Guinea-Bissau

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Bon día! This weekend found us in Guinea-Bissau, which happens to be the northwestern neighbor of our previous globetrotting destination, Guinea. While Guinea is a former French colony, Guinea-Bissau once belonged to the Portuguese. As colonies, Guinea was called French Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau Portuguese Guinea.

The number one export of Guinea-Bissau is the cashew:

We woke up Saturday to a sound that would probably startle most Bissau-Guineans: a snowblower clearing the paths of the building complex next door. Here in Buffalo, we had a few inches of snow overnight. In contrast, it was in the high eighties in Bissau, Guinea-Bissau’s capital.

For breakfast, I made rice porridge. While I couldn’t find a recipe specific to Guinea-Bissau, I referred to a recipe for a Ghanaian porridge, rice water porridge. I assume the Ghanaian version is closer to how it’s eaten in Guinea-Bissau, than, for example, the Chinese version of rice porridge, congee. Instead of making a thick and creamy porridge, we had a much thinner porridge, due to the high water to rice ratio, so “rice water” is definitely a fitting name. The thin porridge makes sense, if you’re trying to stretch out your rice supply. The condensed milk we added to our bowls as sweetener might not be a luxury that most Bissau-Guineans have, since more than two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line.

After breakfast, we went grocery shopping, which was a little more challenging than usual, because people were just starting to clear their sidewalks. It was a pretty walk, nevertheless.

When lunchtime came around, I prepared “peanut” sauce with squash (subbing sunflower butter for the peanut butter), okra sauce and rice. Derek and I both liked the okra sauce, even though I could see how the slimy/foamy texture could be off-putting to some. It’s probably not the best dish to start with if you’re new to eating okra. The squash had too much water, which was my fault for not reading the recipe closely enough, rather than the recipe itself. Still, everything added up to a comforting hot meal on a cold day.

As usual, we referred to Geography Now to get more oriented to this weekend’s country:

We thought a little caffeine pick-me-up sounded like a good idea, so we decided to have some tea, West African style. Bissau-Guineans partake in  warga, a sweet green tea. Rather than being a drink that one absentmindedly drinks while doing something else, warga is an experience. The tea is served in three rounds: the first batch is bitter and strong, even with the generous amount of sugar, and the next two rounds are milder, and include mint in the brewing process. Senegal, Guinea-Bissau’s northern neighbor, also seems to have this tea ritual, but calls it attaya. We found a helpful guide for adapting the tea-making process to our Western kitchen.

Here’s Derek preparing the tea. The purpose of pouring the tea back and forth between two cups is to create foam, though that didn’t work for us. Traditionally the tea is poured back and forth between small glasses, which are also used for drinking the tea, but we weren’t sure how well our drinking glasses would handle hot tea, so we used tea cups instead.

We watched a number of other videos in the afternoon, starting with an explanation of Guinea-Bissau’s flag via the Flag Friday video series. We then got a glimpse of a day in the life of a young girl, and then took in scenic views of the Bijagó archipelago, courtesy of a video produced by Orango Parque Hotel, an eco-friendly hotel.

Dinner consisted of peas and meat, a recipe that Derek found in the Guinea-Bissau section of The World Cookbook, and rice. The peas and meat recipe calls for cubed mutton, beef or turkey, but he used cubed seitan (added towards the end of cooking time, since it was pre-cooked). The result was a nice, thick stew, though neither of us are sure what was so Bissau-Guinean about it. The stew reminded me of the stew I made during our Icelandic globetrot, in which I substituted seitan for the prescribed lamb.

We started to watch a 1983 documentary from a French filmmaker, Chris Marker, called Sans Soleil (“Sunless”), as I had found out that parts of the film were shot in Guinea-Bissau. The documentary is very much an art film, rather than a film driven by plot or character. We try to be openminded about movies, especially when it comes to globetrotting, but after almost an hour of watching this documentary, we gave up. If you’re still curious, this is the closest thing I could find that resembles a trailer. Apparently Sans Soleil is well-regarded, with a 92% score from critics according to Rotten Tomatoes, and an 87% audience score, but I can’t see the appeal.

Instead, we watched a short piece produced by the BBC, which addressed the human impact of drug trafficking in Guinea-Bissau. While the piece ended up feeling like an anti-drug PSA, at least its message was discernible, unlike Sans Soleil. 

Since we stopped Sans Soleil early and the BBC piece was just a few minutes long, Derek decided to make the dessert he had found a recipe for, cassava in syrup. The cassava almost had a candied quality, from being cooked in the syrup.

The next morning, I made a smaller batch of porridge, and then mixed in the previous day’s leftover porridge near the end of the cooking time. The porridge was noticeably thicker this time, and easier to eat. We also listened to gumbe music from Guinea-Bissau.

In the morning, we watched The Blue Eyes of Yonta, a 1992 film from Bissau-Guinean director Flora Gomes, which centers on several characters in post-independence Guinea-Bissau, most notably Vicente, a freedom fighter still adjusting to life after the war, and a young woman named Yonta (who actually doesn’t have blue eyes). This was a much better look at Guinea-Bissau and its people than Sans Soleil the previous evening.

The first part of the film is here:

We ate more squash, okra sauce and rice for lunch, and then went out for an afternoon walk, despite the cold temperature. While I wouldn’t want the eighty/ninety-degree weather Bissau is currently having, if they could give us twenty degrees or so Fahrenheit, I wouldn’t complain.

For dinner, we had more peas and meat, plus rice.

Considering that we didn’t know much about Guinea-Bissau beforehand, I think we did pretty well this weekend. Next time, you’ll find us back in the Western Hemisphere, when we’ll be in the South American country of Guyana. Until then, tchau! 

– Jess

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