Our Africa Correspondent Nirav Shah has the verdict on being a herbivore in a meat-eater’s land. He shared his experience of being a vegetarian Jain in Swaziland. He gave some amazing restaurant recommendations for all the vegetarians out there.
Ever since I first lived in Cote d’Ivoire, Africa in 2009, friends and relatives have always expressed surprise at how I was able to manage my dietary needs being so far away from home in quote-unquote “Africa”. Eight months into my second stint in southern Africa in the Kingdom of Swaziland, the question of “But how do you survive? Do you get good food to eat?” still follows me whenever I visit India and meet people there.
To be fair, being Jain and a vegetarian since birth certainly lends credence to their question. I hope this article dispels the doubts faced by many vegetarians who consider visiting different countries on this beautiful continent but always shirk at the prospect of being confronted with difficult dietary choices.
Born into the religion of Jainism, I must admit up front that following the strict dietary norms of my religion is something I chose not to adhere to completely. For me, being vegetarian and not consuming eggs, fish or any meat is what comprises a rational balance between my beliefs and my practical life away from home. Another disclaimer I would make is that while my article title covers Africa as a continent, my experiences are derived from living in Cote d’Ivoire and Swaziland, and also traveling in Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda, and Ghana.
Having made these points at the onset let me quickly describe my gastronomic experiences of being a Jain and vegetarian in Africa.
In every country I have visited, I have known its indigenous inhabitants to thoroughly enjoy the consumption of meat; be it Swaziland where meat is consumed (often unhealthily) for 2-3 meals a day or Cote d’Ivoire where fish is a crucial part of the daily diet. Restaurants in Swaziland and South Africa often have menus filled with exotic meat preparations (from wildebeest to crocodile and even giraffe). However, I have always found it easy to find the right cereals, pulses, and legumes to help complete my personal nourishment.
In Cote d’Ivoire – my Ivorien host family would easily conjure up a meal of steamy rice complemented with a curry mixed with tomatoes, potatoes, and beans. Plantain bananas, yam, and sweet potatoes were other popular items on the menu that I enjoyed eating. Life in Swaziland is no different, with rice, potatoes, beans, maize being popular item consumed by locals and expatriates alike. Uganda with its strong Indian influence has roadside outlets selling fried plantain bananas and even salty chapattis (rotis) for immediate consumption.
Even if the country you are traveling in has low local production of vegetables and cereals, with increasing economic growth on the continent, a visit to a mall/shopping complex is all it takes to stock up on food imported from different corners of the world. A home-cooked meal for me in Swaziland often comprises using butter imported from South Africa, cheese from Europe, beans packed somewhere in India, and rice traveling all the way from Thailand. Truly a global world now! Add to that – the fresh fruits you are bound to find in abundance, and you should be sorted with a delicious fruit salad at the very least.
Visiting restaurants in certain African countries can sometimes certainly be a sad experience in the beginning. You can expect to be confronted with a menu stacked with non-vegetarian dishes, with 2-3 vegetarian dishes interspersed amongst them. However, if travel is the main objective for your presence in the country, then even these few options ought to suffice. The number of times I have consumed a veggie burger or a margarita pizza or a cheese and tomato sandwich at a restaurant or café is beyond count. With fast-food chains everywhere now, these are certainly easy to locate. If you are lucky, you will often find an Indian (or Pakistani or Bangladeshi) restaurant in the country you are visiting, especially if you are in the main urban centers. Gorge on a sumptuous biryani and some dal, while you still can! ☺
As you might have surmised by now, a strict Jain diet would make life extremely difficult in an African country, unless you are living there for long and cook your own food. A vegetarian existence, while seemingly boring, is certainly doable. The definition of ‘vegetarian’ often varies in different countries owing to different cultural experiences; hence please be specific on what exactly it is that you can eat and not eat. Else, rest assured. After all, the whole purpose of travel is to experience new places, people, and cultures. You could always recharge your taste buds once you are back home!!
Good restaurants for vegetarian fare:
Finding vegetarian food to eat was never a problem in all the countries I traveled to in Africa. Granted, choices might be limited, but the quality of the food often made up for it. Below is a list of a few good vegetarian eating joints in some of the countries I have traveled to.
Kingdom of Swaziland:
- Manlandela’s with its beautiful view, delicious milkshakes, and decent vegetarian menu has a butternut squash lasagna, vegetarian melt wrap, salads, and sandwiches
- Boma’s which is famous for its freshly baked vegetarian pizzas, straight out of a brick oven
- Green Chilli or Plaza Tandoori for limited, but good Indian fare
- Afrodite Café at the Alliance Francaise for delicious Italian cuisine
- Mediterraneo for enjoying Italian cuisine in a romantic, candlelit setting
- Masala Chaat House and Khana Khazaana for yummy Indian food which often tastes better than back home too! The ambience at Masala Chaat transported me back to an Irani café in Mumbai, while Khana Khazaana just felt like a roadside Dhaba in the North!!
- Cafesserie at the Acacia Mall for a lovely brunch, wonderful desserts and smoothies, and milkshakes to go with it
South Africa (Pretoria):
- Shayona is a pure vegetarian place specializing in Gujarati cuisine and offers simple curries and traditional Indian sweets
- Geet and Namaskar: Indian restaurants offering a wide variety of vegetarian options
- Piza e Vino pizzeria for a chilled out atmosphere as you chow down some pizzas and pastas
- Life Grand Café offers varied vegetarian continental fare, and is famous for its tapas menu
While Swazis are traditionally heavy on meat, they do surprisingly depend on a sizeable number of vegetarian dishes for their nourishment.
The day usually begins with a breakfast comprising of Incwancwa i.e. sour porridge made of fermented cornmeal, or tinkhobe i.e. boiled whole maize. This is accompanied by milk or emasi i.e. sour milk.
Lunch is usually meat based with either umncweba i.e. dried uncooked meat or umkhunsu i.e. cooked and dried meat. One can also eat papp i.e. ground maize and sidvudvu which is a porridge made of pumpkin mixed with cornmeal.
Dinner is focused on meat, or has rice with siphuphe semabhontjisi i.e. thick porridge made of mashed beans.
Sweet potatoes are also an integral part of the Swazi diet; and with the proliferation of supermarkets and imported food products; the typical Swazi often deviates from their traditional diet to gorge on burgers, pizzas, and pastas.
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