Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Butiama Bed & Breakfast

Friday, 26 February 2010

Letter from Butiama: Culinary surprises

This is one of numerous articles I wrote for the Sunday News (Tanzania) column "Letter from Butiama" between 2005 and 2011. Publication date: 26th June 2005. 

It is said that most of the trade in meat for human consumption in Mara region is controlled by people from the Zanaki ethnic group. You will find them throughout the supply chain as cattle owners, as traders who buy and sell cattle, and more importantly, as owners of retails sales outlets. They are also making significant inroads into the business in the city of Mwanza.

One of the important lessons learned from investigating the factors that distinguish excellent companies from mediocre ones is the fact that the managers of excellent companies have concentrated activity in products or services they know well. One of the cattle traders I met recently seems to be well aware of this fact. He gave me a lesson about the various characteristics of meat from the various parts of a cow and concluded that the tastiest beef from a cow is from the inner thigh. Such above-average knowledge of one's product may explain the near-monopoly the Wazanaki enjoy in the cattle and beef trade in Mara region. I can see the possibility of Zanaki beef tycoons a hundred years from today controlling Africa's beef trade in the manner the Japanese have cornered the car market.

Notwithstanding the Zanaki's passion for cattle and beef, it remains true that one person's passion can become another people's taboo. The largest clash in cultures may be found in the choices that people from different cultures make about what they eat and what they don't. With some religions the consumption of meat is taboo. Vegetables and staples bear the burden of meeting the food demands of those cultures.

When a Tanzanian presidential delegation visited a European country in the 1970s a member of the delegation, during the dinner hosted by the Tanzanian president, came up with a practical joke whose outcome ruined everyone's appetite. He lied to a fellow Tanzanian that during an earlier dinner hosted by the monarch of the host country, the visitors had been served and eaten frogs legs.

It was meant to be a side chat between the two, but it produced unexpected results. After learning that he had eaten frog's legs several days earlier this man became violently ill and within minutes vomited on the royal plates.

During my student days in Italy, I and a friend called George from the Democratic Republic of Congo were invited to dinner by an Italian friend. He explained to us after placing the order that he had selected a special dish for us, normally reserved for close friends or special guests. He had ordered frogs legs. It was the first time I had eaten frogs legs and I recall the taste resembled the taste of fish. After the plates were placed in front of us George almost stood up to take a chair at the next table. As I and the Italian friend began to eat the legs George could not hide the agony of having to sit at the same table with us; the expression on his face reflected that of someone witnessing a horrendous act.

Our host, who had traveled to some African countries was surprised at George's reaction. How could George find frogs legs revolting when Giuseppe had seen people in Africa eat those insects that fly at night after it rains. Senene [termites], I thought to myself. George failed to understand our host's argument. How can anyone compare eating those insects with eating frogs? They were two completely different categories.

Neither George nor Giuseppe had eaten both frogs legs and Senene, and I was quietly amused that here were two people in an argument, which they were, in reality, not even qualified to participate in. I was the only one who had eaten both, yet I am still undecided which of the two is tastier.

But I believe I can safely say that taste is only in one's head. I have in the past summoned the courage to eat the most ghastly-looking varieties of food, only to find out they had delicious tastes. Different from one of our compatriots who fell ill in the company of a president and a monarch, I knew what I was eating at that restaurant somewhere in Italy, so the only surprise I can write about is that memorable taste of frogs legs.

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