Countries Visited

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Map Legend: 28%, 75 of 263 Territories

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Pass me a mango--foods of Togo and Benin

Eating was one of the top pleasures of our 10 days in Togo and Benin. With many ethnic groups spanning the border, the two countries have a lot of similar foods, but we also felt like we got to try a good number of regionally specific foods, too.

In short, they are yummy little countries. On to the photographic evidence...

We were lucky enough in Togo to be hosted by two sets of PCVs--nope, not a type of plastic or toxic airborne particle, but Peace Corps Volunteers! We were also lucky that our hostess in Lomé, Danielle, loves to cook and had the perfect combination of baskets and fridge (wow!) full of market fruits and vegetables and cupboards full of delicacies she had smuggled in from the United States in her the real maple syrup she served with homemade pancakes on our second day there. Mmmm, a taste of home (OK, technically a taste of Canada, but pretty darn close).

On our first night in town, she whipped up a tasty pasta primavera, and then snuck back off into the kitchen to prepare a delicious dessert of blended mangoes, sugar, and milk, below. Simply delicious.
And Jorge introduced me to the guys down the street who make wonderful yogurt out of powdered and condensed milk. Hooray for homemade yogurt!
Danielle asked me and Andy if there was any type of food we missed from home, and of course our thoughts immediately ran to dessert. Since Danielle had all sorts of crazy stuff like brown sugar and oats on hand, we decided to attempt making a mango crisp (since it is mango season right now, mangoes are abundant and quite cheap) in the "oven"--an amazing stovetop concoction of Dutch oven and sand. Here's the crisp a-cookin'...we served it later à la mode with packets of Fan Ice squeezed on top, and it was such a success that Danielle made another one the following day!

In West Africa, Chinese restaurants are expensive, and instead Lebanese restaurants tend to fill the niche of quick and fairly cheap takeout. We all lunched at one in Lomé--Andy, Danielle, and Jorge all had plump rotisserie chickens with salad and chips, but I got a big plate of hummus, which I hadn't had since we left the states. It came with a pile of pitas and made my tummy happy.
This may look like meat on a stick, but it is actually soy! It is marinated in a peanutty sauce and is a popular Lomé snack.
This bowl of dried fish is resting on a saleswoman's head outside of a bus stop on our journey up to Kara. Dried fish is super-popular in West Africa--every market has a whole section of it, which you can smell before you even see it. (And it gives every sauce that hint of fishiness that Andy loves so much...)
In Kara, our second round of PCV hosts, Liza and Charley, took us to their favorite outdoor pintade place. Pintade is guinea fowl, which is kind of like a chicken. Anyway, this places hacks up a pintade, grills the pieces, and serves them with raw onions and two seasonings--spicy piment, and the popular bouillion-like Maggi seasoning--which you dip your pieces of fowl into as you eat them.
Along with a couple more PCVs from the region who happened to be in town, they also took us to a local restaurant that serves an array of starches and sauces for incredibly cheap prices. How cheap? All the dishes you see here cost about $1.50, total. Clockwise from left--meat sauce, cheese sauce (popular in Togo and Benin is a fresh-mozzarella-like farmer's cheese that is often fried in pieces and thrown into a tasty sauce) mixed with a fish-tinged vegetable sauce, pâte (a pounded cornflour concoction, sometimes fermented-tasting, as this one was), and another corn-based starch, baked in muffin molds, called something that sounds like hablo. (Spelling, anyone?) You rip off a piece of starch, scoop up some sauce with it, and eat.
Street breakfast in Kara--a fun-shaped donut.
A very popular drink in Togo is called Sport Actif. It's supposed to have a lemon-grapefruit flavor, but Andy and I didn't really taste the grapefruit. It is sugar-free and is meant to have electrolytes or something healthyish in it...I dunno, but it tasted good.
Behind the starch-and-sauce restaurant in Kara is an even cheaper place that serves fufu (pounded yam) and sauce. Andy and I stopped in for lunch and got three fufus and a bowl of sauce for dipping for 30 cents, total.
We have not been able to find our beloved sugary peanuts for a few countries now, but in Togo and Benin we did find peanut clusters like these. They tended to range in price from 2 cents to 5 cents apiece depending on size.
My friend Kathryn, a former Togo PCV, sent us great tips about things to eat and drink in Togo. On our last night in the country, I had to follow her advice and go to a tchouk stand--a roadside shack where homemade millet beer is served in gourd bowls. One bowl costs 10 cents. It's pretty much the social thing to do in Togo--I made friends with the guy you see next to me and learned a lot of sad facts about the state of education in Togo (he's a teacher).
On the nonalcoholic front, Kathryn recommended that we look for Cocktail de Fruits soft drink, since we liked Fanta Cocktail so much. Good call! We found a giant bottle for about 75 cents (yes, more than twice the cost of our fufu lunch). Slightly different taste than Fanta Cocktail, but very good...if, like us, fruit-cocktail-flavored soda is your thing, of course.
Thanks again to Liza and Charley, our last dinner in Togo was unique--street salad! We had never seen this before, but apparently it's a thing in Togo. The ladies in the streetside shack chop up and toss together lettuce, onions, beets, spaghetti, vinegar, and mayonnaise before your very eyes. I added a hard egg to mine, and Andy had chicken with his. They throw in some bread and voila, dinner. I guess the only thing that's really weird about this mixture is the spaghetti, which seems to be treated as a condiment in some parts of West Africa--I've seen it now added to salads, to rice, and even as a filling option for sandwiches...
Both Togo and Benin had those baggies of juice we love, and Andy was especially excited that lemonade (actually, I think it's usually limeade) was a popular offering. This bag that he bought on the Benin border was very sweet and his favorite.
Whenever your bus or car stops in a town, ladies run over with snacks to sell to the passengers. Sometimes, a town seems to have a specialty--we went through one place where all that we being sold were these bags of what looked like a chopped up yellow fruit along with a few coconut chunks. So I bought one. The coconut was good, but I don't know what the yellow things were...they were crunchy and not sweet. Hearts of palm is my best guess...
In Natitingou, Benin, the name of the game is fried snacks, and there is one vendor in particular who is the queen of them. She makes the fluffiest little savory beignets (donuts), wonderfully sweet plantain fritters, plus little crunchy fried things and yam chips. No pics, sadly, but if you are ever there, she is a couple of blocks north of the Ecobank on the main road--you can't miss her because her stand is constantly surrounded by a hungry mob.

Another fried superstar of Benin is what Andy calls "bean clouds"--a bean beignet with a wonderfully light texture. Here's a pic of one in Abomey with some spicy piment sauce on top.
Battle of the mangoes! I bought two different-looking giant mangoes in Abomey for a taste-off. One cost 20 cents and one cost 25. The 25-cent one was riper (too ripe, Andy thought) and the other one ended up having a bad spot so we could only eat about half, so it was a draw.
Failed experiment in Abomey--Andy bought three of these banana leaves filled with a steamed millet paste with sugar added. Sounded like a tasty idea, but we didn't like them much. At least they only cost 10 cents...we gave away our last two to more appreciative palates at the Internet cafe and hotel desk.
Fan Milk products are made in Ghana and Togo, but thank God, they sell them in Benin, too. And we even got to try a new variety--FanLait vanille (vanilla ice milk). All the flavor of Fan Ice with (I assume) less fat!
At the Marche de Dantokpa in Cotonou, we found a vendor selling these huge live snails, and she kindly allowed us to take a picture. (These are WAY bigger than the ones Andy ate in Morocco!) The little girl helping at the stall hid under the baskets when she saw the camera come out--people here are really wary about having their picture taken.
This meat on a stick in Cotonou was amazing. Pounded very thin and tender, then coated in spicy piment at the end. (Cheaper than Brazil's cheapest at 20 cents a stick, too.)
What's this, an undiscovered species of fried ball? These cost 2 cents each and tasted like hush puppies.
On our way to Ganvié, Andy tried this gloopy-textured and slightly-fermented tasting porridge. We've had better.
This may not look like much, just a plastic bag full of pineapple chunks. But oh, they are special. First of all, they are the sweetest, most delicious pineapple chunks we've ever had. And second they come from a Cotonou pineapple lady, who for 30 cents and in about 30 seconds will skin an entire pineapple in one spiral and cut it up for you with her giant knife. You find them in the Marche de Dantokpa and even just roaming the streets with big bowls of pineapples on their heads.
Finally, here is a bowl of beans from the fantastic "bean ladies" who set up in the street outside our hotel in Cotonou every night. The beans are stewed with spices and palm oil, then some extra palm oil is thrown on top for good measure. The ladies also sold bread and purified water sachets, and this bowl came as part of what we dubbed the "bowl of beans, loaf of bread, and gallon of water for $1" meal deal.
In conclusion, food in Togo was delicious and cheap, and food in Benin was possibly even more delicious and even more cheap. Things pretty much don't get better than that for us in food world.


  1. Wow, reading that post made me really hungry. I had totally forgotten about the salads with spaghetti in them! Seeing the photograph had me laughing out loud. I'm glad you partook of tchouk! And Cocktail de Fruits, of course. I also used to love Sport Actif. Aaah... I didn't realize how good I had it when I had it! Happy travels! Stay safe in Lagos! I'm reading a book set in Nigeria now: Ben Okri's The Famished Road.

  2. P.S. And I really, really miss pintade. (Kathryn again)

  3. all i can say is that i WANT that pineapple! :D

  4. Dropping in to say hi. Glad to see you guys are eating well! Love, jT and eveyln.