Soul searching across the Sahara
DIFEMOU, Mali — There’s no electricity and no school in this…
In 10-plus years of working for The Christian Chronicle, I’ve been blessed to visit more than 40 countries and see God working in far-flung regions of the globe.
I’ve also had a great number of international dining experiences. Some were mouth-watering. Some were so-so. And some were … interesting.
Following is a list of my top five culinary experiences while traveling abroad. Please feel free to share your own. What’s the strangest thing you’ve eaten on the mission field?
1. Zimbabwe — barbecued warthog: After about a week of reporting from the Nhowe Mission Brian Lemons Memorial Hospital, I accompanied a mission team from the East Point Church of Christ in Wichita, Kan., for two days of sightseeing at scenic Victoria Falls, on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. If you’ve only seen the falls from the Zambia side, then you haven’t really seen it. Most of the majestic falls reside on the Zimbabwe side. You can bungee jump off a bridge in the international zone between the two countries, presumably so that neither nation can claim responsibility if you fall to your doom. I passed on the opportunity.
I didn’t pass up the buffet at The Boma Place of of Eating, a touristy restaurant that serves all sorts of unique cuisine. Among the water buffalo steaks and ostrich kebabs, I saw a sign that read “Barbecued warthog.” Being a fan of Tennessee pulled pork, I couldn’t resist. I don’t know what kind of sauce they used, but this pig was awesome — fall-off-the-bone succulence. I went back for thirds.
Emboldened by the experience, I scooped a bowl full of something called “Mopani worms” and dared my traveling buddies to dig in. I never will forget the look on a certain dentist’s face when his tongue hit the small, red, crunchy worm. Since I dared them, I had to partake as well, so I shoved the worm into the back of my mouth, chewed enthusiastically and swallowed.
When eating mopani worms, don’t take time to taste. Just chew and swallow. By no means savor.
Related story: Zimbabwe: Finding joy in a time of sorrow (A first-person piece I wrote about attending the funeral of a 12-year-old AIDS victim.)
2. Singapore — durian: You’ve probably heard about this notorious Southeast Asian fruit. It’s a favorite in the nation-state of Singapore, though its odor is so strong that it’s not allowed in many hotel lobbies or on some forms of public transportation. During a reporting trip to Singapore, missionary Dave Hogan found a roadside durian dealer so I could sample the fruit, just before I boarded a plane for Cambodia. The merchant split open the giant, spiny, green fruit, revealing the innards, which I can describe only as a giant insect larva. In fact, it was the edible part of the plant — a somewhat viscous, dark yellow goop wrapped around large, beige seeds.
Frankly, I think the one I got was kind of mild. I was bracing myself for a powerful hit of nastiness, but it wasn’t too bad — just a bit slimy. When I got to the Angkor of Faith conference in Cambodia, I asked some of the Southeast Asian Christians about the fruit. Some said they hated it. For others, it was ambrosia wrapped around giant seeds.
Related story: Singapore salvation, Life, death and rebirth in The Killing Fields
3. Brazil — giant, roadside churros: Brazil has — hands down — the best food of any country I’ve visited. Grilled steak, chicken, sausage, great salads, cheese bread and decadent pavês (“PAH-veys.”) And, of course, Guaraná Antarctica , the greatest soft drink known to mankind. Brazil has tons of “kilo places,” where you load up your plate with divine tastes and pay by weight.
I think my favorite dessert, though, came from a guy selling Mexican churros out of a roadside cart near a shopping mall in Niteroi, Brazil. I was on a short-term team working with a group of church-planters there. These churros were huge — the diameter of a Kennedy half-dollar. You picked your flavor and the guy would “inject” it into the churro, right in front of you. My wife, daughter and I got one with chocolate and one with dulce de leche. Divine de leche, more like.
And yes, we did eat at a genuine Brazilian churrascaria, or steakhouse, in Niteroi, where the waiters run at you with swords — swords full of delicious meat, that is. It was great, but my favorite churrascaria visit was a few years earlier in another South American nation — Guyana. I was on a mission team that traveled to the interior village of Paramakatoi and the city of Mabaruma before returning to the capital, Georgetown, for the trip home. After a week of eating military MRE’s, the trip to the Brazilian restaurant was pure joy on a skewer. Best sausage I’ve ever eaten.
Related stories: A tale of two church plants: In Brazil, native Christians and U.S. missionaries carry on a legacy of evangelism, Guyana revisited
4. Ethiopia — injera and yimser wot: Last year I was part of a mission team to South Sudan (actually, it was still part of Sudan at the time, but independence was just months away). We stayed at a hotel with no electricity or running water, but we did have room service.
“You know this animal?” the hotel manager said as she planted a dead animal at our feet. She called it an “anyeri,” I think, and it looked like the head of a guinea pig on the body of a giant weasel. She said she would cook some for us. The next day, she showed up with steaming bowls of mashed root and anyeri meat, which looked like pot roast. I wasn’t brave enough to try it, so I went back to my packaged tuna. My teammates Jeremy Thompson and Mike Roman ate it, though, so maybe they’ll post something about the experience.
From Sudan, we flew to Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, before returning to the U.S. One of the Ethiopian Christians, Bekele Gebru, drove us to a restaurant called “Face of Addis” on a hillside overlooking the city. We looked over Addis’ twinkling lights and could see planes land at the international airport as we dined on roasted goat meat and yimser wot, a spicy dish of split lentils. The waiters brought us plates full of what I at first thought were hot towels. It was, in fact, injera, a spongy, tangy bread made from a grain called teff. You tear off a piece, scoop up some yimser wot and enjoy. It’s incredibly good. We have a couple of Ethiopian restaurants here in the Oklahoma City area. I’m constantly on the lookout for new souls to acquaint with Ethiopia’s divine cuisine.
Related stories: The Gospel in South Sudan: In world’s newest nation, Africans plant churches, Signs of love: Churches of Christ in Ethiopia serve the hearing-impaired
5. Ukraine — banosh with bryndza and bacon: I’ve visited the Eastern European nation of Ukraine three times and found their food to be, well, disappointing. There’s a lot of bland soup and a lot of stuff cooked in dumplings. Starch city. It fills you up, but does little for your taste buds. (I did have a very good chicken dish at the home of a worker with Eastern European Mission in the east Ukrainian city of Donetsk.)
Then I visited the western Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankivsk to see firsthand the work of Eastern European Mission, which has placed Bibles in all the public schools in the region there. Nickoli Plaksin, distribution manager for EEM, took us to a literal hole-in-the-wall restaurant, in the cellar of an ages-old building. The menu had a dish called “Derun ‘gladness of gipsy,'” so obviously I had to try it. It was a kind of cream of mushroom soup served on a warm potato pancake. Tastes much better than it sounds.
Nick insisted that we get an appetizer called “banosh with bryndza and bacon.” He described it as a kind of porridge made from corn and hominy, mixed with cheese and bacon, a signature dish of western Ukraine.
“That sounds like grits,” I joked. Then the dish arrived and I took a taste. Lo and behold, it was grits — homemade grits, bursting with cheesy goodness. I nearly teared up. A taste of my home state, thousands of miles away.
It makes sense, though. After all, Ukraine isn’t too far from a place called Georgia.
Related story: From Bible smugglers to suppliers: Eastern European Mission at 50
“Fabulous Five” is an occasional Christian Chronicle blog feature.
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