Thursday, July 29, 2010

Learning to cook


(From Friday, July 23) Today was my first attempt at making bidia (the local staple). Let me first emphasize the significance of bidia in Kasai! Nearly everyone eats bidia every day, at every major meal. It is the quintessential food. Recently we heard someone lamenting about a sick parent that she ‘could not eat at all’. When we probed further, the person said “She can only eat rice, beans, potatoes, greens, but not bidia. She doesn’t eat.” Further, instead of asking ‘how are you’, people will sometimes ask the more culturally classic question “Have you eaten bidia and matamba today?” We are often asked by strangers on the street “Have you eaten bidia today? Bidia with what?”

So, what is bidia? For those familiar with Africa, it is similar to Ugali (swahili), or foofoo (French?). Ingredients are flour and water. In Kasai, the flour is a mix of corn-flour and cassava flour. it is served in rounded hunks, and people pinch off a bit with their fingers and eat with other side-dishes such as matamba (cassava leaves). Imagine a large lump of play-dough, without the salt, and that gives you the look and feel of it. We started eating bidia our first day in Kasai, although we did not think we could eat it every day. Within our second week of living with families, we were eating it every day, and rather enjoying it. After a full month of bidia every day (and sometimes up to 5 times in a day!), we were very happy for a return to other foods for a week. We are in our own apartment now, and trying to get into a routine of mixing classic Kasai foods with some that are more familiar to our native taste-buds.

So—today was the first attempt! We have seen bidia made many times, and have both participated in the process on several occasions, so I decided before asking for further coaching, I wanted to try it myself. It has been a process of several days already—first, we had to get a pot. Then, after several attempts to get the large wooden spoon used for stirring, our cook found one today. We still do not have the small plastic bowl used for shaping the mutandas (rounded mounds), but we decided to make do. I heated the water, then added the first wave of corn-flour. Very quickly, I had a pot of lumps of flour—a bad sign! I stirred vigorously, trying to smash the lumps and get it smoother. We called in our cook for advice, and he just advised adding a little salt (which did not seem to do much for the lumps). I let it boil awhile, then added more corn-flour and some cassava flour, and the lumps seemed to smooth out. The dough got very stiff—perhaps slightly stiffer than bread dough. I add a little more flour, and put the pot on the floor. Holding the pot between the bottom of my feet, I stir with both hands, making sure all the flour is worked in.

Making Bidia with Theresa Practicing making bidia with the help of Mama Theresa

Next step, making the mutandas. We used a glass bowl (since we did not have the small plastic bowl that is the standard here), and dipped it in water so that the dough would not stick. We scoop out some dough, then, flip it back into the pot to shape it again, the shake the bowl lightly to try to get the lump of bidia to form a rounded mound. The first mutanda is not too bad, but dough still sticks to the dish and makes subsequent rounds of bidia a real challenge. The dough is much stickier than it is supposed to be, but I’m not sure what to do about that at this point. We opt to push ahead, finish off the dough, and decide we will test it out. The bidia is not nearly as stiff as it should be, so it tastes wet and gross. I try to cover the taste with the greens and meat that go with it, but I still lost my appetite very quickly. Bob ate admirably, declaring “at least it is food!”, and even took seconds of the bidia!

So—it was a good attempt. We’ll have a few friends coach us for a time or two, and then try again on our own. It is an interesting aspect of culture here. Nearly everyone makes or eats bidia every day, and some people find it amusing how much of a challenge it is for us to learn to do it. We look forward to the day when making bidia becomes as routine for us as others in Kananga find it!


Kiki said...

Oh in my brain it'll still be ugali, and I still think of it whenever I'm down in one of our early childhood rooms and see them playing with homemade playdough...I think it'd take living there for me to acquire an enjoyment of eating it, let alone making it. I'm impressed! :-)

Love you guys!

Elisabeth said...

To prevent lumps, stir in the corn meal slowly once the water is lukewarm. If you wait until it is really hot, it will always lump. I've never tried adding the cornmeal to cold water. It is always best to learn from the women, but sometimes seeing a recipe can also help. Aunt Aurie Miller, in her recipe for bidia in the Babula Cookbook, gives the proportions of 6 cups of water, 2 cups of cornmeal, and enough tshiombe to finish up (3-5 cups). If you don't have a copy of Babula Cookbook, the cookbook put together in Kananga in the 1970s & 1980s, I've got a digital copy that I can send you. Gwenda might also have a copy.