People love to share food. Some more than others, but I think this is one of the habits that falls more into the “plain ol’ human” category than it does the “cultural” category. My Gramma Lil in Youngstown, Ohio is a glowing example of this.
I received a home-grown, African pumpkin from a nice lady in my village named Sabathile, who I often chat with on my way home from school. We had a discussion about the differences between African pumpkins and American pumpkins (especially Canfield Fair pumpkins, for those who know what I am talking about). I even showed her pictures of American pumpkins and jack-o-lantern’s on my BlackBerry. As this conversation happened to take place on my birthday, when she found out, she insisted that I pick one out from her harvest. I took the one that I thought looked the most traditionally American.
I told her I would make pumpkin pie, which she said she never had before. (Imagine that for a moment: somewhere in the vicinity of 40 years of walking around on this planet and never trying a piece of pumpkin pie!) I finally made it last weekend, and was sure to save a piece for her.
I delivered it Monday afternoon to her daughter, as she was not in at the time. She happily stopped me on my way to school on Tuesday morning and said she wanted more. I thought to myself, “Of course, you do. Everyone always wants more pumpkin pie. It’s an unwritten law.” Unfortunately, that was the last piece. It was all I could do to not eat it myself. I told her that if I made more, I’d bring her another piece.
Later that evening, my host sister, Ntuli, came to my door and asked “Do you eat fish?”
“Yes,” I replied, as I looked at the clear plastic bag of … something … sitting on a red plastic plate in her outstretched hands. I realized at this point it was uncooked. No big deal – some of my PCV friends have started calling me “Martha” (as in “Martha Stewart”) because I take on culinary challenges in rural South Africa (like pumpkin pie and the pumpkin cookies I expect to be making with the rest of my cooked pumpkin).
Over the past six months, my host family has dropped off more than a couple different fruits and vegetables for me to share in. They always start off by asking “Do you eat [fill in the blank]”? (Even just this statement by itself also reminds me of my Gramma Lil.) I’ve had fresh papaya, fresh peanuts, fresh sweet potatoes – and lots more fresh stuff – not to mention more than an average American lifetime’s worth of fresh mangoes. However, this was the first time any type of meat was offered up.
I had already eaten dinner, so I had no intentions of cooking it that night. After a cursory inspection, it didn’t look like it was filleted as much as it was sliced. (Think of how you would slice a loaf of bread; I had four slices of fish.) The skin and bones (and whatever the rest of the stuff you wouldn’t eat inside a fish are called – I guess we’ll just say “guts”) were still attached, just sliced through. I think we can call them uncleaned fish rings. Honestly, it looked more like a science experiment or biology dissection than food.
I don’t know what kind of fish it was, but there was some visibly white meat in the center of these rings. My experiences with eating fresh fish so far in South Africa have been either great or horrible, and few and far between on top of that. Cooking it for myself would be a learning experience. I put it in the freezer.
This morning I put it in a large Ziploc bag (in case it was leaky or smelly … or both) and placed it in the fridge to thaw out while I was at school. When I came home from school (and a quick jaunt into town to print a few documents and pick up a few groceries), I started figuring out what to do with this fish.
Originally, I intended to try to clean this mess before cooking it. But how should I even cook it? If grilling was easy or convenient here, I might have thought longer about it. Even though it is pretty hot outside (and hotter inside my little house), I went for baking it in my electric, table-top oven (stoven, if you will). So, then I figured, instead of trying to cut off the stuff I wasn’t going to eat, I would just bake it all and let my taste buds sort it out.
Next, I needed to make it tasty. My first thought was butter. I always keep a supply of the real stuff (not margarine, especially here – I’m not a fan of South Africa’s “Rama”). I arranged the slices in my nice, Anchor Hocking baking dish (made in the US of A, purchased in rural R of SA), and spooned a big chunk of butter right in the center. I tossed in some cut onions and diced red and green pepper. I salted it all, and ground a nice coating of black pepper on top. Simple, but effective.
After about an hour in the oven, I took it out for a taste test. I went for the white part first; it was nothing to write home about (wait – what am I doing right now?), but it wasn’t bad. Then I went for the darker parts, which were closer to the outside of each “ring”: fishy-er taste, for sure.
So, after scooping out the obviously inedible parts and eating around the fishy tasting darker meat, I had about a serving’s worth of fish. I’m glad I had some onions and peppers in the dish. And the remains of a bag of cheese curls helped to supplement this meal, too. The following photos show how much of what I was given I ended up having to throw away.
So, I’m sure your next question is, “how would South Africans have prepared this?” Well, first of all, it would have been fried in oil (like any meat they cook on the bone) and made extra crispy. It would most likely have been breaded and seasoned much like it was fried chicken. Some of the stuff that I refused to eat, they would happily eat if it in any way resembled KFC.
Maybe I have a more discerning palate. Maybe I’m just a wimp. But, I’m not interested in eating the fish skins and scales and whatever else my teeth are strong enough to crunch through just because it is coated in a South African approximation of the secret blend of eleven herbs and spices. There are clearly limits on how much I’ll be able to integrate into this culture. Then again, if I were hungry enough, I’m sure my hunger would win out over my taste buds.
P.S. In keeping with a new feature I’ve added to this blog, enjoy a song of mine from the past that is (only in my use of metaphor) relevant to this post. As for me, it’s time to do my dishes and get to bed.