The Story

Sporadic Waffle Iron Use in Congo

By Lindsay Sterling

Maine resident, Ariane Kambu Mbenza, grew up with her uncle in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When she was seven years old, he asked her to be in charge of preparing food. Sure, Uncle. No problem. She had grown up watching her mother cook and played kitchen plenty of times. “In Africa, you know how to cook automatically.” Now a mother herself, Ariane showed me how to make what in Congo would be called, “Riz aux legumes avec poisson grillè avec la sauce tomate à l’ail.
For much of the twentieth century the Democratic Republic of the Congo was a Belgian colony. The Belgian colonists spoke French, not Beljish. (No one really speaks Beljish in Belgium, but I think they should.) In her adult life, she became a teacher’s assistant in London before moving to the U.S. to be with her husband. In English, she describes the dish this way: fried tilapia, yellow rice with vegetables and red sauce. For dessert (truthfully, an appetizer as we had them) were little bite-sized waffle-cookies called gaufres [pronounced Goaf].
            “Some people live by selling these,” she said as she put a tablespoon of batter in each quadrant of the waffle iron. “Like on the street in front of their door. You make your family survive, give you some extra money.” I would buy these gaufres on the street in front of someone’s door. They were dense, hot, pop-in-your mouth cookies with a built-in tic-tac-toe board. As if they weren’t perfect as they were, she said you could serve four of them with a scoop of ice cream in the middle, or top each one with whipped cream.
            Frankly, I didn’t expect a Congolese cook to whip out a waffle iron. “Did you use that in the Congo?” I asked, “And did you have a stove?” She said, “Yes, but the electricity would cut for 3-4 days. It’s not like it is here. So then I would cook with coals in a large can. I would mix wood and coals to make the fire last longer.”
            Then she opened a can of tomato sauce with a chef knife. It was amazing. She held the knife vertically over the can and then, with a pop of her hand on the handle, the knife entered the can. Then she cranked the back of the knife against the rim of the can with the knife blade pointing up. That is how you open a can in the DRC. Who needs can openers? I have been actually stuck with a can and no can opener before, and it seemed like such a pickle. No more!
She had de-headed the whole tilapia before I got there, and sliced it into portions. I thought it looked like great fish. She said she got it at Sam’s club. She’d marinated it in oil, dried parsley and a crushed Maggi cube (African bouillon of choice). And now she was frying the pieces in a shallow layer of oil in a large sauté pan. The fish turned out awesome: golden, crispy skin all the way around each piece and great flavor inside.
Ariane spent the rest of her youth in the South of France where her dad worked for an automobile company. Assuming nowhere on earth could ever compare to the South of France, I asked why she ever left. She said, “When you grow up somewhere, you need some change. I love discovering new things.” A woman after my own heart.

Copyright Lindsay Sterling 2013