What, you thought camels were only for riding? Wrong-o. People in Mauritania milk their camels, and eat lots of camel meat, too. Did we partake? Read on to find out...
(By the way, one thing Mauritanians do not do with camels is smoke them--Marlboro is definitely the brand of choice. And smoking is incredibly popular there. Our iron-ore-train-friend Nema said that a lot of kids start at 8 or 10 years of age. The amount of smoke in the train car attested to this...so even if you don't smoke, you do smoke, by second-hand default in Mauritania.)
On to the pictures!
At the supermarket in Nouadhibou (we were surprised, but there were a couple) we thought the most fascinating thing was this pile of chickens loose in the freezer case.
Of course, this put Andy in the mood for a chicken dinner. Our first meal in Mauritania--chicken and chips. I think we've had this at some point in every country we've visited so far...
We also found a pastry shop in Nouadhibou where Andy got this pink, cream-filled thing. It was pretty fancy and tasty for a pastry shop at the edge of the desert.
Before boarding the train in Nouadhibou the next day, Andy had the foresight to suggest that we have a real lunch out in a restaurant. We found a restaurant that turned out to be Gambian, so our server spoke English and served us our first plates of mafe (rice with a peanut sauce and meat) and drinks of bissap, or hibiscus flower juice. Both of these are very common and popular in Senegal and The Gambia and we've had them a lot since. The camera ran out of batteries before we could photograph the mafe, but here's the bottle of bissap we got for about 30 cents. Cold and sweet and tasty!
But the true beverage of Mauritania is Mauritanian tea. It's made of very strong loose Chinese green tea, mint, and a lot of sugar. This may sound like Moroccan tea, but it's a whole different animal--much stronger, and served in tiny glasses in three rounds. But most importantly, the person making the tea must pour it back and forth between the glasses about 100 times until it has developed a foamy head to rival the one you'd find on top of a Guinness.
The whole ritual--brewing a small pot, pouring and pouring, drinking, washing the glasses, and starting over two more times, takes the better part of an hour. Everyone in Mauritania has these portable propane tanks to heat the teapot on so that you can take the tank into any room and enjoy your tea there. The most impressive, and banged-up tank we saw was on board the iron-ore train, where an old man makes tea for everyone for a small fee. Given how often the train jolts, knocking people out of their seats, the fact that he is able to do this without scalding himself or ever spilling any tea is nothing short of miraculous.
The last thing I'll say about tea is that Andy and I never paid for it once. Our new friend treated us on the train, and after that we had a round in the home of just about everyone we met on the trip. On our desert trip, our guide built a fire with sticks and made us tea four times a day. Tea is serious in Mauritania.
One random place we had tea was at our taxi-driver's house in Atar, while waiting to leave for Chinguetti. While there, we were also offered a bowl of zrig, which our guidebook describes as "unpasteurized, fermented camel milk." Yum! When I had first read Andy this description, he swore he would never taste it, but I am proud to report that hospitality got the better of him and he did try it. I have no photographic evidence of this, unfortunately, but here I am sipping some zrig. It wasn't that bad--surprisingly, I thought it tasted more like coconut milk than any animal milk I've ever had. Maybe because of the fat content?
Out in the Sahara, our intrepid guide not only made tea on the fire, but cooked us whole meals. His most impressive feat was baking this bread/pancake thing in an "oven" made out of hot sand and coals. Here he is laying it in the oven, which he will then cover over with the coals you see beside the bread.
The bread was dense and a little sweet. Usually we had it for breakfast with a runny fruit jam, but one night Dumu incorporated into a tasty vegetable stew, our favorite meal in the desert. His materials for three days in the desert were beets, carrots, onions, potatoes, and a few tomatoes (apparently there was no meat in the market the day before we left--fine by us though apparently a meal without meat in Mauritania is considered a poor meal), and considering this, Dumu did a great job of making up a lot of different dishes with pasta, rice, or bread mixed in.
In the capital city of Nouakchott, we didn't find much street food, except for some ladies selling two types of fried things which seemed popular for a late afternoon snack. The round ones were beignets, or little sweet donuts. Very good. The bigger ones turned out to have fish inside. Why these are sold together we do not know, but the common theme seems to be "fried" rather than sweet or savory...
I mentioned in the other Mauritania post that we ended up staying with a family in Nouakchott. They insisted on making dinner for us, and on our first night served up this beautiful feast with chicken, fries, and salad. Best of all, we had to eat it with our hands, using pieces of baguette to scoop up the food.
Unfortunately, I don't have pictures of our second night's meal with the family, which was a cous cous dish. To eat this one with your hand, you are supposed to roll some cous cous into a ball, grab a bit of sauce, and pop it into your mouth. The family members made this look SO easy, but when Andy and I tried to do it, we failed spectacularly. Everyone was laughing so hard at us--especially at Andy, who then refused the spoon they brought him and kept trying to learn how to make the ball, and ended up with more cous cous on his face than the toddlers had. At least if we weren't allowed to pay for our food, we felt that we paid the family back a tiny bit in entertainment value!
I also wish I had a picture because the meat in that dish was...camel! I only had one bite and found it kind of chewy, but Andy liked his a lot. He said it was pretty mild, kind of like beef. The bit that ended up in his mouth and not on his face, that is.
Here are a few not-strictly-food pictures from Nouakchott, since I have nowhere else to put them.
Here is the big mosque that the Saudis built for the Mauritanians. Its two skinny minarets are pretty. We were not allowed inside.
Nouakchott's most famous "sight" is apparently its fish market on the ocean. We visited and there sure were a lot of painted fishing boats on the beach.
And a lot of fish. I didn't even know people fished for rays. Andy says they can be used as bait.
Fish! At the fish market!
Our taxi back to town from the fish market had this Obama doodad hanging from the rearview mirror. As you may have guessed, Obama is insanely popular in Africa. In subsequent countries, we have seem people wearing Obama pins, Obama shirts, and we even saw some Obama-brand mattresses (?) for sale in Dakar...
On our last morning in Nouakchott, our host family let us take a picture together. With some of them, at least--there were so many, and some were off at work or school. But here we are with a few of our hosts, and a couple of their kids. Moulaye, our English-speaking friend from the bus who brought us home to his cousins, is the one in the baseball cap holding the kids.
That's it for Mauritania. The food probably wasn't the most memorable national cuisine we've ever had, but it wasn't bad and people made sure we never went hungry (or thirsty, or uncaffeinated). We take fond memories of the hospitality of Mauritania with us as we move deeper into Africa.