2000s Archive

Hungry For Adventure

continued (page 3 of 4)

Nervous chickens pattered across the floor under the tables. “Lunch?” I asked the owner, nodding toward the chickens.

He just grinned. From behind the compound, I thought I could hear the frightened squawking of a chicken getting its neck wrung.

Malat’s barefoot daughter, wearing a capulana of brilliant orange, yellow, and red, approached with a plastic bowl and a pitcher, with a white towel draped over her arm like a Parisian sommelier. I followed Zizi’s lead and let her pour warm water over my hands.

The matapa finally arrived, accompanied by another of Mozambique’s unique dishes—xima—a dense mixture of ground maize and water. The combination of the deep-green matapa, its lobster-claw centerpiece, and the pale xima made for an attractive ensemble of rustic colors and textures.

I couldn’t identify every type of sea­food in the matapa, but I was able to detect mussels, small prawns, clams, and one small hard-shelled crab, claws and all. Soft-shelled crabs I know, but this shell was hard, and, much as I tried, I found the critter just too small to pick apart. Noticing my puzzlement, Zizi took it from my fingers and popped it into his mouth, crunching through the shell.

Now for the matapa. Thick and creamy, it had a sweet and smoky, slightly nutty taste that wasn’t so overpowering it masked the discrete flavors of the seafood. In fact, each delicate clam, prawn, and mussel was remarkably distinct. I suspect my awe was akin to that felt upon discovering land on the Other Side.

I told Malat I had to see firsthand how the extraordinary dish was prepared. We wandered into the red-dirt yard out back, where his daughter stood over a mortar rhythmically smashing peanuts into powder with a thick wooden pestle. She was, he said, just getting started on the matapa for the next day. Sitting nearby under a cashew tree was her younger sister, grating coconut meat, from which she’d squeeze out the milk. So these were the coconuts that were supposed to make the difference ...

After the peanuts are pounded into an oily mixture, Malat explained as we walked back out front, cassava leaves are added, along with garlic, piri-piri (tiny hot chiles), and shaved green papaya. Raw prawns and whatever other seafood is available, coconut milk, tomatoes, and onions are thrown in, and the mixture is left to simmer for about five hours. It becomes, at least to my taste, quite possibly one of the most intriguing, satisfying dishes I have ever eaten, worth almost any effort—short of blowing oneself to smithereens. I could not get enough of it.

Using their fingers, the fishermen mixed arroz de coco, white rice boiled in coconut water, and the matapa into a ball, then they flicked the wad with their thumbs off their fingers into their mouths. They handled this motion with some finesse and made it appear that this was the only reasonable way to eat it. There was no mess, no slurping or finger licking, and no need for metal utensils. After getting the hang of it, I decided it was a fine way to enjoy the meal.

“We are happy now,” Guebo said, downing the last of his sura. “No more war. Good times coming.”

With the smoky taste of the matapa still lingering, we piled into Zizi’s rickety pickup and drove past a campsite of military tents. A group of weary men in orange jumpsuits sat against a eucalyptus tree smoking cigarettes, taking a break from their work.


Ready For Its Close-Up

Mozambique is like a young girl dressing up for a party to which she hopes she’ll be invited. Following a devastating civil war, the southern African nation is almost convinced tourists will soon discover she is as pretty, or prettier, than the rest. With stretches of wide, unspoiled beaches running a thousand miles along the Indian Ocean, plenty of wildlife, and eager-to-please people, Mozambique is quite possibly one of the few remaining “undiscovered” places left on earth.

The capital, Maputo, previously known as Lourenço Marques, was created by the Portuguese with style, charm, and logic; it was once regarded as one of the more vibrant cities on the continent. While only a shadow of its once-splendid self, Maputo has the potential to regain its preeminence among African capitals. Jutting out like a strong chin into the sea, the city offers colonial buildings of faded elegance, wide tree-lined (but often rather broken) streets, a remarkable cathedral that rises from the city center with futuristic grace, and an elaborate but nearly deserted Victorian railway station designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel that conjures up the days of elegant rail travel. There are sidewalk cafés and even a thatched-roof outdoor pub, a favorite haunt of the expats.

Mozambique is the current darling of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (and for good reason—it has one of the fastest-growing economies and one of the lowest inflation rates in Africa). Perhaps because of the donor traffic, there are some superb hotels and restaurants in Maputo.

Where to Stay

Hotel Polana

Avenida Julius Nyerere, tel. 491 001, fax 491 480. This 78-year-old hotel, with its elegant rooms and sea views, is considered among the finest in Africa. Doubles from $175.

Hotel Cardoso

Avenida Martires de Mueda, tel. 491 071, fax 491 804. Recently refurbished, the Cardoso also overlooks the sea. The food here is excellent. Doubles from $115.

Where to Eat

Ungumi (Avenida Julius Nyerere), in the former Vietnamese embassy, is said to have the best cuisine in the country. The more modest but classic 1908 (Avenida Eduardo Mondlane) is another reliable place. For some local eats, head to the Feira Popular, down by the waterfront, with lots of little restaurants and bars.

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