SAO TOME and PRINCIPE: The quiet, undisturbed, and beautiful islands of Sao Tome and Principe are known for their rugged landscapes, dense forests, and sandy beaches.
One of the reasons why these little-known and scarcely visited islands display a high degree of endemism is the fact that they were never really part of Africa. Their geographic remoteness and the resultant unique conditions have contributed to the evolution of a rare and endemic array of flora and fauna.
Even more unknown about these islands are their distinct culinary traditions. Any regional cuisine is based on what grows abundantly in that region. This is especially true in Sao Tome, where the local cuisine is almost entirely composed of local ingredients and has little imported content.
Sao Tomé cuisine
Naturally, Saotomean cuisine is based on a variety of local fish and marine wealth, coconuts, and a variety of fruits such as plantains, mango, jack fruit, coconut, cocoa, coffee, beans, corn, and maize.
As a vegetarian, I arrived at Sao Tomé armed with a variety of Indian spices, condiments, and lentils. However, knowing that they would not last the duration of my long-term stay here, I was filled with dread, not knowing what to expect.
I later realised that my apprehensions were a bit misplaced, as local cuisine does contain a reasonable element of vegetarianism in the form of salads, local stews, and curries.
Furthermore, the availability of bakery products, bread, and local versions of vegetarian Italian dishes such as pizza, risotto, and pasta increased my comfort whenever I entered a local restaurant.
The local cuisine is largely an interesting fusion of sub-Saharan African cuisine with a heavy slash of Portuguese flavours mixed with a few local ingredients unique to the islands.
But fish play a huge role in the daily life of a Saotomean. Almost 17 per cent of the total population of Sao Tome and Principe is involved in the fish business, where women play a unique role.
I noticed in the early mornings, women unloading the boat with the daily morning catch and buying fish directly from fishermen and selling them in large baskets on the side streets.
A standard menu in any medium-sized local restaurant will often feature fish or chicken with manioc (a yellow-red flowering wild plant that is ground into flour and made into a pudding a bit like fufu in Ghana), fried banana, or maybe jackfruit.
Fish is so ubiquitous in these islands that it is a staple, along with rice or corn. With such a remarkable variety of local fish, it is truly a paradise for fish lovers. I noticed flying fish (peixe voador), which were split open and laid out on racks to dry on the beach. Other popular fish in local restaurants are the red grouper (cherne) and sea bass (corvina).
Fish lovers should not miss the Barracuda (Barriga de peixe), an ugly, prehistoric-looking fish grilled and served traditionally with rice (arroz), breadfruit or manioc. Most fish dishes are either grilled (grelhado), baked (asado) or boiled (cozido).
Other popular options include Feijoada, a wholesome bean stew made with either pork or fish and often served with riz creole (seasoned rice). Most dishes come with some spicy red Malagueta Piri-Piri sauce
The signature dish of So Tomé is the calulu.
It is a flavorful stew made with dried smoked fish and a delectable sauce of fresh oca leaves, palm oil, okra, watercress, malagueta chilli, and an assortment of fresh local herbs. Calulu is traditionally accompanied by rice or funje, a creamy cassava porridge.
To my surprise, I found that local restaurants were open to customising Calulu to my taste. Instead of fish, one can request a generous infusion of vegetables and spices to suit one’s palate. But this special dish cannot be prepared at short notice as it can take up to 4 to 5 hours to prepare and is usually ordered in advance.
Though Calulu has its origins in Angola as well, it is a national dish in these islands. At a certain level, a young woman is considered coming of age by the elders if she has mastered the art of making Calulu.
There are several other fruit-based staple dishes. Classic examples are the banana cozida (bland banana), semi-fried and served with a spicy red malagueta piri-piri sauce and safou (African pear). This is a kind of butter fruit specific to Africa, which when cooked tastes like butter.
Though street food is popular, it is severely restricted to a few snacks like grilled corn-on-the-cob, local versions of sandwiches and banana fries. But the beverage scene is interesting. The national drink is palm wine, also known as Vinho de palma, or vim pema in Creole.
This comes in various forms of purity depending on the region. The national beer, Nacional, comes in big bottles with no label, and one has to carry the bottle to have it refilled at local hut shops (local loja).
Another special drink is the Gravana rum, which is made from sugarcane. The Ussua is a kind of local toddy and comes in small bottles, wrapped with a twisted palm leaf. At the time of purchase, it looks like milk, and as it ferments throughout the day, it becomes more acidic, strong in alcohol content, and resembles a spirit.
Though Sao Tome and Principe produce small amounts of high-quality coffee, unfortunately, few cafés actually serve it (café de ca). Tea (cha) is more easily available in restaurants. The local lemongrass or cocoa tea of Principe is out of this world.
Soft drinks usually go by the same local name ‘Sumo’ (passionfruit, orange or pineapple, lemonade, and mango juice (sumo de manga).
Sao Tomé and Principe, also known as the Chocolate Islands, have already distinguished themselves in the international gourmet market for their high-quality cocoa, coconut oil, and vanilla. Sao Tomé’s vanilla was recently rated as one of the best.
Commodity producers in Sao Tomé have realised that Sao Tomé will prosper by focusing on quality and not volume.