The Malian Diet
I’ve gotten a lot of letters and emails from people, and one of the more frequent questions I get is about my diet in Mali; what I eat, how I eat it, how does it compare to the States. Since a lot of people have seemed interested in the food question, I thought I’d take an entry to explain a little bit about my Malian diet. For the average village Malian, diets are pretty monotonous and based on the crops which are available–which in certain seasons are very limited. For a village like Marena, where almost the entire population is subsistence farming, they must eat whatever they are able to get from the land. This means there is little day-to-day variety, although Malinke women seem to be masters at making something palatable out of very little, and can be pretty creative with sauces. While I cook dinner for myself with items I tend to stock up on in Bamako (pasta, dried soup mixes, canned beans/veggies) I eat breakfast and lunch with my host family and thus have gotten a pretty good sense of Malian cuisine.
The typical breakfast in Marena consists of moni or sasiro, a basic millet-based porridge that sometimes is sweetened with a little sugar, if the family can afford it. Moni and sasiro don’t taste like much and honestly don‘t have much nutritional value beyond giving the body energy, but they are both easy to make nutritionally rich by adding peanut, dried fish, or baobab leaf powder, or by adding a little powdered milk (too expensive for most village families). Because some of these things are readily available (particularly, in my village, peanuts), enhancing the basic porridge is a realistic way that families can increase the nutritional value of their meals, especially for children under five who are most vulnerable to malnutrition. The moni or sasiro is usually eaten with individual ladles around a big calabash, with the men and boys sharing one and the women, girls and small children sharing another. (this is generally true of the eating arrangement for all meals; men and women don’t eat together, although as a “guest” I’m often invited to eat with my host father).
Lunch and dinner usually consist of some type of carbohydrate–kini (rice), bashi (couscous), fini fonio, a tiny grain kind of like couscous) or to (pronounced “toe”–a big blob of millet)–covered in some type of sauce. The sauce is crucial as it gives the food variety and adds the bulk of the nutritional value. By far the most common sauce eaten in my village, where everyone farms peanuts, is tige dege na (peanut butter sauce), which depending on who makes it can either taste very rich and peanut-butter-y, or more oily with just a hint of peanuts. Occasionally meat or fish is added if it is available. This sauce is actually probably my favorite in Mali–it’s pretty tasty and has a lot of protein because if its peanut base, although I never thought I would be eating this many peanuts. Other options for sauce include jaba ji, an onion-based, oily sauce, saga saga na, a leaf-based sauce, and the ever-unpopular ga na, a slimy (no other way to describe it!) sauce made of okra. Generally the women switch up the sauces so that the family is eating one type of sauce every couple of days. When they are available, the women may add bits of eggplant or potato, or some elbow macaroni. All these meals are eaten the same way: communally, around big bowls, using the right hand only to eat your portion from the bowl.
Snacks between meals aren’t very common but sometimes you’ll see people chewing on cassava (a mostly tasteless root), and schoolchildren love to buy little fried cakes that the village women sell during breaks. Depending on the season, corn (roasted over charcoal), peanuts, sliced cucumber or, I’m told, mangoes (during the hot season) are common snacks.
Overall, the food here has required a big adjustment but has not been too painful, and I know that I am lucky because my host moms really do try to provide varying meals and even to make the occasional beans or throw some chicken into the sauce. Although the soil here is very sandy and cultivation can be difficult for that reason, and although good fruits and veggies can be pretty hard to find, western Mali is better off than areas further north, where famine is much more likely as desertification and the climate work against farmers’ efforts to feed their families. A canal built in the past few years in the Bafing River Valley has helped significantly with growing crops that require watering, especially during the dry season.
So, fear not, I am eating as well as I can given the circumstances–and trying to share bits of Americana with the Malians in my life as well. (If you ever go to a small Malian village and find a bunch of kids eating Kraft Toy Story Macaroni and Cheese, you’ll know you’re in my village).