Going bananas in Tanzania

It seemed that we had arrived in the Usambara Mountains in the middle of the harvest festival. From every hilltop and slope, every shamba and stream of this misty range in NW Tanzania there poured forth fresh produce. A tantalising sight for these dust-choked travellers from the South.

The capital of the region, Lushoto, was chosen by the Kaiser as the putative capital of German East Africa in the early part of the last century. He had a spectacular house built for himself, on a crest looking down to the Maasai Steppe below, and employed a German housekeeper or ten (naturally).

Sadly he only managed to stay in his African Alpine schloss for one or two short visits before the perfidious British, for totally irrelevant European reasons, hoofed him out of his colony and then foolishly established their capital on the sultry disease-ridden coast instead.

That was the problem with the British. No sense of the romantisch or the praktisch. Out there in the midday sun, beavering away building colonies and stealing other peoples’, when even the hard-working native was sheltering in the bananas.

That’s what they do around here. Bananas. A bit of mieliemeal from time to time and a spot of cassava here and there, but basically it’s bananas. Not, though, those sweet, yellow bananas we all eat at home. These are unripe green plantain bananas that form the staple matoke here, boiled and then mashed to a grey pulp. And they taste as awful as they sound. Bland doesn’t begin to cover it.

But luckily this is not all that is coming out of the hills. Tanzania may not have a huge variety of produce but after good late rains such as these, the streets are filled with food.

Beans, red onions, peppers, brinjals, chillis of all shapes and sizes, sweet potatoes, huge shiny tomatoes and avocados the size of rugby balls are overflowing from the stalls in the market and travelling down the hill in bowls on heads. (The occasional truck comes up for the cabbages, which don’t balance too easily, or in great numbers, on a head).

The market also boasts stalls of fresh herbs, spices, seeds, lentils, coconuts, cashews and groundnuts. There is no meat to be seen although there is a rather alarming butchery – not for the faint-hearted – nearby.

The Tanzanians make the best coleslaws (I know nobody really likes coleslaw but these are really good) and ratatouilles and shebas; they make wonderful tomato and avocado salads doused with a tangy onion vinaigrette and a spicy shredded salad with chilli and lemon called kachumbari; they make clever use of groundnuts, chilli, ginger, garlic and herbs. They make so many diverse combinations with so many baffling flavours out of so few ingredients that there is a never-ending line of bowls of spicy, toothsome side-dishes to supplement the matoke, which, let’s face it, is a good thing because matoke needs all the help it can get.

As local celebrity Father Peter Kelly of the Rosminian Mission in Lushoto explained in a philosophical Irish moment “the good Lord has torned a dairsert into an ooaysis, a famine into a feeeast; Oy don’t know whether it was intentionally good work by the Lord but it was good work anyway”.

In other words, as the food flows out of the Usambaras and into the markets of Arusha, Tanga and Dar-es-Salaam, the local Sambaa people know that whilst this is a time of plenty, they must eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we’re dry.

The best recipe was picked up at the Marangu Hotel at the foot of another Tanzanian mountain, Kilimanjaro. Contact details may be found at www.maranguhotel.com.

Jackie Brice-Bennett’s Marangu Groundnut Sauce

(Any number of known and unknown uses, but especially recommended in a roll with avocado and boerewors).

4 medium onions coarsely chopped
10 garlic cloves
6 red chillies
350gms skinned, roasted groundnuts/peanuts
4 tblsps sunflower oil
2 tblsps Soy sauce
1 tblsps tomato puree
2 tblps water (optional)
300-500 ml coconut milk
2 tblps brown sugar
Salt (taste first)
Blend, onion, garlic, chillies to a paste in a food processor. Scrape out as best possible and, without washing the bowl, grind the peanuts in the food processor.

Heat oil in wok or large flat bottomed frying pan. Add onion/garlic paste and fry for one minute.

Add peanuts and stir until combined – you may want to add the water here to loosen the paste. Add all other ingredients, except extra salt. Gently cook until all flavours combine and a thickish sauce is made. (I actually put in as much liquid as it will comfortably absorb). Then taste and see if you need to add the extra salt.