Tapilapa time

“Tapilapa time” for me is usually about 1pm, and possibly again about 7.30pm when I get back from work, and my fondness for tapilapa regularly causes amusement among my co-workers.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about I should explain that “tapilapa” is the staple bread here which is sold in every bakery and bitiko (corner shop) and is very similar to what I would call a “French stick” or “baton” at home. It’s delivered fresh about 7am to our bitiko by a man with a small and dilapidated red van holding dozens of tapilapa loose in the back, or elsewhere you will see delivery bicycles going round town with a large square box above the back wheel in which are stacked a number of tapilapa fresh from the oven.

There are two types of tapilapa – a longer, thinner loaf with a harder crust, and a shorter, softer type known as “serrefour”. I love them both and always take one to work with me for my lunch break, and often have another for my supper. So far I am still managing to maintain my slim sylph like figure! The shopkeeper will butter the tapilapa if required and add a filling of hard boiled egg, or you can buy a filling from one of the roadside stalls which spring up morning and evening as the local ladies sit out with a large bowl of whatever is on the menu that day. This might be beans, or mayonnaise, or even pasta – but for myself, I prefer to make my own sandwich, often with cheese (real Cheddar), or Marmite. I’m told the latter makes me less attractive to mosquitos, and certainly they seem to prefer the flesh of my African friends. I have tried introducing some of them to Marmite but the taste is obviously acquired and so far my efforts have not been very successful. (Note: if anyone from Unilever is reading this you could always send me a large case of samples so that I can spread your Marmite more widely…..or more thickly)

My Gambian colleagues have quite different eating patterns and diets to me. It seems that although the day begins early here, I am considered strange because I have a bowl of cereals before leaving for work, whereas the locals eat nothing at home saying it’s too early, but may well have “breakfast” about 9.30 or ten o’clock. Then, for them, the main meal of the day comes around mid afternoon, by which time my lunch time tapilapa is settling nicely, and at that time they eat a large rice based dish, often eating communally from one bowl. Fortunately for me, when invited to join a communal bowl I am usually provided with a spoon, which is perhaps just as well, as when I try to eat with my fingers, kneading the rice and sauce in the palm of my hand, I invariably end up with sauce all over my face!

The major agricultural crop here is groundnuts (peanuts) and as a result they feature heavily in the menu. “Domoda” is a very common Gambian dish with a sauce made from groundnuts, or alternatively you may be offered “benacin” (one pot) where the rice and vegetables are cooked together in one large pot topped with fish or chicken, or possibly beef. Whichever you choose you will find a very liberal use of cooking oil – indeed one lady told me that you should be able to take the rice in your hand and squeeze oil out! The vegetables are most commonly cassava, bitter tomatoes, onions, okra, peppers of various kinds, and potatoes; and spices and stock cubes are used widely to add flavour. Cooking takes a long time and the ladies of the compound spend much of their day preparing meals, usually in large quantities, and often cooking over an open fire.

Here in the Kombos we are lucky to have the choice of a quite wide and varied cuisine. There are Indian and Chinese restaurants, European dishes too, Lebanese bars providing “chwarma” (a bit like shish kebab), and in the evening the Afra bars open until the early hours selling grilled meat. Most of the time I’m perfectly happy with the diet, although in this hot climate I find I need less “maintenance ration” and so I’m eating rather less than at home, but it would be lovely to have a nice plate of home reared roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, and an apple cream turnover would go down a treat! It’s at times like these that I’m glad I’m not up country all the time as it seems the diet there is considerably less varied.

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