This past fall I went to Africa. Honestly, I haven’t written about it yet because I haven’t quite figured out how to process the trip yet. Each day was filled with a new emotional peak – scenery so shocking in scope and extremes that it took your breath away, poor children in mis-matched american hand-me-down tatters that put a lump in your throat, and animals so close you could count the whiskers on their snarl. I’ve tried my hand at this post a hundred times, but I keep coming up short – I can’t seem to write anything that does the trip justice, and I really can’t even begin to put words what I saw or the emotions the trip unearthed.
We spent two weeks on a safari in Kenya and Tanzania, and visited Lake Manyard, the Serengeti, Amboseli, Olduvai Gorge, Ol Pejeta, and the Maasai Mara. The trip gained this rolling momentum, and every day there was something totally new and utterly shocking.
There are so many cliches that people have for exotic trips to Africa. While all of them are 1000% true, none come close to accurately conveying the heart of the experience. Everything is just, well, more. More colorful, more harsh, more raw, more beautiful, more heart wrenching, more joyful, more dark, more light, more loud, more real. I think it’s probably a good thing it takes two 8-hour flights to get there; you need that much time to mentally prepare for what you’re about to see. And you need that much time on the way home even more so, because you can’t imagine how you’re going to go back to your normal, every-day life after what you’ve just experienced. I didn’t build any schools, or dig any wells, or stave off any baby elephant poachers. But just being on this other continent, in this other universe, was so transformative that my perspective will be forever changed. It’s so true – you can’t go to Africa and not come back a different person.
Obviously there is poverty by American standards, or any standards for that matter. But beyond the slums of Nairobi, there’s life and community entirely insulated from the modern world, just percolating along as happy as can be. (Of course there’s an occasional soul-jarring juxtaposition of watching someone bleed a cow and drink the blood, then go take a call on their cell phone!) And while it’s so hard for we “civilized, educated, evolved” Americans to see children with flies crawling on their faces and clothes that have never been washed, you were also almost blinded by joy. The same joy you see in kids’ faces here, or anywhere for that matter. Children who had been discarded by their families because they couldn’t afford them, left on the streets to fend for themselves and find their way to an overcrowded orphanage, reveling in the same luxuries as the kids on my block – a soccer ball, sunshine, and a bowl of ice cream. I’ve always tried hard to avoid getting completely caught up in over consumption and the sport of collecting stuff that we Americans are so good at. But this trip left me a searing message – you don’t need stuff to be happy, and Mother Nature is far more awesome than any man-made thing I’ve ever seen.
Like I said, I’m still processing the trip.
Not the least bit surprising, the one thing I had no trouble processing was the food. We stayed at beautiful hotels, so the food had a definite western influence to it. But it also had a decidedly Indian slant. And I ate enough curry and naan and dal and moussaka to last a lifetime. Since most of the places we stayed were deep inside National Parks and Game Reserves, there was no corner market. The chefs were also farmers, building each meal on the fly, based on what was ripe in the garden.
My favorite park was the Maasai Mara. Derived from the word mara, “spotted” in maasai, the landscape is indeed dotted with acacia trees, vast wandering herds of co-mingling wildebeests and zebras, and more big cats than you can shake a stick at. Our hotel was tucked in a crook of the great Maasai river, and we stayed in tents, lulled to sleep by the noisy hippos mooing and snorting water, just down the river slope. (Don’t be too alarmed, my tent had a claw-foot tub.) Of course I became friends with the Chef there, and he gave me a tour of his beautiful garden. We talked about what I liked to cook, and American markets, and how much comparable produce costs in the United States. He asked the english names of some of the plants he only knew in swahili, and I had to guess what some of the foreign bounty actually could be. He made this vegetable curry that will go down as one of my favorite food experiences – I’m quite sure – of my entire life. It was sweet and earthy and tangy, and left you with a building heat on the back of your tongue. Delicious, but transformative because I ate it, shooing away pesky monkeys, overlooking this river that was the lifeblood of this amazing park.
Despite (a lot) of sucking up and begging, he would not give me his recipe. So I’ve been left to fantasize about it since. And each time I remember it, it gets a little bit better. There’s no way I could ever recreate anything remotely like it, but finally, after 5 months, I gave in and decided to give it a shot. This is not an authentic Indian curry. It has ingredients that you’ll be able to find at your local grocery store. But as it simmered on my stove, it smelled so sweet and savory, with a wisp of cardamom that gave me a hint of a memory of the real thing. Sort of like when you wake up from a really vivid dream and fight to remember what it was about, but it slips from your consciousness with each second that you’re awake. I’m grasping at this food memory, trying desperately not to forget the muggy sun, and the foreign songbird songs, and the sound of snorting of the hippos. My curry is a lame excuse at this transformative meal, but delicious by any other standard.
(Cue the lame food picture after looking at Africa photos…)
I hope you’ll give this recipe a try when you’re in the mood for something that’s maybe outside of your palate’s comfort zone. It’s sweet and mellow and you’ll have a hard time describing how it tastes, but when you smell it again the next day as you’re reheating leftovers, you’ll instantly remember. Enjoy!
South Indian Vegetable Curry
Click here to print this recipe.
Adapted from: Bon Appétit
Time to prepare: 1.5 hours
1 large onion, cut into 1-inch chunks (about 2 cups)
3 large garlic cloves, peeled
1 (2-inch-long 1-inch-diameter) piece peeled fresh ginger (about 2 ounces)
3 tablespoons sunflower oil
1 tablespoon garam masala
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 serrano chile, seeded, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
3 cups vegetable broth
2 teaspoons (packed) golden brown sugar
2 kaffir lime leaves
2 whole green cardamom pods
12 ounces potatoes, 1/2″ dice
1/2 head cauliflower, cut into bite size pieces, stalks discarded
1 small eggplant, 1/2″ dice
1/2 cup dry green lentils
1 14-oz can regular coconut milk
2 large carrots, peeled, cut into 1/2-inch rounds
1 14-oz can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Puree first 7 ingredients in processor until paste forms.
Cook in a large pot over medium heat until aromatic, stirring often, about 10 minutes.
Add the tomato paste, and cook until mixture starts to darken and brown, stirring often, about 5 minutes longer.
Add broth, brown sugar, lime leaves, and cardamom. Simmer 10 minutes, stirring often and scraping up browned bits.
DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cool, cover, and chill. Bring to simmer before continuing.
Add vegetables, lentils, coconut milk, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper to mixture in pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to medium low. Cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, stirring occasionally, about 1 hour.
Season with salt and pepper. Discard lime leaves and cardamom. Transfer curry to bowl, serve over rice.
Coconut Jasmine Rice
1 cup jasmine rice
1.5 cups light coconut milk
Place the coconut milk and rice in a covered sauce pan, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook until the liquid has fully absorbed, about 20 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork and serve.
Garam masala is an Indian spice mixture; available in the spice section of supermarkets and at Indian markets. I found it in the bulk food section of Whole Foods – which means you can just get enough for this recipe.
Whole cardamom pods are about the size of small sunflower seeds. If you can, use two big ones – it makes finding them to remove much easier. I also found these in the bulk section of Whole Foods – and you can buy just two
Kaffir lime leaves are sold frozen or sometimes fresh at Asian markets. If unavailable, substitute 1 tablespoon fresh lime
juice and 1/2 teaspoon grated lime peel for each lime leaf. If you end up buying kaffir leaves, you can store the extras in the freezer.
Use whatever vegetables you have on hand with this curry. Yams, green beans, or peas are also great. Chickpeas can also be added for extra protein, in place of or in addition to the lentils.
Please note, all photos ©Amy Winner.