05 March 2010

Tree ID and the Cameroonian Food Pyramid

Before I get to other issues, can anybody help me identify this very strange tree? I live in the Western highlands of Cameroon at an elevation of 1500m. The tree is in my neighbor’s live fence, but I’ve never seen it growing wild. As you can see below, it bears very queer-looking fruits that resemble the eggs of a reptilian extra-terrestrial race. The fruits are about 2cm in diameter.SDC11186 When the fruits are picked and cut open, the wounds exude a lot of sticky white latex. I am pretty certain that they’re inedible. I have noticed, however, that ants are attracted to the lighter green splotches on the fruits. The immature fruit is semi-hollow and the interior surface is covered with what look like thousands of villi. These grow and fill in the fruit as it matures. The fruits feel like really soft racquetballs when you squeeze them.  Below you can see the fruit cut open and some leaves. The tree had a somewhat bushy habit, although it had also grown about 7m tall. The leaves are simple and alternate. The bark is thin, white and nondescript. Who knows what it is? My first thought was that it is some type of wild, inedible fig, but the leaves don’t look like the fig trees I’ve seen.


I promised a roundup of Cameroonian cuisine. All I really know is Bameliké cuisine, but I’ll give you guys a brief summary based on the Cameroonian food pyramid. The graphic and the following excerpts are stolen from Cameroonian Dietary Guidelines 2010, published by the  Maggi Inc. Endowed Ministry of Nutrition of Cameroon.


Palm oil (12-43 servings per day): At least six thousand calories (of the recommended eight to ten thousand calories per day) should consist of palm oil. Very few Cameroonians have difficulty meeting this dietary requirement. However, if you have trouble consuming enough palm oil, alternative sources of fat include pig and beef skin, squash seed oil, and and soy oil, although the latter two suffer from incomplete hydrogenation (saturation). Bringing your palm oil consumption up to par can be as simple as asking your local beans-and-beignets lady to ladle another tablespoon of grease from the fry pot onto your beans.

Palm oil is the staple cooking oil, and it is used in mass quantities to fry nearly everything. Also, if a food was stewed, boiled, roasted, or somehow else cooked without being fried, palm oil will invariably be added just before serving, “for flavor.” Raw palm oil is rusty red, opaque and quite thick. Refined palm oil is a deep, transparent tan color. Both are a strongly-flavored, low-quality cooking oil. The comment about having extra oil ladled on your beans as “le sauce” is no joke either. The woman who runs my local beans-and-beignets shack looked at me with confusion and suspicion the first time I asked her to not pour extra grease on my food.

MSG (4-8 servings per day): “Avec Maggi, chaque femme est une etoile.” With Maggi, every woman is a star. This has been the pan-African slogan of Maggi International Seasoning Conglomerate of China Incorporated  for the last fifty years, and it rings as true today as it did then, Give your husband the glutamic acid he needs in abundance; he deserves it… Experience the vast array of complementary Maggi MSG delivery systems, including Maggi Original(you know and love it as “le cube”), Maggi Arome (liquid MSG concentrate), Maggi Poulet, Maggi Oignon et Épices, and Maggi Crevette. Also, new for 2010 and aimed at the discerning but budget-conscious consumer, try Maggi Poubelle, refined from the pure effluent of our Guangzhou factory and naturally fortified with mercury and other essential heavy metals… Use of inferior sources of MSG, such as the Honig Beef cube, has been linked to erectile dysfunction and depression in your husband. Additionally, insufficient dietary MSG has been shown to lead to an increased risk of infidelity, heartbreak and divorce among Cameroonian couples… Remember, with Maggi, every woman is a star!

I would like to note now that I am officially very much pro-MSG (monosodium glutamate), despite the selective editing of the above quote which might imply sarcasm. 1) Glutamic acid is an amino acid that is one of the essential building blocks of human proteins. 2) Humans have evolved taste buds specifically receptive to glutamate ions, called “umame” or savory receptors, and so as a result 3) everything tastes much better with MSG. Finally, 4) many of the most delicious foods, such as tomatoes, nori (sushi seaweed), aged cheeses, miso and cured meats contain high levels of naturally-occuring glutamate.  It is thus my uninformed opinion that anyone that says that they have an allergy to MSG is either a moron or willfully full of shit. Nobody is allergic to any other amino acids that are necessary for making human proteins. Also, you never hear of someone getting a “tomato headache” after eating lots of natural glutamate from a few tomatoes.

In short, MSG is the real deal, and haters are just trippin’, Feel free to correct me in the comments if it turns out you have good evidence to contradict my opinions on MSG. I’m still going to cook all the time with Maggi, though. How can it be wrong when it feels so right?

Starch (8-10 servings per day): The bulk of calories not obtained through palm oil should come from starches. Cameroon has many, many starches to offer, including cassava, taro, cocoyams, yams, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, corn, rice, plantains, millet, beignets, and wheat bread. Beignets, fried balls of dough, contain all three of the most important food groups and are thus considered a “complete food.”

There is a surprising variety of starches available in Cameroon, and they’re all prepared in their own unappealing way. Cassava (French: manioc), which contains cyanide, must be leeched, dried and then cooked in a lengthy process to make it edible. Popular preparations include the batôn de manioc, which is cassava flour wrapped in banana leaves in a log shape and boiled. Then, the batôns often sit around for a few days, during which time they ferment. It’s like eating a soured glue stick. I am not a fan. Couscous de manioc, which is another common preparation, is not what you think of as couscous. It is just cassava flour boiled in banana leaves, a little less firm than the baton and unfermented. This is often eaten with sauces such as fish and peanut butter sauce. Finally, popular among bachelors for its ease of preparation, but slightly toxic, is the whole boiled cassava. I am not a fan of cassava.

Taro is an interesting starch that makes a paste similar to what you would get if you mixed talcum powder with water. It is the starch in a strangely delicious dish called achu. Like a sneeze. Achu is taro paste made into the shape of a bowl, into which a yellow sauce is poured. The yellow sauce has as one of its main ingredients ground limestone, which sounds awful but is actually pretty good. The sauce has various other spices and sometimes fish, and I can definitely recommend it.

All the other starches listed are usually boiled. Couscous de mais (corn) is another staple. Plantains I have come to love. The trick for me was to stop thinking about them as a bad banana and to think about them as a good potato. The quantity of starch that Cameroonians eat at a meal is astounding. Jessica, my four-year-old homestay sister would routinely eat more rice than me at dinner. I’m talking three to five cups of rice.

Meat (1-2 servings per day): Common meats include beef, goat, chicken, rat, pig and fish. More exotic meats include monkey, lizard, cane rat and rabbit. Fathers should make sure to consume all the meat in a meal before their growing children can get any, to show them who’s the boss.

Cameroonians don’t eat a lot of meat with each meal, but most meals contain at least a little. ALL organs are eaten. Beef skin is very popular as a meat all to itself, even though it is nothing more than a 1/2cm layer of fat. The hair is singed off the skin before cooking, making for terrible smells. Large piles of intestines can normally be found on top of the various grill stalls around town, which is unappetizing to me. The beef is uniformly low-quality, but it is very cheap, around $2 a pound.

Chickens are bought live. Killing, de-feathering and gutting them is an involved process which is not fun at all.

Rat is another very popular meat, which I’ve had twice. The first time, my neighbor cooked it, and it was wretchingly awful. It had an extremely strong, gamey taste. It’s possible that the animal sat dead in a trap for a few days before being cooked. I swore it off completely until just last week, when my other neighbor invited me to eat with him. I was insufficiently cautious in accepting before finding out what was on the menu. Of course, it was rat, purchased from the woman who sells hot meals at the junction. This time though, it was cooked in a good sauce and was only moderately gamey. I came close to enjoying it. It is not something I’ll seek out, though. Rats are prepared by singing off all the hairs, and then cutting it into seven segments, the head, each leg, and two rounds of torso. I don’t think people eat the tail, strangely. Rats are obtained two ways: first, people set traps in their field. I stepped into a jaw trap once and my foot smarted for days! Luckily I was wearing my hiking boots. The other method is to set a brush fire and have a hunting dog chase them down as they flee the fire.

Fish is very popular, both smoked and fresh. The smoked fish is not delicately smoked, dill-infused lox. They are whole fish that are smoked at high temperatures which chars the outside. Infrequently, there are maggots inside. Fresh fish is caught by giant Chinese trawlers, processed and frozen on-boat, and then sent to Cameroonian markets. The entire fish is eaten, including the head and skin. The local fishing industry has been destroyed by the Chinese, who obtained the fishing rights at bargain-basement prices with a wink and a nod and hands moving discreetly under the table.

Monkey is a very highly prized meat owing to its rarity, as most of the monkeys have been killed for their meat. One day during training, the health volunteers went to the restaurant that they normally took lunch at. The woman opened up the pot, and there was a big hairy monkey head staring out at them. Nobody was sure if they were deliberately trying to gross them out or if they really thought that the Americans would be enticed by the hairy monkey head covered in sauce.

Lizard is a meat that I have yet to try, although one day I was in the market and I saw a huge, maybe four foot long, black and yellow lizard. The guy wanted $12 for it, and I considered buying it, but then I realized I didn’t know what I would do with a thirty pound lizard.

Spaghetti Omelets (1-2 servings per day): Although these could be considered part of the meat, starch, and palm oil groups, most Cameroonians will agree that they deserve their own special group. For maximum health benefits, be sure that the omlette actually floats on the grease while being cooked. Serve with bread for an extra boost of starch. Sprinkle with Maggi Arome before serving.

Yes, the venerable spaghetti omelet, the  fast food of Cameroon. They are pretty delicious, especially when the spaghetti gets fried a little crispy. Don’t call them spaghetti omlettes, though, as you may not be understood. A conversation my friend had at an omelet shack: “I’d like a spaghetti omelet.” “We don’t serve that here.” “What do you have then?” “One or two eggs spaghetti.”

Fruits and Vegetables (use sparingly): Vegetables should not be consumed in excess, as this takes up space in the stomach which could be used for more calorie-rich foods such as palm oil. When possible, vitamins and minerals should be thoroughly boiled out of vegetables before serving. Fruits, while an expensive treat. are not actually considered food.

While a wide variety of vegetables are available here in the Western highlands, people consume very few vegetables. Onions, carrots, leeks, peppers, tomatoes and celery are not considered vegetables in their own right, but are instead called “condiments”. These are pulverized in small quantities and added to sauces, but they’re never cooked and prepared by themselves, and most certainly never eaten raw. The main greens that you can find here are cabbage (normally fried), amaranth leaves (fried or boiled, and absolutely delicious), what’s called huckleberry in the English-speaking regions and simply “legume” in the French regions, and bitter leaf. The last two are very bitter if you don’t boil them with baking soda in at least three rinses of water. As a result, they have almost no nutritional value.

So that’s my explanation of the Cameroonian food pyramid. In upcoming weeks I’ll make a post about some specific Cameroonian dishes with recipes. That’s it for now though. If you got the impression that I am not a fan of Cameroonian food, you would be only partly right. I do like a variety of the dishes, but nothing so much so that I would want to cook it at home. Many of the dishes that I like also involve hours of preparation for only a moderate payoff, flavor-wise.

Some odds and ends:

  The big news these days is that the rains have started, and so agricultural activites have really picked up. At APADER, we’re getting ready to install contour bunds, or “bandes anti-erosives”  on 1/5 ha. of land, which is no mean undertaking. The contour bunds will consist of two rows of trees each, one row a N-fixing tree like Acacia, which will also be good for beekeeping, and the other row various fruit trees. Today I helped to weed the coffee plantation until I learned that my co-workers had just sprayed the plants with fungicide and insecticide. I looked at the fungicide packet, which said in case of poisioning, “There is no known antidote. Treat symptomatically.”I decided to stop. 

In other exciting news, I got a kitten. His name is Franz. He’s named after either Franz Fanon (he’s all-black and brooding), the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, or the “stun guitar” player for The Scorpions. SDC11191 It really all depends on who I want to impress. He is very affectionate, almost too much so. I find it unseemly for a cat to beg for affection, and I normally prefer more independently-minded cats. But he is a good mouser, which is why I got him, and he cheerfully eats anything I give to him.


  1. This is my favorite of all the posts so far.

  2. Any word yet on what the tree is with the multi-colored fruit?

    The archduke reference I got but I had to look up Franz Fanon and the band. What about Franz Lehar, Haydn, Liszt or Kafka? So many Franzes to choose from. You're going to miss him when you eventually leave.



  3. he'll always be darcy to me! adorable picture.

  4. I love that I googled images of foods in Cameroon and one of them was your infamous Food Guide Pyramid! I'm including it in my Nutrition Presentation for both Health and Agro PCTs and am thinking about reading your entry from Le FauxOignon! You're great!

  5. Palm oil......of the recommended eight to ten thousand calories per day???? shouldn't it be just 2 thousand to 2 thousand five hundred a day for any healthy person??