This was written over a month ago! Just hadn’t finished it completely!
Last Saturday, I mustered up the courage to do the 16 km bike ride to my close-mate’s* village to watch and assist with her demonstration on canning tomatoes. She is starting her second year as a PCV and I will be doing a ton of demonstrations in the coming year, so I thought it would be good to see one in action. But sadly, that morning three people in her village died: a young girl who had been sick, a man who was bit by a snake, and an older woman who probably died from old age. Thus, the demonstration had to be moved to the next day because everyone in the village was occupied with helping the families. So we went back to my close-mate’s house. Since our other close-mate and I had both biked to her village only an hour before, we weren’t quite ready to make the journey back to our villages. So we decided to make lunch.
Now making a meal in Benin, or in small villages in Benin, can be quite challenging. Of course, if in Cotonou, which is kind of like Atlantis for PCVs in Benin, making and preparing pretty much anything is possible. Where as, in our region, the west Collines, making a simple American meal can be an undertaking. But it’s an undertaking that can (sometimes) be fun. And last weekend, we decided to take the plunge and make burgers.
Now, burgers seem like a simple enough meal. One would need: ground beef, cheese slices, hamburger buns, veggie topping, ketchup, mayo, and mustard, and maybe a few types of seasonings. Even in my small hometown in Texas of 1,200 people, I can go up to the meat market and probably find everything that I need to make some hamburgers. But in small villages in central Benin, this isn’t so easy. After Savalou until Basilla, which is two hours north of Agoua, it can be difficult to find baguettes (or what we call ‘salty bread’). There is only ‘sweet bread’, which isn’t bad, but it doesn’t really go well with hamburgers. If one wants vegetables that are not okra, tomatoes, or onions: good luck. From time to time, there are eggplants, but there is no guarantee they will be there when needed. There are three semi-readily available cheeses in the area. Vasha Qi Ri, which is pretty much Laughing Cow cheese and can be found in Savalou and sometimes, if lucky, in Bante. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated, so it is a popular item among Benin PCVs. Then there is Soja cheese, which any local will say is cheese but its not really cheese. It’s soy, and looks and has a consistency similar to tofu. This can pretty much always be found in village and is really good in stir-fries. Lastly, there is Wagasi. Wagasi is a cheese that is made by the Fulani tribe, which is a nomadic tribe that travels around Benin. It has a consistency similar to mozzarella cheese. There are quite a few things that can be done with wagasi, but there’s never a guarantee that it can be found when needed. Every time that I have found it, it was out of pure luck and good timing that a Fulani woman had just happened to be stopped in my village as I was out and about. In some regions, it’s easier than others to get it, but in mine it can be pretty difficult. Then there’s, meat; I go weeks without eating any meat (don’t worry I make sure to have beans, eggs, soja cheese, or peanut butter on a daily basis for protein). It’s actually quite a mystery to me. I see chickens and goats running around everywhere, but no one seems to eat them, at least not in my concession. I’ve been told that they are mostly prepared at parties and festivals. Mamans* usually will have some goat and/or fish in their sauce that they sell. But its difficult and pretty impossible to buy uncooked meat, unless its fish. In the market and in a few boutiques, fish is available: dried fish, frozen fish, and in the south there is fresh fish. But I’ve never been a fish fan and don’t think that will change here in Benin. Now it might be possible to get ground beef in Savalou, but it would take some searching to do so. And there is sometimes ground chicken available at the Salavou supermarket (and when I say supermarket I mean a 20 ft by 10 ft room with the items that are normally unavailable at an ordinary boutique). But, for me, unless I’m in Savalou and then head straight home to make dinner, there is no use buying something that will spoil, because the majority (if not all) volunteers in Benin live without refrigerators.
So you are probably wondering, “How is it then that y’all made burgers?” Well, I will tell you, and I even have recipes and pictures (well if they upload)! Every year, PCVs in Benin are given a PC Benin Cookbook, which is full of recipes that volunteers have created that usually use the item that can be found in village or can be bought in big cities and taken home without spoiling. I guess there was a volunteer who really wanted some burgers and also wanted to get the needed protein that many of us lack unless we pay attention to the meals we eat each day. And in this Cookbook there is a recipe for “Lentil Burgers.” Lentils are beans (that have protein) that can be found dried and in any of the larger cities in Benin. My close-mate, fortunately, had some lentils and luckily the day before I had returned from Savalou with salty bread. So we decided to make Lentil Burgers! In a combined effort, we made the lentil patties, cut the baguettes into small pieces, and made some ketchup. But we were still missing one thing that burgers (at least in my book) must have. Cheese. Since we hadn’t been planning to make burgers, we didn’t have any cheese. We hadn’t seen any wagasi in her village that day and she was all out of Vasha Qi Ri. But luckily, there was still one more option. Cheese made from milk powder. Here’s how it’s made. Put a pot with a few cups of water on the stove and stir in a few tablespoons of milk powder. Take a square cut piece of sanitized screen (there is probably a kitchen appliance for this in the States, but screening works pretty well if there’s some extra laying around) and put it over a bowl. Then once the milky water comes to a boil, add a teaspoon of vinegar to it. The milk and water will separate, leaving a cottage cheese-like substance. Have someone hold the screening over the bowl and pour out the water. And there ya go! Lentil burgers that taste pretty dang good and use (mostly) local, to the Collines, ingredients.
With the vast difference in access I had from pretty much anything I wanted in the States to the limited pallet of ingredients, materials, and tools I have in village, it can be a little frustrating sometimes. But there is always a way. And with a couple of great minds, a little bit of creativity, and a few laughs; it can be done!
MLE’s Lentil Burgers
2 cloves garlic
2 tsp veggie oil
1 cup water
2 eggs, beaten
Salt and pepper to taste
1 small onion, chopped
1/3 cup brown lentils (green okay, too)
Flour or oatmeal
1 maggie cube (optional)
“Fry garlic and onion in oil, add water and then lentils, as though you’re making lentil soup. Add Maggie cube and/or spices. Cook until lentils are soft (around 30-45 minutes), adding water as needed but not too much. When lentils are cooked, drain thoroughly, squeezing out all excess water and, in the process, mashing the lentils. Beat in the eggs and then start adding oatmeal or flour until you get a burger consistency. Shape into patties and fry until browned. Eat with fries and pretend you’re back in the States.”
~A big thank you to the PC Benin Cookbook and MLE~
Close-mate* – another Peace Corps volunteer, who lives in a neighboring village
Mamans* – the name we call women who sell hot meals at street venues