Wednesday, May 16, 2007

sudani lunch

I had my first Sudanese meal today as part of a faculty collaborative to discuss the book we’ve chosen this year for the Community Book Program at Champlain College (the book is What is the What by Dave Eggers). I’m not a faculty member, but as a program committee member, I was able to join in.

The menu included:

Tamia: Chickpea croquettes with cilantro, sesame, and garlic

Shorba: Lamb/vegetable soup with peanut butter and lemon

African Chicken in Spicy Red Sauce served with Sudani Rice, Okra with Red Onions, and little rolled up flatbreads, which were a cross between Indian Nan and thick wheat crepes. Flavors included lemon juice, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, cardamom, wine, broth, tomato paste, cilantro, cinnamon, cloves

Crème Caramela: Sudanese custard

Sweet Hot Tea

The meal was delicious and somewhat reminiscent of North African food, with which I’m a little more familiar, and the Sweet Hot Tea served in wine glasses reminded me of the Moroccan mint tea I enjoyed once at the Hammam in Arles, France. There’s something so delicate and refreshing about drinking hot tea out of glass.

At our table of eight, we were lucky enough to have two Sudanese men -- two of the original Lost Boys to arrive in Burlington. One of them, Abraham Awolich, graduated from UVM a couple of years ago and was at the luncheon to talk about his program in Winooski, the New Sudan Educational Initiative. We asked them lots of questions about their expectations of America and their experience as refugees in such an unfamiliar place.

Daily life that we take for granted here turned out to be very complicated for these new Americans. Learning how to ride the city transit, for example, presented a huge learning curve for Abraham. How would he know where he was going or when to get off? His first time on the bus, he ended up riding twenty minutes out of town to Shelburne and then back again, when he really just needed a 3-minute ride up the hill to the University of Vermont. Finally, he was able to get help from a bus driver who pointed him to the right bus. But every aspect of his first days here presented many challenges.

When the chef introduced the menu to us, I asked, “So how accurate is this Sudanese meal?”

Abraham nodded his head and said, “Yes. It’s very accurate. We love these little breads,” he said pointing to the rolled up pancake in his hand, “but we don’t know how to make them. We were too young to learn how to cook when we were still living with our families.”

Everything is “We” when Abraham speaks, which illustrates the camaraderie that developed among these boys and girls during their journey across the continent of Africa, in the refugee camps, and finally here in America as they learned to navigate new systems and cultures. They essentially became surrogate family to each other when their real family was no longer around.

Abraham seemed interested in the food topic, which pleased me. He went on, “we eat a lot of okra in Sudan. But over there, it gets this big,” he held up his hands to demonstrate something the size of a cantaloupe. “You can’t eat it that way, so what they do is grind it up and make soup. We eat a lot of soup there. And milk and ground nuts and grains. But we don’t eat a lot of rice there (it’s too dry to grow it there). We have soba and millet. And there is a lot of tea -- sweet tea. They like it that way and it preserves better in the heat.”

“Do they grow tea in Sudan?” someone in the group wondered.

“Yes,” Abraham replied. “That’s why we drink a lot of it. There’s no coffee, but a lot of tea.”

I thought for a minute and tried to imagine what American cuisine would be -- or Vermont cuisine would be, for that matter -- if all that we ate was what’s available in our local region. Most Americans don’t think or eat that way. Sure, we Vermonters feel pride in our regional products like cheese and maple syrup, for example, and take joy in buying produce from the local farmer’s market. But we also eat mangos and limes and shrimp, even though they’re shipped in from hundreds and thousands of miles away. That’s the Western way of living. Even in Europe, where regional cuisine is still an important aspect of culture and identity, supermarkets are becoming more and more abundant.

And then my mind wandered to my morning cup of coffee. My fabulous rich and creamy, evocative and NECESSARY morning cup of coffee. If I could only drink what was readily available in my region, what would I do?

To say we have it made in the shade is an understatement, but meeting Abraham and his friend (who's name escapes me) made it possible for me to understand this on a very tangible level. It was a very enjoyable and educational experience.

* * * * *

To learn about Ten Things You Can Do for Sudan, click here.

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