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Congolese Food

January 22, 2013

I know, the Food Post commitment has essentially fizzled, but I think I said the most interesting of things to say.  Except for writing about Congolese food.

We love Congolese food, well, most of it.  I can’t seem to desire to try the caterpillars, though Matthew has and thought they were quite tasty.  And crunchy.  And still had eyes staring at you.  We had been afraid of the warm, slightly fermented quonga sold on every street corner, but we both really like it, far more than the ultimate staple of Congo: fufu.

The two popular foods, quonga and fufu, have the same staple: cassava flour.  The cassava plant’s root is pounded and/or ground into a fine flour.  For fufu, it is then mixed with water, and often with cornmeal for flavor, until a thick paste is created.  Then, it is formed into large balls and served warm, and is used as the utensil for eating.  Fufu is rarely eaten plain.  Usually, one picks off a chunk, uses it to scoop, or just dip, into the oils used to cook the other parts of the meal.  The Congolese use forks and spoons on occasion, but often don’t bother, since the fufu really takes the place of them.  Fufu has a sticky, taffy-like texture, and is a bit chewy. It is fairly bland, but the cassava plant does have a unique flavor.

Quonga is essentially fufu, but without cornmeal, wrapped in banana leaves, warmed until it takes on a fermented smell and served as-is.  Quonga is not always high quality, but “good” quonga is actually very good – again, dipped in the oils and mixed with other foods.

The “other foods” I keep mentioning:  fish is a common source of protein here in Kinshasa – everything from canned sardines to fresh-caught, since we are on the river.  Chicken is saved as a special treat.  Papa Willy told us that when your child takes his or her first steps, a chicken meal is expected.  Goat is another “fine” meal.  Other meats are not very common, though beef, lamb  and pork can be found, it is fairly out of reach for the common Congolese person.  Eggs are considered special treats and not necessarily found in the everyday diet.  The greens here are all cooked and appear similar to spinach.  Pondu is the most common, but we prefer biteku or ngai ngai because their flavor is less strong.  I make my greens by sautéing onions and garlic in some palm oil (the oil most commonly used here….because they have a lot of palms, of course), then add the greens and a can of whole tomatoes and a bit of salt.  The greens cook down and no water is needed.  A tasty quick meal is to add cooked rice and some random meat (sausage, chicken, or rabbit) and it’s like the Congolese version of hamburger helper!

Oh, but a meal is not complete unless it contains pili pili.  Pili pili is a tiny pepper that is extremely spicy, most often compared to habaneros.  It is usually found as a bright red sauce.  I add it to the greens or to other sauces for a bit of zest.  But you only need a fraction of teaspoon before you’ve created a sense of “whoa.”

Besides the fufu, which is most commonly just served with a tomato/oil sauce with onions and garlic, the Conoglese snack throughout the day.  You can buy beans and rice on the street or in many Congolese “restaurants” (stands and a few tables street-side) for just under $2.  Bread with either margarine or peanut butter is a common on-the-go fast food, sold by ladies with giant bowls of bread on their heads.  Any fruit that is in season, like mangoes, avocados, or other local varieties are cheap and sold by different ladies with large platters on their heads walking up and down the streets.  Little packages of sugar biscuits are also a common food, especially for the kids.  The Congolese, for the most part, only eat one meal per day and supplement with whatever snacks are handy.  Sugary drinks, including Coke, Fanta, and straight grenadine (think, the Shirley Temple drink, without the 7-Up) are more commonly consumed than water.  And tea – but with more sugar and [powdered] milk than you would think even possible to dissolve!

You and I might (should) cringe at the thought of a carb-based, sugary diet, especially for children, but it is what it is here.  A lot of the Congolese are malnourished, but there is a whole other blog post in itself!

It should be noted that this diet is typical of the Kinois (people of Kinshasa).  The diets of people in the villages are quite different, as they have access to more fresh foods, and eat more seasonally, and don’t have pre-packaged foods or beverages as readily available.  I’m not saying they’re healthier, but it is a different diet altogether, and varies village to village.

Hopefully that helps digest (ßpun!) the average Congolese diet, but it’s not an exhaustive study of their food.  We have had the joy of having Macele cook for us on Wednesdays, making a Congolese dinner for us to eat after she’s gone.  It’s cheap and convenient for us, and now that she’s more comfortable, I think she enjoys doing it.  We certainly enjoy eating it!

(Note: After this post published, it seems like I did not make it clear that this is about the average Congolese person’s diet, not our personal diet.  We have access to many modern stores and nearly any foods you can find in the states.  Some are prohibitively expensive, but our diet really hasn’t changed too much, except to incorporate new options.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    May 6, 2013 0829

    Thanks for describing the Congo diet! I grew up in Kinshasa, and ate all the similar things. Now in California, and planning an African meal for friends. I’ve cooked with palm oil, and made fufu, but I want mbika and caterpilars! I googled Congolese food and found your blog!

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