Mashed potato, rich and creamy. Spaghetti cooked in boiling salt water, till it’s just soft. Plain rice fluffy and steaming… That’s is how I like it and that is how I’ve always cooked it. When something is as comforting and as good as these three dishes, it doesn’t seem worth the effort of doing it differently. What if it goes wrong? What if I don’t like it?
Well, in the interests of peace and harmony at Mingela camp, Tanzania, it was certainly worth trying. There were 7 Tanzanian volunteers in our group and time and time again they surprised me by cooking food in a way I would never have even considered. Because I had gotten in my mind there was only one way of doing these classic dishes, I had forgotten that every dish, even the classic ones had to start from somewhere. They were created in a certain milieu, with certain ingredients more available or at hand than others, to certain desires and tastes. For the Tanzanians there was an apparently set way of doing things too. Like having to peel tomatoes. In the end, we learnt quite a bit from each other, and as they say, the proof is in the eating.
Kelvin was the Tanzanian team leader. He kept quiet about being a great cook until a few weeks in and this was the dish that blew us away.
There are no fridges in Mingela, let alone fresh cream or milk or any dairy to put in it. This mash is based on the simple principle of frying onions with the whole peeled potatoes first before adding boiled water. This adds flavour to the finished product and if cooked for long enough the starchy potatoes break down and the water boils off until you’re left with a very moreish and potatoey mash. Season to taste
Our pots weren’t great, needless to say they weren’t non-stick. We also had to cram a lot of spaghetti for 14 people into one pot, while the other hob was used to make the sauce or side dish. Our UK team leader, Alex was an expert at cooking it just the way we have it at home. Dispersed in a circular X, the spaghetti went into a pot of slightly salted, boiling water until soft and slippery. This required some careful quantity and temperature monitoring on Alex’s part and also meant waiting an age for the water that never quite reached a rapid boil on our petty little gas hob. Over crowding the pan with spaghetti would lower that temperature further and produce clumps. None of these would have been a problem on our powerful stove at home.
The other way of doing it was to add only just enough water to the pot, salt and some sunflower oil. The oil worked on several different levels. A) It raised the temperature of the cooking spaghetti mixture. B) It prevented the spaghetti from sticking to each other as much. C) And it also meant you could pretty much just leave it to dry out and form a crispy base on the bottom. Less careful monitoring, better for an unpredictable heat source.
Tanzanian Pilau rice
Historically, Arabic trade routes brought this dish, along with coveted spices to Tanzania as far back as 800AD. Pilau spices can be bought readily mixed and includes a delicious mix of cinnamon, cardamon, black pepper, cloves, cumin and coriander seeds. I recommend finishing off the dish also with a lime garnish.
First burn thin slices of red onion in hot oil. Yep that’s right. Chuck them into hot oil, watch them turn translucent, golden, golden brown and just keep going until a chocolate shade of brown. The next part is very dangerous and I would never do this at home without a lid or at least a splatter guard to hand. Add boiling water to the oil (at least let the oil cool down a bit- we were cooking al fresco and didn’t have a kitchen or house to burn down) until the pot is just over half full. Stir and boil out the burnt onions in this watery mixture for 5 minutes before adding the rice and spices to cook. I know. crazy, unsafe and totally the opposite of what I would normally do.
For a risotto bianco I would have been extremely careful to not even let the onions go beyond a translucent white colour, I would have added the rice grains to the oil to coat before adding a splash of wine, then stock or water. It seems the reason the water is added first in the case of pilau is to make a sort of onion stock first and let the onion flavour permeate the water before adding the rice. Burnt onions also have a very different taste to lightly sautéed ones. Along with the spices, it gave the dish a rich brown colour and an exciting flavour that more than compensated for the lack of wine.
In general we used more oil and salt whilst cooking in our camp. I almost had a heart attack when I saw someone adding salt to cooking plain rice. I got over it soon enough; from a health perspective we needed the additional sodium and the calories, because we were sweating so much during the day, doing a lot of exercise carrying water and sometimes hard manual labour too. What we might have described as unhealthy in the UK was vital in Mingela. With this new experience I came to realise that hardly any element of cooking is indisputable. But I’m no Ferran Adria, throwing away the rulebook altogether in the endeavour to create entirely new dishes and even a whole new art form. Cooking for me is still inextricably linked to a person’s experience, environment, culture, history and even politics. There are still rules, they just keep changing.