Friday, January 25, 2008

Drinking Corn and Other Wonders of Cape Verdean Cooking: An Interview with Joana Guincho*

“Things made of corn, they are all good foods,” Rekina explained, hushing her three grandchildren in the living room overlooking the valley of Ribeira Cuba. “Cuscus, cachupa are good,” she said, referring to the steamed corn bread and corn stew popular here. Camoka--the toasted corn flour enjoyed with milk as a breakfast beverage--and Sheren--ground corn served like rice top the startlingly varied list of corn-based favourites, which, combined with beans, rice and fish, constitute the local diet. But behind this seeming diversity is one unpleasant reality: the mortar and pestle. For cachupa, “if you are good at grinding, you can grind it in ten minutes,” she says. “If you are not, you will take a long time….Me, I can’t do it. With my arm, I will start and then fall down on the floor” she says laughing.
In her sixty-eight years in Serra Malagueta, Rekina has cooked for children at the local elementary school, as well as her own nine kids who now live in Assomada, Praia, France, and Portugal. Rekina, whose real name in Joana Guincho, currently fixes lunch for the Protected Areas project staff three days a week.
She first started cooking when she was about twelve. “Sometimes it would burn, sometimes it would turn out good, sometimes it would be a little off,” she says, “but it always worked out.” When it didn’t, her mother would show her again. “Did she hit you?” I asked. “Oh yeah,” she responds, smiling. Some of Rekina’s specialities—like squeezing a bit of lemon on her cachupa, may have come from her mother.
But the diet has changed a lot in Serra Malagueta over the last few decades. “We didn’t have noodles, flour for bread, oil. Crackers came from far away…Even rice came in small quantities. Poor people could only eat rice during festas.” Today, these imported foods are essential supplements to the insufficient corn and bean harvest: Cape Verde produces only about 20% of its food, even though 80% of its population are employed in agriculture.
In the past, when rain was more abundant, local farms were able to grow a wider variety of crops and maintain more animals. “Almost everyone had animals,” she says, “cows, chickens, goats…We didn’t need oil, we had animal fat,” she mentioned, in addition to eggs and milk. At the same time, “we had lots more sweet potatoes, and manioc. We even made cuscus out of manioc. Now it costs 360 escudos per kilo.” This greater abundance and variety of produce flavored the Feijoadas (meat-bean stew) and cachupas of the past.
These local dishes are what she prepares for the Serra Malagueta staff three times a week. Not long ago she couldn’t have imagined serving local dishes to foreigners; “Ze [the local coordinator] and Iacopo [an international volunteer] visited me one day and asked me to make them lunch. I begged their pardon, because I didn’t have anything. But he said to just prepare cachupa, feijão, congo [beans]…Now I think its good when foreigners like you come. You get accustomed to our food. And now I don’t think it’s strange to prepare a cachupa, a beans, sweet potato for you.”
It is in this spirit that she has contributed her recipes to this book, a careful compilation of Serra Malagueta’s favourite dishes. Enjoy them while you are here and after you have left.
*Written for Serra Malagueta Cookbook


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