I desperately needed sun – a pure unadulterated dose of Vitamin D, and all that can be had from a winter break, with just a sprinkling of rain to cool the air. Of course, I have not mentioned the hook in this, I cannot go anywhere without food firmly implanted in my brain.
Since COVID-19 has disrupted all my travel plans for around a year, I thought I would look back at some of my travel mementos and notes from my gastronomic adventures, and I came across the Gambia entries. Yes, I said, a bit of warmth in this particularly cold spell that has curbed even more of our outdoor activities.
Father Christmas you may say – what on earth is she talking about! Well, whilst lying peacefully on the beach in glorious temperatures, I heard a speedboat in the distance and looked up to see something moving that was a glorious red colour and what looked like an inflatable reindeer bringing up the rear, and it was! Complete with loudspeaker and ‘ho-ho-ho’, he sped past, breaking the peaceful silence of the few tourists that were on the beach. What a spectacle I shall never forget.
Anyway, back to travel and food, my two favourite topics. Until now, I had never thought of Gambian food as much to be excited about – how wrong can you be? There are of course, the usual array of restaurants serving Italian, Chinese, Indian et al, but they could be quite expensive in comparison to the delicious offerings I had in this amazing country. I had the beach, a lovely hotel (The Kombo Beach) and I even had Father Christmas (probably just a reminder of the cold weather that I had left behind).
Gambian food is like looking at a “boring” chocolate pudding, which when cut into, oozes flavour and surprises, much more than its exterior gives away. Of course, rice is predominant and one of the staple dishes, more or less served with everything. Sweet potatoes, cassava, carrots and butternut squash make up the contingent vegetable starches on Gambian menus. Tomatoes, chillies, all types of onions and aubergines feature, most of which are made into a tasty stew with lots of spice. In fact, the word ‘stew’ appears with great frequency on restaurant menu boards.
As this was the first Christmas away from cooking for as long as I can remember (isn’t it strange that suddenly everyone has a reason not to host this festive period), I had sort of allocated five days of sun and two of exploring the cuisine of the Gambia. I more or less kept to that, until my nostrils twitched to any aroma that I wasn’t sure of! As you know if you have read my articles, I cannot miss a market, food or otherwise, so one of my days was instantly unravelled, as I was from my book and sun lounger.
Cooking with Gambian Chefs
In advance of my cooking lesson with Ida, all but a celebrity chef here, as everyone knew Ida! She took me to the market first thing to buy the produce for her lesson. We bought a multitude of vegetables, threw large quantities of spices with a mini shovel into bags and then left for a visit to the fishing village market in Tanji. All around are delicious smells and large pots full of various stews. Unfortunately, we had to move fast, to get back and start the preparation for the class. Tempting as it was, we could not stop and browse through the various local craft markets, selling ornate materials, batik, basket ware, almost anything of the handmade variety. Art is also popular along with carvings.
The main dish of our meal was a Gambian classic, a fish stew, slow cooked to bring out the flavours, which Ida strongly believes in. There were vegetables and spices added. As there were so many varieties of fish in the pot, I can only remember a few – grouper, jack, snapper and tiger fish, all caught on coastal waters. The dish was called Benachin, which I believe is the national dish, and sometimes made with chicken and beef – lots of rice, and I mean lots and all in the same pot! Fresh fruit platters duly arrived, as they are not big on desserts there unless you want packaged ice cream.
This was not just about cooking, it was the whole experience that I fell in love with, right from choosing a traditional Gambian outfit (which we dressed in, all 6 of us), to learning about family games, jokes, and general chit-chat about Gambia, and our own lives back in our homes. It truly was home entertainment at its best.
It was a fabulous day, and I fell into bed absolutely exhausted, but just a quick word about Ida herself, who has had an outstanding career in tourism. She is also a champion of women and has a charity set up to encourage entrepreneurship amongst the female inhabitants. She also avidly supports sustainability and ecology.
Her tag phrase about herself is ‘preserving my culture to promote sustainable tourism’, and Ida is certainly a shining star and a beautiful human being.