Food and Travel in Africa

Food and Travel in Africa: South Africa, Egypt and Morocco

South Africa

No matter where you live, genetically speaking, a trip to Africa is a journey home.

Local women might have the world’s most inventive hairstyles. Less attractive are the unemployment figures of 27%. And for the young, make that 56%. South Africa has the world’s greatest economic disparity between rich and poor. And it is a shining achiever of courageously sought democracy and justice.

In Johannesburg we visit the Apartheid Museum and spend the day in Soweto where blacks were forcibly removed from former mixed areas. There are about 3 million people in homes that range from comfortable brick houses to abject lean-tos with streams of sewerage. There is also dancing, singing and a nearby church reverberates with passionate gospel. Without African roots there would be no blues, jazz, reggae, rock, samba, salsa, tango and more.

Cape Town is Joburg’s beautiful older sister. The coastline is spectacular with crashing waves, sharks, baboons, ostrich, pods of whales and colonies of penguins. I join a walking history tour and later one focussed on cuisine. We sample local cheeses, impala sausage, seafood, sweet Afrikaans curries and custard-mad desserts, stewed antelope, springbok carpaccio with pickled figs, sophisticated wines, and gin with rose petals. South Africa is not yet a significant food destination – unless you are a four legged carnivore. As a marker, this nation on a major coffee growing continent has had artisan cafes and baristas for less than 10 years.

Next we safari at Kruger. This national park is larger than Israel. Each day at 5:30 am and near dusk a ranger takes us out in high-sided, open-air jeeps with tiered seating for 3 to 7 hours. Train your bladder as there is no exiting the vehicle except for lunch in a secure compound. There are repeated warnings that viewing game is a gamble like going to Vegas. Fortunately the weather is dry and cloudy, which animals prefer for heading to waterholes.

Amazingly, we see ibex, antelope, impala, hippo, rhino, eland, zebra, Nile crocodile, warthog, mongoose, honey badger and wildebeest. Many are less than 2 metres away. Lions creep through long grass to eye Cape buffalo. A hyena family plays with their cubs. They have jaw strength second only to crocodiles and they’ll take on a lion. A leopard holds onto his kill encircled by vultures. Giraffes playfully press necks while nearby sentry birds monitor for predators. Mother elephants and baboons nurse their babies. We live half a world away and yet grew up with stories of African animals. Big magic.

A typical greeting is Sawubona, which is Zulu for “I see you”. See you next in Cairo.

Egypt

Cairo is home to over 25 million people. All of them are on the road at once.

As usual in a new city, I join a walking food tour and try tamarind juice; cardamom coffee; mint and vinegar drink; flat bread filled with hummus, fresh coriander patties and super crisp potato; deep fried brains (a cross between scrambled egg and chicken) and numerous nut pastries, sticky with honey. We visit a 14th century market where Al Fishawi’s has served mint tea since 1773. It is now well over 40 degrees. Summer temperatures can reach 55. Businesses and even doctors cater to clients at a milder 1 am.

No one got the memo about the dangers of smoking. But there is lots to be awestruck over: the pyramids of Giza with their somehow manoeuvred stone in seamless symmetry while the Sphinx stands guard; Karnak Temple lit up at night in regal indigo; the Egyptian Museum with its towering statues and King Tut’s gold coffin.

On my birthday, ‘Mariapatra’ is exotically on a 4 day cruise down the Nile. The world’s longest river is more than 4 times the length of New Zealand. The Egyptians invented the 365 day calendar to predict its flooding. Female commoners then could own property, run businesses and initiate divorce.

When travelling, I love my hour long buffet breakfasts. Though most Europeans are GDW (Guilty of Dining White) and stick to familiar pale starches, plus eggs. There are such usual items while I sample the many pickled fish, fruits and vegetables; herb and spice seasoned soft curd cheese speckled with caraway; eggplant everything; halva and comb honey; legume stews with a side of couscous and whole grilled chillies; filo parcels with spiced lentils. In the evening I try a national favourite: whole pigeon stuffed with rice and raisins.

Whether on the pool deck or out the open window of my elegant stateroom, there is a changing scene of banana palms, water buffalo, donkeys pulling carts of raw sugarcane, children swimming, and men fishing out of small sail boats. We stop and visit the Valley of the Kings and its tombs of Queen Hatshepsut and other rulers with their hieroglyphics telling tales from 3,300 years ago.

At night, the all-male crew play traditional instruments and show us men’s dance moves with lots of arm and shoulder action. On the river, young men will hire an open air boat, play music and dance together just as our youths might get together over beer and pizza.

Morocco

“Come with me to the kasbah”.

The Kingdom of Morocco is mint and mosaics; cedar wood forests, coastal life and snowy mountains; serpentine 9th century market places; and the towering dunes of the Sahara.

If you ask for a cup of tea you automatically get a glass filled with green tea and fresh mint leaves. It is Africa’s top tourist destination and second only to Hollywood as a film set. Over 70% of the population is under 30.

The current King Mohammed VI is progressive and upon ascension immediately improved employment, democracy, human rights, women’s rights and increased universities from 3 to 24 – and all free.

Arriving in Casablanca, I go on an old city walking tour. Sampling a popular fermented milk drink I notice that glasses are merely rinsed in a bucket. Good thing my immune system is old and invincible. We try prickly pear – a type of fruit from a cactus plant; rounds of polenta with butter and honey; ground almond, peanut and sesame cookies from a tiny adobe nook with praise from the New York Times on its wall.

We head north and east to exotic Fes. Its Medina has the world’s oldest university, Al-Karaouine, which was started by women. The lanes are the narrowest I’ve seen with endless small shops selling intensely coloured ceramics; live chickens; 5 kilo blocks of nougat and hanging camel heads. From an ancient wood fired community oven, rounds of hot bread come out on a paddle. I pull off sweet, nutty chunks.

Compared to Egypt, this is greener, cleaner. More prosperous and socially integrated. We dine at a riad, meaning a private home with a tree and fountain-filled central courtyard. Riad Arabesque is also a guest house with photos of visiting celebrities and royalty. There are vaulted ceilings, intricate tiles, chandeliers and a rooftop dining room to admire the city from. An array of eggplant, fig and other salads precede a succulent tagine (a conical clay pot cooked over charcoal) of spicy beef and dates, served with couscous.

Another day we stop to admire the King’s palace. Outside a joyful Jewish Moroccan bride and groom invite us to join the singing and dancing. Judaism preceded Islam here by 6 centuries. Later the French contributed bureaucracy, language and the best patisserie and honest bread of my trip.

Near dusk we take a jeep and drive to the Sahara. The dunes shimmer like sculptures of caramel meringue. Camel drivers undulate in the distance as I walk through the sands – checking for snakes and scorpions – and watch the sun set.

We drive past the pink, striated, Grand Canyon-like sheer rock of the Atlas Mountains; the shock of green oases thick with date palms; forests of cork; nomadic shepherds tending sheep and goats; fields of argan fruit and roses for oil production. Morocco’s wealth is not from oil or gas, but water for agriculture. This securely feeds its people and export economy.

Marrakesh is softly beautiful with its buildings pink from local clay. The vast souk or market here is a celebration of art, craft and human enterprise with its snake charmers, palm readers, drummers and lively vendors.

The seaside gem of Essaouira is known for its walled Portuguese core. Numerous outdoor seafood restaurants offer views of weathered fishermen in vivid blue boats and parasailing youths. I enjoy spicy, stuffed, palm-sized sardines with a glass of local chardonnay and toast the end of the journey.

A bientot

Food and Travel in the Middle East

United Arab Emirates

On my birthday, I ride a camel into the Arabian Desert and dine with Bedouins.

We start with watermelon drinks, camel milk (rich and nutty), and tiny cups of thin coffee served the old way while chewing a date for sweetness. Then creamy lentil soup and griddle-fried flat bread made by hennaed hands. The main is camel stew (tastes like beef), lamb baked below ground, rice pilaf, lemon and fattoush salad. Last is fresh fruit with luqaimat: small saffron doughnuts sticky with date syrup. Read more

Eating South America

From the fish, fruits and serious threats of the Amazon, and the sensual caffeinated throb of Brazil, to Argentina’s wine and beef estancias and the cosmopolitan Paris that is Buenos Aires. From the ancient customs of the Andes-hugging villages of Peru to Lima’s indie food scene including its top restaurant Central, currently ranked #5 in the world. I came, I ate and – like the resident anacondas – I slowly digested. Read more

Elite Dining in New York: Counting Calories or Pennies? Fuggedaboutit

One of the pleasures of travel planning for me is to check out the esteemed World’s 50 Best Restaurant list and make my dream choices.

Most of these dining destinations have waiting lists of one to two months (Google prestigious The French Laundry and find over 7 million results for “how to get a reservation”). Some take your credit card details upon booking and charge you the full price for no-shows. And all of the places internationally among the 50 Best list that I have ultimately eaten at started by saying no, they were fully booked. On this trip it was easier for me to arrange a 20 minute meeting with New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clark, now in charge of the #3 job at the United Nations (yes, this meeting really took place), than to be immediately deemed table-worthy at New York’s culinary top 5.

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