Mama Flora says something to me, smiling. I nod, pretending to understand. She sees through that right away. Finally my missionary contact, who’s eating with us, interprets for me: “She says to tell your father you can get married, because you know how to cook.”
Mama Flora is my landlady in Mwanza. We’re eating a meal that I bought and cooked with the help of her daughters. One of the daughters, the one whose name I can never remember, actually did most of the work, having quickly realized that I was too ignorant to be trusted alone in the kitchen.
We went to the market, fifteen minutes away by bus, and bought a live chicken, three kilos of uncooked rice, and some assorted vegetables. I let my host brother do the buying for me; if the vendors deal with me they’ll raise the price. The chicken is butchered, plucked, gutted, and cut into serving-size pieces as we watch. I carry the pieces in their own plastic bag inside the bag of rice.
At home, the kitchen is a corridor between two houses. It has a floor but no roof. The salient features for my task are the two charcoal burners, the bucket of water, and the low bench. Someone cleans the chicken and throws it into a pot with oil, water, salt, and ginger to simmer before I can blink.
Pretending I know what I’m doing, I pour the rice into a large flat basket and proceed to pick stones and bits of husk out of it. And pick. And pick some more. The real cook teaches me how to wash the rice. You put it into a basin with lots of water and pour the water into another basin. You let a little bit of rice pour into your hand, check it, and leave it in the second basin. You pour the water but not the rice back into the first basin and repeat. It seems to take hours to transfer all the rice to the second basin and get rid of the last impurities.
My plan had been to boil the rice in roughly twice the amount of water, as I would do at home. The Tanzanian way is to cook it in plenty of oil and add a little water later. It smells like popcorn.
I begin cutting tomatoes to make sauce the way I learned last week, when I observed the family cooking. My head cook orders me to peel them first (I learn a Swahili command: peel!). Then, observing my lumpy first products, she demotes me from peeling to chopping (I learn a Swahili command: chop!). I chop them small and start on a couple of onions, and then peppers.
When the meat is done, we put another pot on the fire and I pour oil into the bottom (I practice listening to a Swahili command: put!). After a long time it’s hot enough. I put the onions in and we wait another long time, until they’ve turned faintly golden. All the heat that’s not going into the food is scorching my leg as I sit. I add the tomatoes and stir them about for a long time. They cook down into something like a sauce. I add peppers and salt, stopping only to panic slightly when a cockroach crawls out of the jar of salt.
We started around 4:30 at the latest. By the time we finish sunrise has been and gone. Now I know why Tanzanians always eat so late.
The whole family eats together in the courtyard. The youngest teenagers serve their mother, their older brother, and the two guests, as is customary. Everyone compliments me on the dinner and thanks me for making it. I wish I had enough Swahili to explain that it wasn’t really me. But now I know how to cook properly, so I’m eligible to be married off.