Today I experienced the grocery store.
We occasionally go to the marche during lunch break at class... that is the outdoor market where you can buy most things. However, grocery stores do exist in Benin... they are not as commonly frequented as the marche (where you can buy fresh vegetables, beans and most grains)... and they are very small.
This weekend one of my brothers that live Cotonou was visiting, and today Mama, knowing that I had asked multiple times that week to help her cook, and that I like to cook, asked him to bring me to the grocery store so that I could pick out something to cook myself for dinner. Now, I knew full well even before stepping into the grocery store that the food was going to be different and that I wouldn't have the variety that I am used to. I have been asking to help cook... so that I can learn to cook the food that is here. The thought that I was going to cook myself a Beninois meal without ever getting to help her in the kitchen was a little overwhelming. But I am the girl who can make a meal out of anything... Right Mish?
I told Mama that the store was going to be different than what I am used to but I would see what I could come up with... and we were on our way.
Set the scene: A grocery store in Benin looks more like a 7-11 during the looming threat of a 10 day blizzard... not the NJ kind, the kind that sells liquor... Only in this version its mostly liquor... some toiletries... and 2 or 3 (very small and very very picked over) aisles of packaged foods. In these 2 or 3 isles you can buy: cous cous, pasta (only spaghetti and elbow macaroni), white rice, oats... cans of mixed vegetables.. canned olives...and you can stare hopelessly at a lot of empty shelf space. If you have the money the fancier of the two grocery stores we went to also had canned tomatoes and canned brussel sprouts.
We went to the fancier one first.. and I think since I looked so overwhelmed my host brother offered to take me to another store (little did I know that I was in the better of the two). In the second store I ended up buying a bag of macaroni and a small jar of olives. I honestly had NO IDEA what to do. In the first store I probably could have thrown together what I would refer to at home as an “end of the week meal”. I brought home my findings... and when I got home I showed Mama what I bought... and with what was probably the most defeated look ever on my face all I could say to Mama was “Je ne sais pas.” I think she felt bad for me.. and she made beans and rice for dinner.
THAT BEING SAID Its not all bad in the food world... as much as the grocery store was my inner chef's worse nightmare. The marche is pretty nice, aside from the tomatoes. You can buy many fresh vegetables: peppers (spicy I have yet to see bells), eggplants, carrots, zucchini, onions, cabbage and greens... many types of beans... oranges, pineapples, ginger root, fresh coconuts, lemons, bananas, and mangoes during mango season. I have even heard rumors of beets.
I am still trying to think of a name for the tomatoes.. because tomatoes they are not. They are small and pale and do not contain juice... kind of like juice-less plum tomatoes with no flavor.
Side note: The smaller grocery store was selling one very surprising product: There was a mystery product labeled “Vegetarian Protein”... It was dried,, being sold on the shelf in a plastic bag, and resembled pork rinds. I wouldn't know how to cook what ever it was. Maybe an adventure for another day?
Happy Belated Birthday Mom!
Dreaming of Jersey Fresh,