Food! Glorious Food!

As promised, I will give you the reader’s digest version of Senegalese food. Personally, whenever someone travels to a foreign land I love asking questions about what they ate, especially if it’s something completely unique like half fermented eggs or monkey brains.

To start, I want to talk about a cultural difference that starts with a saying that people tend to use quite often in America, “Finish your food because there are kids starving in Africa.” Here in Senegal everyone eats around the same bowl and it is actually polite to not finish the food. I am always expected to leave some food on my plate as a cultural courtesy in case someone comes who has not eaten. This is quite the opposite of what I was taught growing up which was to finish the food you put on your plate in order to not be wasteful.

As mentioned, the Senegalese eat around one single bowl. In French, this custom is called “l’art de la table.” Here are just a few rules:

cebbu

  • If there are stools available, men and guests get priority. Likewise, if there are spoons, men and guests will be given a utensil first.
  • For all meals, the base layer of rice is spread out around the entire bowl. The meat and veggies are dropped in a pile in the middle. You can only eat what is immediately in front of you in a pizza pie shaped section. If you really want a carrot that is on the opposite side of the bowl, you cannot have that carrot. Reach outside your food zone at your own risk and in fear of being reprimanded.
  • The food bowl is controlled by the eldest man or woman eating. He or she has the authority to distribute the meat and veggies as they see fit. If you are bold, you can ask for a specific piece of the bowl and hope for a positive response…..However,
  • Many families will not talk around The Food Bowl.
  • The elder at the bowl will sometimes literally throw food at people around the bowl. The elder will also (mostly) de-bone the fish and share it with those around the bowl.
  • There will likely be 10 or more people seated around one bowl. So it’s important to find a comfortable position with sufficient leg room as you sit on the floor.
  • When you have eaten your fill, immediately get up from the bowl without saying anything and vacate your spot. This shows that you are done eating for that meal.

In Senegal, the variety of food depends on the region of the country and of course the economic conditions. The main staples are rice and fish, and most dishes can be simple to prepare. There is also a huge French influence – everyday thus far, my breakfast has been a baguette with coffee/tea/hot chocolate. It only costs about $1.15 for four baguettes, so it can be a really cost-effective way to start the day.

Let me describe the most common dishes that I eat on weekly basis that are native to Senegal.

cebbu jebCeebu jën: Directly translated from Wolof, meaning Rice Fish. It is a stew-like bowl of marinated and stuffed white fish cooked with tomato paste and a variety of vegetables (like carrots, cabbage, sweet potatoes) on a bed of rice. It is the national dish of Senegal.

Maafe: Chicken (sometimes lamb or beef) is cooked with vegetables in a tomato and peanut butter (more like groundnuts) sauce.

Yassa: Chicken or fish marinated in lemon juice and onions (lots and lots of onions), and cooked with mustard and black pepper and served on a bed of white rice.

Lakh: Rolled millet-balls served with yogurt, concentrated milk, and raisins or other fruits. It is the traditional offering for naming ceremonies, but it is usually a cheap and easy meal to make for Sunday evenings.

 

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Fabulous Food

Trying food is such an important and intricate detail of living in another part of the world! Completely submerging yourself in the culture around you includes the fun part of taste-testing tons of different plates and authentic dishes of your host country! Honestly, sometimes it can be a little scary…but no matter what, every time you will walk away with a rich experience under your belt that you’ll likely never forget.

I’ve tried a number of traditional plates here in Ecuador. Most include some form of rice, vegetables, and meat of one kind or another. However, the craziest dish that I have tried has been ‘cuy.’ Cuy is guinea pig, which is a delicacy here. It is expensive and culturally valued by Ecuadorians. It was super hard to get myself to eat it at first, because when I was younger I always had guinea pigs as pets – I could barely bring myself to eat one of them for lunch! But I’m glad I did; it was definitely worth it to be a part of the authentic and traditional way of life here!

Eating different things abroad also includes tasting many different drinks abroad. In Ecuador the harvest season goes on year round due to the good weather here at the equator. This makes for a bounty of constant healthy fruits. The juice here is unbelievably fresh and completely natural. It’s tastier than anything I’ve ever had back in the States! A typical beverage of Ecuador is called canelazo. It’s a cinnamon-flavored hot drink that is very popular to drink at night. It is also the staple of any festival or celebration, so it’s imperative to try it when visiting this beautiful country!

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Leaving the Comfort of Home: #Chinathings, traveling as opportunity, and more!

“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things—air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky—all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” ~Cesare Pavese

Although aspects of this characterization of traveling ring true for me, I would counter that overall, traveling is less of a brutality than an opportunity. An opportunity for personal growth in so many ways. Traveling does force one to trust strangers and be distanced from family and friends, but in such circumstances one is compelled to make new friends, and perhaps even family. Trusting strangers deepens empathy, forces one to be humble and allows one to understand other ways of being. In this sense, I enjoy the feeling of being “constantly off balance” that traveling inevitably brings and see it more as a positive sign of growth. The feeling of being off balance derives from the absence of the kind of comfort we find in familiarity and routine. Each day here in China, I add to my list of #chinathings, i.e. cultural differences from life in the United States, be they subtle or glaring. The chaos of the streets, with mopeds, pedestrians, bikes and cars all vying to get where they need to go, jockeying for space in accordance with some unspoken set of rules that has ostensibly little to do with the lines painted on the road or the color of the traffic lights. Toddlers sporting pants with a slit between the legs for easy relief on the streets, in the park, or even (yes, really) while being held by mom over a trash can in the train station. Old and young, man or woman, hocking up loud, rattling loogies to spit unabashedly onto the sidewalk. A father and son, squatting on a main street corner in the evening around a blazing fire, fueled by fake paper money in remembrance of a deceased relative. Red lanterns decorating the awnings of restaurants and shops (red here represents prosperity, good luck, and national pride). Pairs of stone-carved dragons guarding the entrance to important buildings. The face masks, decorated with colorful patterns ranging from anime characters to the Apple logo, or simple blue or white surgical mask-esque. The contrast of the orderly lines that form in the subway in accordance with the neatly marked arrows painted on the ground where the train doors line up with the pushing and shoving and hardcore race that breaks out for the coveted train seat when the doors actually open. Construction everywhere, anytime. Something is always being demolished, while nearby, something is in the process of being built. Ancient buildings far older than the United States of America juxtaposed with McDonald’s, Starbucks and the local favorite: KFC. Young women strolling along the street on a sunny day, wielding decorated parasols to shield their skin from the rays of the sun. Elderly ladies out in the early mornings or evenings in the park, square, or parking lot, dancing to Chinese pop tunes or communist era songs emanating from a crackling boom box, possibly from the same era.  Young and old men gathered around a card or Chinese checkers table, perched on short stools while animatedly slapping cards down or consulting each other on strategy for the next move.  Often one of the men has brought his birdcage along (presumably for good luck? Or perhaps he just likes the soothing chirps to lower his blood pressure while he plays…) Young couples out in the parks or tourist spots taking wedding photos, the groom looking nervously modest, while the beautiful bride shines in an elaborate red or white (often rented for the occasion) wedding dress.  Peddlers of fresh fruit, piping hot sweet potatoes or chestnuts, candied fruit, or skewers of chuan(r)—various types of grilled meat—lined up along the road and selling their wares off the back of a three-wheeler cart, mo-ped, or little boxlike truck.

These are but a few of the #chinathings I have noticed so far. They liven up life here and make each day new and exciting. However, they also reinforce the sensation of difference and otherness that breeds a feeling of being “off balance” and homesickness. The amazing thing about human beings is that we can become accustomed to nearly any environment. As opposed to non-stop traveling, reflected by Mr. Pavese’s sentiment, the study abroad experience allows one due time to become accustomed to a new place (often just in time to return to one’s home-country and re-accustom oneself to life there!). Upon arrival, many of the above mentioned #chinathings seemed strange to me, and I most certainly held a negative and judgmental attitude toward some of them. However, after having lived here in Beijing for nearly two months, I have become accustomed to most of it. My established routine brings a sense of order and comfort to my life here, and I can always retreat to the relative safety of my dorm room if things get too strange. Traveling affords so many opportunities, both in terms of personal growth as well as in regards to the plethora of new things to try and to make yours.

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Meet Gilman Video Blogger – Dustin

Meet U.S. Department of State sponsored Gilman Scholarship recipient Dustin Ellis. Dustin is serving as a Gilman Global Experience Correspondent during the academic year 2014-2015 studying in Barcelona, Spain.  The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients the opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying or interning abroad in the featured country. For more videos please visit the Gilman Scholarship’s Official YouTube page.

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The Beginning

Quito: the capital city of the country of Ecuador, where I will be spending the next four months of my semester abroad.

I don’t think I’ve ever been more scared in my life than I was on the day I arrived in Ecuador. Studying abroad is such a huge step in every way possible because it completely alters every aspect of your life. I was anxious at the beginning about many things – not knowing how to get around, whether I would be safe or not, what my host family would be like, and the list goes on. The first week was a lot to take in. My immediate thoughts once here were that the city is so huge, and that I knew absolutely no one at all. Those two mixed together is quite the overwhelming combination. In the next two weeks that have followed, my life has settled down and I’m able to start adjusting to what my life is like here. It’s a lot of daily work to make that happen, but it’s worth it.

One thing I miss from the United States is not having to take public transportation everywhere I go. Being in such a big city here makes traveling a time-consuming thing, which in my small home town, I am not accustomed to. There is so much traffic here! It’s hard to believe there can be so many cars and buses in one place at the same time!

One thing that I have found that I absolutely love here in Ecuador – which isn’t really prevalent in the United States – is the dancing culture. Everyone dances here! Young or old, male or female. It’s in their blood here, and I love it. People have so much fun dancing, and enjoy life through it. I have loved learning about all the different types of dance here, such as the salsa, which is my favorite!

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In the Land of Smiles

There was a split moment where I noticed several people skittering out from the sidewalks into shops and under awnings. The cloud covered sky over head likened itself to that of a thick smoke and then water, from nowhere, was everywhere. You haven’t had rain till you have had tropical rainy season rain. I was drenched in seconds. In America it would not have been uncommon to spit and swear, to get angry and upset. But this is Thailand. Walking over to the nearest cover I heard a woman call out to me in Thai and in turning back was greeted with a smile. The woman standing before me bowed her head and handed me a kabob of pineapple and pomelo and though I was soaking wet and a mile from home I couldn’t help but smile. This is Thailand.
The last week before leaving for my program was one of the most anxious times of my life. There is something about knowing that in a few short days your life with be changed drastically for the better that can mess with your head. Most of this anxiety was less nervousness about the move over but almost entirely about my own readiness to just be in Thailand. Of course, I was nervous about meeting new people or getting past the language barrier, but nothing trumped the awesome feeling of adventure and starting something new. And now that I’m in the country and have settled in, I can really feel that nervousness, that anxiety, falling away.
Arriving in Thailand has raised some new questions and erased some preconceived ideas of what life would be like here. There is no climate like Thailand’s climate. The sticky heat is everywhere and the rain comes down in sheets but it isn’t unbearable. I believe with time I can find it quite nice. I had been told it was hot here, but no one could have prepared me for the humidity. In a similar way, before I arrived I had this idea that because of the language barrier the native people wouldn’t even try to work with me. After multiple times of ordering meals and getting directions with no working knowledge of the language, I cannot stress how wrong I was; the Thai people have taken these problems with a smile and a great attitude.
This all makes for a wonderful experience so far and I can feel myself already growing accustomed to the many changes this move constitutes. And every time I’m caught in a monsoon rain or lost in the winding streets outside Bangkok I can do as the Thai do. I can smile and laugh it off because this is Thailand.

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Entering the Black Hole: Month #1 in China

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Hello!  My name is Tarrajna Walsh, and I am a senior from Loyola University Chicago in the United States.  I am studying abroad for a semester at The Beijing Center located on the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, China.  Almost exactly a month ago today I arrived at the Beijing airport–my first time on Chinese soil!  I was fortunate enough to have had a direct flight from Chicago, and about 12 hours later (my flight was two hours earlier than anticipated!), I spied my first glimpse of the Asian continent.  I had a middle seat, so I had to lean forward and crane my neck to get a look out the window without appearing to be staring at my neighbor.  When I saw the tan colored hue of a jagged mountain range far below, a feeling of excitement mixed with anxiety washed over me.  What in the world had I gotten myself into?  Flying to China may as well have been flying to the moon.  Though I had seen pictures of Chinese cities and rural landscapes, watched Chinese films, and met with many people who had been to China in the months leading up to my own trip, I had a very abstract grasp of China.  I even had difficulty imagining what it would look like.  Needless to say, as we prepared for landing, I felt instead as if we were flying into a black hole.

Since arriving in Beijing, I have been overwhelmed with new impressions and experiences.  That is the joy of traveling, especially to a place where you do not speak the language.  Everything is a new–and often challenging–experience.  The most perfunctory aspects of daily life at home–shopping, ordering food, going to the bathroom–become the most challenging experiences while abroad.

Before arriving, I heard many things about China.  I was told that the food is very delicious, and very different than Chinese food in the States.  After being here for a month, I would have to agree.  Chinese food in the U.S. mainly derives from the Cantonese region of southern China, whereas there are many diverse regions reflected in the food here in China, such as Sichuanese (spicy!), Hunanese, Hui, Tibetan, etc.  I also imagined a relatively heterogeneous population, as compared to the diversity of ethnicity and nationality in U.S. metropolitan areas.  Although the vast majority of Chinese people are Han Chinese, there are many different ethnicities and sub-cultures represented as well.  For example, while on our two-week excursion along the ancient Silk Road Route into western China (more about that in another post!), I encountered a wide diversity of people.  There were many Hui Muslim people in Lanzhou, Gansu, identifiable by a round, white cap worn by men, and a hejab worn by women.  We also met Tibetan Chinese in Xia’he, Gansu, located on an outer cusp of the Tibetan Plateau.

An immediate impression I had of China–well, Beijing at least–upon arrival was that it is very dirty.  That impression has not really changed, although the subway is impressively clean (especially compared with Chicago’s El).  Another impression/expectation I had was that people would not be particularly friendly toward strangers.  I have been pleasantly surprised to find that in many cases I was wrong.  Shopkeepers, waiters/waitresses, and random passersby have been very cheerful, patient, and friendly many times when I needed help.  And as with any city, there are the not-so-friendly people as well.  But by far my greatest impression of people in China has been their curiosity about foreigners.  Especially while traveling along the Silk Road, my colleagues and I were asked numerous times to take photos with strangers, stared at, talked about in Chinese, and generally scrutinized.  Coming from the diversity of the United States, this was at first a surprising and unsettling experience, but we soon learned to enjoy it, especially after realizing that people were as curious about us as we were about them and their nation.  We soon coined the expression #Chinafamous, and were lamenting that we would lose this special attention upon our return to our respective countries.

One major observation I have made since arriving here is how crucial food is to identity.  I would not consider myself anywhere close to being a foodie, and yet even I have felt the pangs of being away from one’s home cuisine and comfort food.  Though Chinese food offers a wide variety and can be extremely delicious, there are some moments when I really miss one of my home staple foods: tacos.  I know the exact taco place I will visit for my first meal when I get home.  Nonetheless, this is Beijing and there are reportedly several authentic taco shops here, though I have yet to seek them out.  On the flip-side, one aspect of China I already know will be missed when I leave are the jianbing: a burrito-like food consisting of batter made from millet spread over a round griddle, with an egg cracked over it and cooked in, lettuce, sauce, spice, some yet-unidentified crunchy thing, and meat of your choice all rolled in.  Mostly all the study-abroad students in my program, myself included, eat this for lunch every day.  It costs about $1.50 and is absolutely delicious.  Yes, $1.50.  Food here is much cheaper than the U.S., and there is no tipping.  Yet another reason it will be difficult to go back.

After returning from our Silk Road excursion, we launched right into classes.  I am taking Intensive Chinese four times a week for almost three hours each day.  My professor is an excellent teacher, and only speaks in Chinese.  This is really challenging!!  There are some days after class when I head straight back to my dorm (well, after a tasty jianbing hot off the griddle) and take a nap.  Three hours of Chinese can be mentally exhausting, but overall I can already see that I am making much faster progress here than back home, simply due to the immersion experience.  All my classes are quite engaging, and I am confident that I will have a far greater understanding of Chinese culture, history, and society than before arriving.  Nonetheless, China is a huge nation with a vast history.  I feel strongly that one semester here will only reveal the tip of what promises to be a tremendous iceberg.

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