When I was invited to join a Canadian-US media delegation sponsored by Montreal-based Afrique Expansion Magazine to attend the 38th Unity Day celebrations in the West-Central African nation of Cameroon, I expected to see a long military parade and perhaps get a chance to see some of the country’s tourist sites and new industrial developments.
Well, I did see the parade – several hours of military and civilian groups marching past the reviewing stand along a broad avenue in the heart of Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde. I also got a chance to see some of the countryside from Yaounde west to the Atlantic coast to the country’s largest city, Douala and points south, had an enjoyable visit to a village that is prospering from eco-tourism, and was introduced to Cameroon’s efforts to prevent extinction of its primates through the work of the Primate Sanctuary located in Chefou National Park, south of Yaounde.
The highlight of my visit, though, wasn’t what I saw – it was what I ate, or saw others eating. Cameroon has a national cuisine that can only be described as varied and exotic. A francophone country, it has, of course, been heavily influenced by its French colonial heritage. The western part of the country was, after German colonies in Africa were seized after World War I, was English, and there is some English influence there. Overlaying all this is traditional West African cuisine with a unique Cameroonian touch.
Sitting as it does as the crossroads of the north, west, and center of the African continent, Cameroon’s cuisine is one of the most varied on the continent. The national dish is ndole, a stew made from fish or beef, nuts, and bitter greens. Other staples include cassava, rice, plantain, maize, beans, and millet. Fish is the main source of protein for most of Cameroon’s people, whether they live in the city or the countryside. Another source of protein is bush meat, including pangolin, snake, porcupine, and a species of giant rat. Unfortunately, there is also a large demand for the meat of primates, including some endangered species such as chimpanzee and gorilla.
My introduction to Cameroon’s gastronomic largesse began on the second day, when our group was invited to lunch at the home of Afrique Expansion’s in-country representative, where we were treated to ndole, cassava, chicken, and fish. That was followed all too quickly by a late dinner at the home of one of the country’s traditional chiefs where more ndole, cassava, chicken, and beef were served. It was at this dinner, though, that our tour de cuisine took a unique turn. At the end of the buffet line from which we served ourselves was a large bowl of dark roasted meat that our host hinted we might not want to try. Some probing revealed that the bowl contained monkey meat, at which point it was tactfully decided not to ask what species of monkey. We were, after all, guests in his house.
On our third day – after a day of Unity Day activities – we explored the countryside south of Yaounde. Along the way, we observed eating establishments in small settlements offering everything from brochettes to boa meat (yes, the serpent variety). At the village of Ebogo, we saw the varieties of fish from the Nyong River, including the poisson de fer, and a small variety of catfish that is absolutely delicious when pan fried. Along the road, we snacked on dried plantain and fish.
Our final stop was the coastal city of Douala, the country’s largest city and a regional hub for shipping. At our hotel, the Akwa Palace, the food was mostly European, but local restaurants offered menus ranging from the mundane to the unbelievable. Sorrento, for instance, which bills itself as an Italian restaurant, offers pizza, steak, wild boar and crocodile tail. They even had a passable version of chili con carne, served with Mediterranean style bread. Entertainment was karaoke, with French pop tunes and American rock and roll, and a singer who filled in the spaces when the customers didn’t feel like singing.
I left Cameroon with fond memories; fantastic scenery, friendly people, and a sense that the country is trying to progress into the 21st century. But the most lasting impression is how it has blended the old and new, alien and native cuisines into a gastronomic experience that is unforgettable.