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Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Baobab juice, millet beer, fresh yogurt, and other delicacies of Mali and Burkina Faso

I hope you'll forgive us for lumping together the foods of Mali and Burkina Faso in this post. Food in West Africa definitely has variations by region (which sometimes line up with country divisions, but often don't), but as I think Andy mentioned in his Senegal/Gambia food post, there's definitely a continuum and much you'll find in common as you move around, too.

OK, here we go with foods of...


Our first meal in Mali was eaten in a food stall in a bus station during a short dinner/pickup stop our bus made between the Senegal border and Bamako. A giant bowl of slightly sweet-tasting haricots, or beans (yum) with some fresh tomatoes (yum) and an unexpected splash of fish sauce (yuck, but we survived). One spoon each for me and Andy--communal eating is big here, and people often share a plate. Total cost in US$, 60 cents.

When we finally arrived in Bamako almost 24 hours later, we decided to celebrate and treat ourselves to a fancy meal out on the town. Our main dishes at San Toro (sounds Spanish, but it's a West African specialties restaurant) cost $10 each, which is kind of astronomical for us, but they were very good.

Andy had chicken in coconut sauce with some fries...

And I had wonderfully tender lamb in "sauce feuille," made from the leaves of the sweet potato plant. I believe this is actually a Burkinabé specialty. Note also our drinks--my purple was made from hibiscus flowers and ginger and was quite strong, while Andy's was ginger and maybe lime, we can't remember, and it could clear your sinuses with one sniff. Good stuff.
Not pictured were our much cheaper lunches the next day at Restaurant le Gourmet downtown, where we had rice with delicious peanut sauce and lamb (me) and even better curry sauce and chicken (Andy) for less than $2 each. Included was a bonus giant pitcher of cold water, too. If you are ever in Bamako, you must have lunch at this place.

While waiting for the bus to Ségou, we bought these muffin-looking "gateaux" (cakes) from a woman with many such bags on her head. You see these all over West Africa and make a decent cheap breakfast when you can't find anything else to eat.

Mmm, fried balls with spicy sauce. These were made from a batter of some kind of pounded starch, probably millet, and could be found in many places in Mali and Burkina. When the heat breaks in the late afternoon, many women build a fire and set up a mobile fryer (i.e. a big pot full of oil) on the street and start frying things up, like these or plantain or banana chunks.

In Djenné, I bought our first mango of Africa. It was amazingly sweet and juicy and delicious. Since we don't have a knife, you can see me doing my magic with my spork here...

(Two tangential notes about mangoes...

1) Djenné is the most touristy town in Mali, and I paid about 25 cents for that mango. A few days later in another town in Mali, a woman was selling mangoes to our bus and they cost only 5 cents each, and I felt like I'd been ripped off in Djenné. Now, in Ghana, where it is apparently mango harvesting season, I have been able to buy mangoes for about 1 cent apiece, making all of Mali look darn expensive...though I will say that the 25 cent one was by far the tastiest one I've had.

2) Andy is quasi-allergic to mangoes (and cashews)--he can eat them, but if they touch his lips, his lips get all crazy chapped for days after. This means that whenever I get a mango, I have to cut chunks for Andy that he can pop into his mouth in their entirety, bypassing the lips. It's kind of amusing to watch.)

A popular snack that people sell to bus passengers in Mali are these slightly sweet sesame balls. Not bad if you like sesame, though one really is enough--they're kind of dense.

If you're looking for cheap street food in West Africa, you can often find stalls selling spaghetti. I would say it's in some sort of tomato sauce, but the red may just be from palm oil. The balls on the top are not meatballs, but some sort of starchy fried dumpling they were selling at the same stall in Djenné, so I had the woman throw some in to my to-go bag.

Hiking in the Dogon Country, our guide found a baobab fruit on the ground and broke it open, letting us all taste the fruit inside. Don't judge from my expression here, it's delicious--kind of sweet-and-sour, though, strangely, it has the exact powdery texture of freeze-dried fruit. Not surprising, I guess, given the very dry climates baobab trees often grow in...

You can see a whole fruit here--the big white chunks are the flesh. The bottle beside it was later used to make baobab juice, or bouyi, for our whole group. You just break the baobab flesh into small pieces and push them into the bottle, add water and sugar, shake it a lot, and voila, juice!
(Side note: Trader Joe's already sells freeze-dried mango and dried hibiscus flowers...I suggest that they get in on the baobab trade next!)

More beverages of Mali: Here is some homemade millet beer, brewed in a Dogon village for the next day's Easter celebrations. Considering that it's uncarbonated, served warm, and only weakly alcoholic, it wasn't so bad. (That's our Ecuadorian tripmate Estefania in the background.)

And here's one of my favorite bottled beverages of West Africa, Fanta Cocktail! Tastes like a can of fruit cocktail made into soda. It's no Lemon Fanta, but after two hours of hiking in 125-degree heat in Dogon Country, it sure hit the spot...

The last place where we had a meal in Mali was at a street stall in the border town of Koro. We have no pictures, but we were served absolutely enormous portions of tasty beans and spaghetti for maybe 50 cents each by a woman who we privately dubbed "the fattest woman in Mali"--she wasn't even that heavy, but I guess we didn't realize until we saw her how long it had been since we had seen an overweight person at all. (Let's just say that Mali has more of a feeding-itself problem than an obesity epidemic going on.) Anyway, based on what she apparently thought was a reasonable portion size, we can kind of see how she managed to pack on a few extra pounds.

On to foods of...

Burkina Faso!

In the capital city of Ouagadougou, a popular and cheap breakfast served on the street is French bread with avocado chunks that have been tossed with oil and onions and some spices. Based on the size of your French bread, you pay between 20 and 50 cents for your sandwich. Delicious.
Yogurt is also extremely popular in Burkina, moreso than in any of the surrounding countries. Every town sells cups and bottles of some locally-made yogurt, and many towns also have big vats of it out on the street alongside a display case full of millet, which gets mixed in. I got this enormous bowl on the street in Ouaga for 40 cents--the lady even threw in two ice cubes, which was ingenious because it was probably 115 degrees out. (If I kept mixing and made sure to only take bites from near the ice cubes, the whole thing was actually refreshingly cool.)

Also, I was full for about six hours after eating it...that millet is fibrous!

Since Andy doesn't eat yogurt, we had to find him some lunch, too. We didn't have to go far to find a vendor selling rice and sauce on the street to hungry locals. $1 got him a big bowl, and he went at it with his right hand, African-style.

Here is a weird Ouaga find--pineapple milk. Pretty sure it was imported from somewhere else. I didn't like it, but I had all that calcium from the yogurt, anyway, so I let Andy enjoy.
In Ouaga, I was really excited when we stumbled upon an Indian restaurant near the airport. Unfortunately, the food was only so-so, and then they really ruined it by tacking on an extra $3 charge for rice. Boo.

The next day, we arrived in Bobo-Dioulasso hungry. Luckily, we didn't have to go far to find a lady frying stuff on the street. We got our first yam (aka cassava, or manioc--a dry and starchy tuber, not to be confused with sweet potato) chips there, with plenty of salt and some sauce. These are popular in Ghana, too, though the chunks tend to be longer and bigger. In both places, they are usually priced by the piece, with prices ranging from about 1 to 7 cents depending on size.

Throughout West Africa, Andy had I have enjoyed little cold baggies of juice--and sometimes if we're lucky, we can even find them still frozen. You just bite the corner off the bag and suck. In Bobo, Andy got a bag of mystery frozen juice that we think turned out to be bouyi (baobab juice), though this color is also similar to gingimbre (ginger juice) and to a slightly gingery millet drink called zoomkoom that is only found in Burkina.
We bought these mystery nuts in Bobo thinking that they would be savory, but they turned out to be strangely sweet, almost like little bites of coconut. Based on that, we concluded that they were probably palm nuts. I didn't like them, but Andy did. (Moments after we bought them, the first big rain of the season hit, and we spent an hour huddled in a sewing shop, snacking on nuts with some locals and admiring the monsoon.)
Mmm, sweet Burkinabé yogurt. (Too bad the flavors are usually limited to vanilla, strawberry, or "nature sucree" (plain sweetened).) Got this cup for 40 cents at a little shop in Bobo that specializes in dairy products, meaning that the whole shop is basically a table and a fridge case with yogurt and milk.
From this picture of a restaurant meal we had in Bobo, you can see how meals in West Africa often work--you get a starch, and a bowl of sauce, and eat with your hands (or maybe a spoon). That's rice in the background, but in the foreground is tô, a starchy paste here of pounded corn, though it can also be made of millet or other grains. It usually has the consistency of mashed potatoes, and I really like it. You grab a bit of it, dip it in the sauce, and eat. Variations of this have many other names in different regions and countries--it is similar to fufu, foutôu, TZ, and banku, and I'm sure we'll learn new names in Togo and Benin!

Outside of Banfora, here I am with a gourd full of palm wine, the slightly fermented sap of the palm tree. It's not strong, but still, this picture was taken around 9:30 AM, so I only had a little sip.

At the Banfora market, more baggies of juice. That's bissap, my favorite hibiscus drink, on the left, and some crazy ginger juice on the right. Baggies like this usually cost around 10 cents or so.
Significantly more costly was this Tetrapak of Twist brand banana nectar that Andy found in a little shop in Banfora. It was imported from Egypt and refrigerated, so it cost something like $2.50. Our treat for the day. It was thick and very sweet, kind of like a banana smoothie. Andy looks forward to trying it again in Egypt.

There you have it--many drinks and a few foods from Mali and Burkina. Both of these countries represented a serious step up in street food availability and quality from Senegal and The Gambia, so it was easier to find snacks and cheap meals in both countries. I especially enjoyed all the yogurt in Burkina, and the avocado sandwiches, but we found actual restaurants to be better in Mali. (Of special note is that peanut sauce in Mali tended not to have fish in it, while the same sauce in Burkina often did taste very fishy.)

Ghana, where we are at the moment, is a whole new kettle of fish. Literally. More on that one day when we find Internet access again!


  1. i absolutely ADORE all the juice options!! :D but the little bags still weird me out a little. ;)

  2. Your world tour looks fantastic

    Just wondering how you manage to have enough money for it!!! It would cost quite a bit, I mean even cheap hotels and camps cost money!!!

    Can you send a comment on how you planned it!
    or What sort of budget you had allowed for.

  3. Hi, Anonymous! If you click on the Finance tag on our blog, it will link you to a series of posts on the subject. We try to be very honest about what we spend because it was the hardest topic to find information on before leaving. We have been spending about $110/day through South America and Africa, but you will find very detailed information under the Finance tag.

  4. wish I would have know you were in Mauritania, I would have hosted you. Fellow Vagabonds, gotta love it. If you need some music for your page I would be happy to forward you a song or a player widget to add to your blog. Safe travels.


  5. I wish you had stopped by Mali and had a nature walk to the parks and at least one natural scenery though it seems you had a fairly good time in that one minute you spent there. I don't know if in future you will tour vietnam which I can tell from your expression here of what you had in various places, you will like the Vietnam tour experience.. You better get started in applying for their visa online:

    If your application process is successful, you will land in vietnam within 48 hours! How great would that be? !!!