, runs a small import-export business, and did some incredible charitable work back in CAR. He has lived and traveled all over his home country, and knows more about CAR’s regional languages, cultures, and culinary traditions than anybody you could possibly meet.

Erick graciously arranged a one-night culinary tour of CAR, prepared by a wonderful woman named Aline. Aline is Erick’s cousin, but they met only after Erick arrived in the U.S. six years ago. Nevertheless, Aline agreed to prepare food for 20 non-Central African strangers in Queens, including my favorite TV producer, the creator of an African educational platform called WeDream Africa, a classical violinist gone wrong, and an outstanding Croatian vocalist.

from left: Brian from We Dream Africa, Aline, and Erick

 

This struck me as an unbelievably generous thing for Aline to do. She’d never met any of us, and she took an entire day off from her job as a home health aide in New Jersey, just to cook for us in Queens. Amazing.

Aline’s cooking, of course, was just as amazing. Even if the picture of this one might make you squirm: yabanda, made from caterpillars, stewed in finely diced vine leaves (called koko in Sangho, gnetum in French), onions, and a scotch bonnet pepper…

 

If you’re thinking “ewwwwwww!”… well, you might be wrong. If I blindfolded you, fed you a spoonful of yabanda, and told you that you were eating some sort of delicious fried mushroom cooked in tasty greens, you’d probably believe me. The texture reminds me a bit of fried tofu – reasonably firm, and somewhat chewy – but with a slightly nutty flavor.

Incidentally, the CAR government conducted a marketing campaign to encourage residents to grind up the caterpillars and add them to baby food, since they’re such a great source of protein and other nutrients. Seriously: as far as I can tell, these little buggers are better for you than anything you can buy at Whole Foods.

Plus, what’s more fun than watching an American dude eat a bug?

 

Aline also brought a second type of caterpillar from CAR, but this batch had been smoked and stewed in onions, giving it a richer flavor. Again, if I told you that you were eating some sort of smoked mushroom – or a mushroom cooked with a tiny bit of smoked fish – you probably would have believed me. Well, with your eyes closed, anyway.

 

And just so you stop squirming: Aline’s cooking prowess went far beyond caterpillars. She also prepared a wonderful dish called kpokpongo, featuring gboudou leaves — which grow only in Central Africa — stewed with stockfish, onion, vegetable oil, and yellow peppers:

 

And since Central African Republic is located in the heart of Africa, our culinary tour also featured a full variety of starchy staples that you might see elsewhere on the continent, including rice, white cornmeal porridge (similar to Malawian nsima or Zimbabwean sadza), fried plantains, and steamed yucca:

photos by Andrew Guidone

 

But Aline wasn’t done. She also made an absolutely outstanding platter of broiled chicken, marinated in parsley, garlic, ginger, white and black pepper, and mustard. And there was a fantastic Yakoma dish called ngunza na gnama, featuring beef and cassava leaves, stewed in a peanut sauce.

So yes, Aline prepared five main dishes and four side dishes — for a group of complete strangers. She even made some amazing homemade hot sauce, featuring scotch bonnet peppers. Epic.

 

I could go on and on about everything we learned about CAR culture and cuisine from Erick and Aline. Erick regaled us with stories of his travels through the nation, and tales of legendary Central African hospitality. Your car breaks down on the roadside? Don’t worry, help is coming — probably along with an invitation to dinner.

So I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that Erick and Aline went so far out of their way for a herd of strangers, but it’s hard not to feel optimistic about the world when you spend a day with these two.

Aline, making us all feel optimistic about the world; photo by Andrew Guidone

 

This story has an unfortunate epilogue, though. Just a week after our meal, Aline’s only daughter – age 11 – passed away in the Central African Republic. Like many immigrants, Aline was scraping by in a low-paid job as a home health aide, and she sent what she could home to support her daughter. But she hadn’t actually seen her daughter in a few years. I can’t even imagine how awful that is.

Aline, of course, was generous enough to take a day off from work to cook for us, and as a tiny gesture, I’d love to return the favor and help her. After all, she had to buy a plane ticket to CAR on super-short notice, and take a couple of weeks off from work.

And to make things worse, she lost her job soon after returning from the trip — so she’s in rough shape, emotionally and financially.

So we’re hoping to raise $2000 to cover her travel costs for the funeral. I know that it won’t do much to ease the pain of losing her only child, but I just want to be able to say that we’re here for her. If you’d like to contribute, please visit the gofundme page we’ve set up in her honor.

Or… would you prefer to munch an African lunch in exchange for your donation? Maybe, like, an African lunch featuring dishes from four different countries? Then please join us at…

 

Four Corners of Africa Fundraiser for Aline
Featuring Chef Grace Acheampong
Saturday, March 11
12:00-3:00
Trinity Lutheran Church
164 W. 100th Street, Manhattan
Purchase tickets here
or donate here

 

And if a Saturday African lunch isn’t your cup of tea either, see if you can track down some caterpillars. Trust me, they’re tastier than you think.

Click here to donate, or click here to join us for an African lunch on March 11

 

 

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