What I miss most about home: My mom’s cassava leaves

I’m stuck in Johannesburg for the duration of South Africa’s lockdown. The thing I miss most is the food from home in Sierra Leone.

There’s definitely a huge difference in taste between South African and Sierra Leonean foods.

Growing up in Sierra Leone, a small West African country of seven million people, I am used to eating very hot and spicy foods. We eat lots of leaves. Our best stews and sauces include cassava leaves, potato leaves, groundnut soup, beans, okra and crain crai, among others. All these are prepared with lots of ingredients, but the most important is hot pepper.

I have always been a fan of South Africa: from the people to the culture, the music to the food, everything about the country excites me. In particular, I wanted to taste the chakalaka and pap. Other foods, like Cape Malay curry, boerewors, braai/shisa nyama and bobotie all made it to the top of my wish list of foods to try when I arrived in Johannesburg a few months ago.

It was easy to notice the difference in taste. I could hardly stomach my first South African food because it tasted bland compared to what I am used to.  That first shock made me resort to eating chicken wings and chips a few times in my first month here.

With Covid-19 lockdown measures in place, I can’t buy prepared food any more, and I am left with the grim prospect of cooking for myself, something I am very uncomfortable doing — in part, because I am so used to eating food prepared deliciously by my mother.

The experience of cooking my own food has been funny, but an interesting learning curve as too. I burned my hand on the first day I wanted to prepare a fried stew. After that incident, I avoided cooking for three days. But, goodness me, I just had to feed myself. How I wished  there were another option. However, with help from friends, I can now cook vegetable soup, fried stew (without burning my hand) and vegetable rice. I am even more excited about cooking now, because it is more cost effective than buying from a restaurant.

Back to my mother. She is a specialist in cooking cassava leaves, one of Sierra Leone’s best dishes, best served with cooked rice. The green leaves, grown widely across the country, are ground thoroughly, boiled until the raw smell disappears, and then cooked with groundnut; vegetables; hot pepper; fish, chicken or meat; and red palm oil. My mom has a special way of preparing cassava leaves. She uses smoked fish or smoked meat and adds boiled beans, plus other ingredients, making the final product look thick and creamy. I can conjure the aroma and I miss that sweet taste.

Showing love through food

Every day when my mother calls to check on me, her first question is, “Have you eaten?” I will find ways to say, “yes”, even when I have not. If I say, “no”, she will want to know why and then bombard me with loads of additional questions.

Even when I try to escape, she has a way of knowing that I answer just to please her. She will ask more questions like, “What you have eaten? Who prepared it? Did you like the food?” Honestly, sometimes it gets annoying and I feel like not picking up when she calls. She will even attempt to teach me how to cook on the phone; that is how thorough she is.

My mother and I are very close. We are like best friends. When I finally moved to live on my own, it was a difficult moment for her. I could still remember her staying up late at night trying to discourage me from moving out. I could sense the uneasiness and pain inside her. But it was time to learn how to survive on my own.

In the first year or two, I remember her visiting every weekend; she never missed. On each visit she brought my favourite — cassava leaves and rice, prepared just the way I like it. The food would be so plentiful that I could not finish it alone. My friends were always more than happy to join me, because my mom’s cassava leaves cannot be compared.

On very special occasions, like Christmas, Independence Day, or Easter, my mother prepares very special dishes for me and my friends. Before I came to study in South Africa, my mom always made sure I lacked no food and that there were reserved cassava leaves in the fridge.

Adapting to life here under the coronavirus lockdown makes me miss home even more. Managing to eat whatever I can has been very challenging, but I try to hide it from her. Despite my cooking adventures, I have mostly been eating bread, sardines and frozen food. I cannot eat cassava leaves here in South Africa, but I have managed to prepare groundnut soup, a popular sauce in Sierra Leone, by using peanut butter and other ingredients.

Sometimes when I struggle to cook, I just throw myself onto my bed and start thinking of my mother’s cassava leaves. How I have missed that taste ― my craving for it won’t go away, no matter how hard I try.

Abdul S Brima is a journalist from Sierra Leone. He is a media fellow with Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung.

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