Archive for the ‘Africa’ category

Asmara: A restaurant where it’s OK to eat with your hands

November 28, 2010

I joined some friends for a meal at Asmara Restaurant in Cambridge’s Central Square the other night. I thought the restaurant was Ethiopian, but upon conducting some research I learned it’s Eritrean. In 1992, following 30 years of war with Ethiopia, Etritrea became an independent country. Though the two countries have the same cuisine and culinary traditions, this restaurant has ties with Etritrea. Asmara is actually the capital of Etritrea.

We all had mango juice to drink. It was so tasty and refreshing! And it went well with some of the spicy dishes we sampled. We actually ordered a large platter with numerous meat and veggie dishes.  The “meat combination” was called Sega Bebaynetu and included:

  • boneless chicken
  • spicy lamb
  • sautéed beef
  • mild vegetable stew
  • mild lentils
  • a house special salad

The “vegetable combination” was called Ahimilti Bebaynetu and included:

  • cabbage
  • yellow split peas
  • spinach
  • chick peas
  • lentils
  • tomato salad

It was awesome to have such a variety of foods at our disposal. You eat everything with your fingers with bread called Injera (made out of rice flour). It’s just like a sponge, soaking up sauces and flavors.

For dessert my friend Katie and I had some Etritrean coffee (it was similar to Turkish coffee– very strong with coffee grounds you’re not supposed to drink at the bottom). Here’s a picture of Katie enjoying her beverage:

The mango juice, food, and coffee cost me about $35 with tax and tip. Kind of expensive, but everything was very good.

Simon Winchester gives a good talk

November 15, 2010

Winchester talked about his latest book, "Atlantic"

I love seeing authors speak about their works, or scholars lecturing about their areas of expertise. But for some reason, I haven’t attended many of these talks over the last couple of years. I ended a long drought on Thursday when I saw Simon Winchester discuss his new book about the Atlantic Ocean at Porter Square Books in Cambridge (check out Winchester’s website to see what he looks like).

I haven’t yet read the book. I knew nothing about Simon Winchester. But I sort of became enchanted by him over the course of his one-hour appearance. This guy knows how to tell stories. The words just flow. I wish I had written down some exact quotes of his. Instead, I just took notes on some of the interesting ideas he discussed.

Here are some things I learned:

  • The Atlantic Ocean formed about 200 million years ago when Pangea broke apart (I knew the Pangea part, but not when the separation happened).
  • Scientists project the Atlantic Ocean will cease to exist in about 175 million years once the continents have shifted and water from the ocean has been squeezed out.
  • Winchester organized his book using Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” model. Let me expand a little bit upon this:

Apparently Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It” catalogs the seven stages of man’s life as infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon (an aging buffoon), and second childhood. So Winchester organized his book into these categories. The “lover” section, for instance, discusses humans’ love for the Atlantic over time. The “soldier” section describes wars that have taken place on the Atlantic Ocean. I thought this was a very interesting way to organize the book.

  • He told an amusing story about the Faroe Islands, an island group about halfway between Great Britain and Iceland belonging to Denmark.

He told us that the inhabitants of these islands are descendants of the Vikings. Because the men aren’t at war anymore, they have lots of energy to “purge themselves of.” They accomplish this through placing sheep high up on the sides of cliffs. They leave the sheep in these dangerous spots for months as the sheep eat the lush grass and fatten up.

When the men finally return to the cliffs, they knock the sheep into the water. The sheep die, come up to the water’s surface, and are collected to be turned into food. This means that if you’re ever on a boat around these islands, you should watch out for falling sheep!

The British needed a smokeless gunpowder called cordite, which was made from acetone. Weizmann developed a way to produce acetone through bacterial fermentation. British officials learned about Weizmann’s procedure from Manchester Guardian editor C.P. Scott,  and had him share his knowledge. The British set up a cordite factory in an old whiskey factory, and the rest is history.

To thank Weizmann, British officials wanted to knight him. But he didn’t want that– he wanted a Jewish state in Palestine instead. It’s largely because of his wish that this eventually happened.

  • Tristan da Cunha is the most remote inhabited archipelago in the world. According to Winchester, who has been there before, only about 250 people live there and it’s not that interesting. It’s a lot of people growing potatoes.

Anyway, Winchester told a really funny (and true) story about how he’s banned from the island.

  • The “Skeleton Coast” in Namibia is known for its shipwrecks. Winchester actually went there to see where a ship attempting to rescue another ship crashed into the shore. He visited the graves of the two brave souls who died during this incident, and mentioned them in his book. It’s a way to keep their memory alive as many seem to have forgotten about them and their heroic efforts.

I love how Winchester took us to different parts of the Atlantic we’ve never heard of and filled us with rich imagery, poignant stories and humorous anecdotes. I really want to read this book now! For a glimpse of how Winchester talks, check out this short YouTube clip about “Atlantic”:

Cameroon: A land of family, friends and solidarity

January 6, 2010

I recently returned from a wonderful trip to Cameroon, Africa. Here’s a little something I wrote up about the experience:

I had no idea what to expect when I traveled to Cameroon last month. I had never been to Africa before, let alone this particular Central West African country.

I just knew things would be different, and that I would learn a lot. I was right.

I saw that many Cameroonians earn a living from selling fruits and vegetables. Because most of them don’t have cars, they must wake up at the crack of dawn to carry the crops from the fields to the market. It’s a colorful and humbling sight to see scores of Cameroonians — children and the elderly alike — balancing heavy baskets of goods on their heads along main roads.

We Americans don’t have it so bad, you realize.

I saw men in the airport going to extreme measures to earn a day’s wage. They accost you upon your arrival, asking if you need help finding your suitcases. You say yes, thinking they are airport employees. As they jet around the baggage claim conveyer belt, trying to match your luggage with a ticket you’ve given them, you realize they are not at all affiliated with the airport. They are just doing what it takes to earn some extra cash, working for tips.

I saw the excitement in a young man’s eyes when he told us he had won the visa lottery to move to the United States. His lips upturned up as he explained this was his third year applying, and that he had finally beat the odds. He wondered if his banking degree would suffice in the United States, with comparable American job candidates. Either way, he had a ticket to opportunity.

I could go on and on about the things I saw and the people I met. (more…)