Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Versatility of Plantains

And it is the long-awaited post about food here in Abidjan.

I am certain that Ivoirians do not have potassium deficiencies as much as they eat plantains here. You can have them in a variety of ways:
Alloco – chopped up and fried in oil. Best served hot. Often a side dish, but can be eaten with boiled eggs for a “light” lunch.
Claclo – mashed up into balls and then fried in oil. Similar to alloco, but a different texture.
Foutou – pounded and boiled. Served with a hearty sauce, such as sauce graine (made from Palm oil tree seeds)
Chips – sliced thinly and fried. There are two varieties, the sweeter and darker ones, and the saltier and yellow ones.
Roasted – women squatting above a grill fanning whole plantains. The best ones are the ones with the black charred outsides.

Plantains aren’t the only side dish here; you can also have regular white rice, riz gras (essentially the rice used in the Senegalese dish ceebu jen, slathered in oil), couscous, yams (boiled or fried), and of course, the most popular, attiéké (ground and dried cassava).

For meat, you have your options: poulet (chicken) or poisson (fish) braisé which is slowly roasted, and delicious. Fried or smoked fish, tilapia and carp being the most popular. Beef and sheep you can find on occasion and sometimes there is oxtail on the menu (never tried).

Finally, your sauces.
Sauce feuilles – leafy green sauce, often spicy and made with dried fish (not my fave). Served with chicken or fish and rice.
Sauce tomate – spicy tomato sauce can be served with rice, attiéké, couscous, and the meat of your choosing.
Sauce legume – often chopped up green beans, tomatoes, onions, spicy and served over poisson braise. This is my favorite.
Sauce arachide – peanut sauce, the savory kind. Sometimes has vegetables in it.
Sauce aubergine – mashed up eggplant.
Sauce claire – also has eggplant and tomato, but is often very spicy. Never tried.

Food can get spicy here. For the most part, the piment is served on the side, so if you are a spice- phobe, you won’t have to worry. However, our neighborhood chicken guy, Moussa, likes to put the spices directly on the chicken, which is delicious, but you might need to order a Flag or Castel (local beers) to cool down your mouth.
So far, the best poisson braisé I have had in Abidjan. Attiéké in the background, piment in green
Poisson braisé, attiéké, alloco
foutou and sauce graine

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

« On dit quoi ? On’ê calé» in Abidjan!

After celebrating my one-monthiversary here, I thought it was high time to introduce you all to Abidjan and all its loveliness. The title is in Nouchi, the slang here (a mix of French and African languages) in Abidjan, and is a popular greeting and response.


Zone 4 – decidedly the most “hoppin” part of Abidjan, this neighborhood is the host of tons of restaurants of all different cuisines, bars, and clubs. During the crisis, many ex-pats opted to move to this area, to be closer to the airport, and one can certainly see their influence: sushi shops, pizza restaurants, all you can eat Chinese. But don’t think it’s only us “Westerners” hanging out here; you will find lots of Ivoirians in the ice cream parlors, on dates and chillin with friends. There’s something for everyone here. The downside to a Friday night in Zone 4: the route from our side of the lagoon has got more than a few police blockades. If you go in a taxi, expect to be stopped several times and asked for your identification. The number of road blocks increases as the night progresses. Solution? Ride with someone with either embassy plates or a UN vehicule, as they don’t get stopped.

                Cocody – this is where we live (Riviera 3). The Embassy is located in Riviera Golf. We have quickly come to pride our little neighborhood, making friends with our neighboring chicken chef extraordinaire (Moussa) and his alloco making colleague. 

We have a few grocery stores within walking distance, including the newly opened shopping center, Cap Nord, with a Casino grocery store and a MediaStore books and electronics shop. Riviera Palmeraie, just next door, has a few good restaurants, and a little shop that sells ice cream and has a bouncy ball area for kids. Apparently there’s a good Italian restaurant here too. The newly refurbished university is right down the road along with the Gendarme and Police schools, and construction for the third bridge is under way to connect our neighborhoods to the south side of Abidjan. Who knows when that’ll be finished, and it has made some interestingly frustrating traffic detours which taxi drivers try to use to their advantage to get higher prices from us.

                Deux Plateau – Is the next best thing after Zone 4, and is a lot closer and more convenient for us to reach. There are clothing shops, electronics shops, and plenty of restaurants to keep us happy. There is also the big shopping center, Sococe, with a movie theater and several shops. We also have a membership at the pool, which, when it’s not filled with kids learning to swim or adults being yelled at to learn how to swim, is relaxing and nice to visit. We also went to a lovely wedding reception, right across the street from the pool. This area is rather classy, though it does have a slum right round the corner.

                Plateau – this is where I work. It’s where most of the business magic happens, with the administrative buildings, major banks, airline offices, and other businesses located here.  It’s more or less dead after work hours, though there are restaurants (conveniently located near hotels, and rather expensive).

The entrance to the market
Adjame – The largest market in Abidjan is here, with its sprawling lanes and hectic movement. If you need anything you can probably find it here. Within walking distance from my job, but I try not to venture in without an Ivoirian guide.

Treichville, Marcory, Koumassi  – If you recall from my posts in March, this was my old stomping ground. Now I haven’t ventured over there as often, as it’s a bit far. However, Treichville has a large market that includes little Senegal.

Abobo, Youpogon – According to a police officer, these parts of the city are like the Bronx. We have been highly discouraged to visit them as Americans, and the same police officer said that everyone there has guns. I think this is a bit of an exaggeration, but it is important to note that these neighborhoods were Ouattara (Abobo) and Gbagbo (Youpogon) strongholds during the election crisis, and that arms did proliferate in this area during that time. On top of that, there have been several recent armed attacks here (against police/military, not civilians). But we also can’t forget that regular, law-abiding people reside here, and they are the majority, including several of my colleagues. What’s worse, Youpogon used to be the “hoppin” part of Abidjan’s nightlife, with several clubs/maquis representing the infamous “Coupé Décalé” music scene. If you are interested in learning more about Youpogon and its glory years and learning a little bit of Noochi while you’re at it, check out the Aya de Youpogon graphic novel series. I have just finished book 2, and am quite enjoying them.

Taxi – metered taxis, though the price is always negotiable. These are orange, and will take you wherever you want to go, though they will complain if your route puts them in traffic (which, is just about every route, this city has a serious traffic management problem). Prices tend to not go below 500 fcfa and don’t exceed 3 000 fcfa, unless you are coming home from the airport at 5am and get a little (a lot) jipped (15,000 CFA – grrrr)
                Wora Wora – these are shared taxis. Each neighborhood has its own color. The upside is the price (never exceeding 500 cfa). The downsides are that they don’t take you directly where you want to go, but instead to a common stop or drop you along the way to the stop. Also, you share the taxi with other people, so that if there are not 4 people already in the car, the driver is honking constantly at pedestrians to get more clients to fill it up.

 Gbaka  – the Ivoirian equivalent to Ghana’s tro-tros. 100-200 fcfa in the city. Once again, these only go to designated stops, but instead of honking at pedestrians to get in, the guy hanging out the side is shouting, sometimes appearing to coerce people to get in his gbaka (trying to cross the street from the grocery store to our house, the guys working for the gbakas all assume that we need transport and won’t cease to yell at you where they are going and get you onto their gbaka, even though you’re actually not going anywhere). You can fit a lot of people into a Gbaka.
 Buses  – old buses from India and Paris, these are always packed in the mornings. I haven’t ever taken one, because I don’t actually know where they go and drop off/pick-up. Perhaps this requires some exploration.

And finally, the weather
When we first arrived, we expected a lot more rain (check the weather channel and it will tell you it is constantly raining here, which is not). However, it has rained, and at first it was mostly in the early morning. As of late, however, it has been torrential downfall around the exact moment I get out of a taxi to go to work, oh joy. The Ivoirians call this “la petite saison de pluie." it’s rather unpredictable, but it keeps the temperatures low (in the 80s, and breezy!) I am certainly not complaining about the temperature, though it’s supposed to just keep slowly increasing to extreme heat in March/April. We’ll see.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Abidjan: the city of people with no change

I apologize for the huge gap between posts; I was trying to amass information to write a good, proper, informative post about my work here. Then I realized that perhaps people are actually interested in my daily life, so I will thus take some time to tell you a little anecdote about something in Abidjan that has been becoming increasingly more and more obnoxious: money.
The money here, like in all the other West African Francophone countries (excluding Guinea, but including Portuguese speaking Guinea-Bissau), is the Franc CFA. Stronger than the Ghanaian Cedi or the Nigerian Naira because it’s tied to the French franc and thus by default to the euro, 500 F CFA = $1 and about 600 F CFA = 1€. You can easily get a meal for 1 500 F CFA in a local restaurant, or pay exorbitant prices in an Italian restaurant for mousse au chocolat (didn’t buy, but it was 6 000 F CFA, $12!) Groceries, such as fresh produce that is local, are pretty cheap, whereas you will have to shell out a pretty penny for cheeses and other items imported from elsewhere. This goes for household goods, where a small reading lamp could cost you over $40.

But the prices are not the thing I wish to complain about. Instead, I would like an explanation for why NOBODY has change, ever. Two examples that occurred today and yesterday to really drive home my point:
  1. I went to the grocery store to buy some items to make soup. The total was 4 140 F CFA. The cashier said she didn’t have change for my 10 000 F CFA note, meaning she didn’t have coins (coins are: 5, 25, 50, 100, 200, 250, and 500 centimes; I thought it was a joke when someone actually gave me five centimes coins, as if I would ever find a use for those, plus everyone just rounds up to the nearest 100 centime anyway). I said, ok, well, I don’t have any coins either. She said I needed to buy something else to make it easier for her to make change. I said I didn’t want to buy something else, couldn’t she just give me 6 000 F CFA change? She said no, and proceeded to skip me in the line and put my stuff to the side. I stood there dumbfounded. This is a grocery store! How can you not have change? I understand the woman on the street selling bananas might not have change, which is why I tend to aim to have exact change when buying from them, but franchement, that’s ridiculous. I finally succumbed by buying an orange soda, which brought my total to 4 400 and she still jipped me by only giving me a 500 F CFA coin. Grrr…
  2.  Got in a wora-wora (shared taxi) this morning to head to work. The price is 600 F CFA. I gave the driver a 1 000 F CFA note. He shook his head, sucked his teeth. I said I didn’t have change. He got out of the cab, came around, opened my door (it was pouring down rain, mind you) and proceeded to shout for someone who would take my place that had exact change. I was so annoyed; I wanted to just let him keep the freaking change if it would get me to work. But the thing was, he didn’t want to do that, and continued to try and find someone to replace me. Finally, he managed to find a 500 F CFA coin, and I had a 100 F CFA coin so we were able to make a deal.

People get really upset if you don’t have exact change, huff and puff like it’s the end of the world. Supposedly, “people keep their coins in a jar in their house,” which might explain the apparent lack of coins in circulation here.  But then, if there aren’t enough coins in the country, then grocery stores should make prices nice whole round numbers, instead of 455 CFA, knowing that nobody has 50 centimes or 5 centimes. I mean, I understand not using a 10 000 CFA note to pay for something that costs 450 CFA, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for the grocery store to have change for 1 000 CFA, right?

The funniest, but also most frustrating moment, is the stand-off: where the person stands there with your money looking at you and you looking at them, and neither of you have change, and neither of you have a solution to this problem. I think it could last for hours, but eventually someone shows up or is called over with change, or you make a compromise and buy something extra. Sometimes you even have to walk into the price negotiation establishing that you don’t have change, especially with taxis, because then they won’t even bother picking you up. Bah.