HISTORY AND FOOD
Many staples of the Cameroonian diet came from the explorers of the New World (the Americas) though there are some indigenous foods shared with West African countries. The Portuguese arrived in Cameroon in 1472 and brought with them such foods as hot peppers, maize (corn), cassava (a root vegetable), and tomatoes.
Other Europeans who settled on the Cameroon coasts in the mid-1800s, with the British arriving first, followed by the French and Germans, also introduced some of their delicacies to the country. The French influence is reflected in the presence of some foods, such as omelettes and French bread, although the majority of Cameroonians continue to prepare their own traditional foods.
Foreign restaurants can be found in the big towns and cities of Cameroon. In 2001, the city of Doula boasted a number of Parisian-style cafes, Greek, Lebanese, and Chinese restaurants, as well as places offering pizza and hamburgers. Restaurants in the capital city, Yaounde, also offered a variety of cuisines, including Chinese, French, Italian, Russian, and traditional Cameroonian food. In the smaller cities however, street vendors and restaurants serve more traditional favorites than foreign dishes.
INDIGENOUS CAMEROONIAN FOODS
The staple foods eaten by the people of Cameroon vary from region to region, depending on climate, and what is grown locally. In general, the Cameroonian diet is characterized by plain starchy foods that are eaten with spicy (often very hot) sauces, meat on skewers, fried and roasted fish and curry and peppery soups are common dishes.
Staple foods eaten in the north are corn, millet, and peanuts. In the south, people eat more root vegetables, such as yams and cassava, as well as plantains (similar to bananas). In both the north and south regions, the starchy foods are cooked, then pounded with a pestle (a hand-held tool, usually wooden) until they form a sticky mass called fufu (or foofoo), which is then formed into balls and dipped into tasty sauces on the table. The sauces are made of ingredients such as cassava leaves, okra, and tomatoes.
The typical food in the southern region of Cameroon is Ndolé which is made from boiled shredded bitterleaf (a type of green leafy vegetable), peanuts, and melon seeds. It is seasoned with spices and hot vegetable oil, and can be cooked with fish or meat.
Bobolo is another of the common foods made of fermented cassava shaped as a loaf. It is popular in both the south and central regions of the country.
Fresh fruit is in abundance in Cameroon. The native mangoes are the delicacy of the people. Other fruits grown locally and sold in village marketplaces include oranges, pawpaw (papaya), bananas, pineapples, coconuts, grapefruit and limes.
Cameroonian cuisine is one of the most varied in Africa due to its location on the crossroads between the north, west, and centre of the continent. Also, the profound influences of French food add to the diversity of their dishes.
The main source of protein for most inhabitants is fish, with poultry and meat being too expensive for anything other than special occasions. Bush meat, however, is widely consumed; some of the most sought after species are the pangolin, the porcupine and the giant rat. There is also a thriving, illegal trade in endangered bush meat species such as chimpanzee and gorilla.
Given that Cameroon was colonised repeatedly, New World staples as well as European cooking techniques and culture were introduced several centuries ago. It is also influenced by its geography, with distinct differences between its North and South regions. Cameroon is made up of over 250 ethnic groups thus cuisine differs between ethnic groups or by region.
The soil of most of the country is very fertile and a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, both domestic and imported species, are grown. These include:
• Hot pepper
Among Cameroonian specialties are brochettes also known locally as ‘soya’ (a kind of barbecued kebab made from chicken, beef or goat), sangah (a mixture of maize, cassava leaf and palm nut juice) and Ndolé (a spicy stew containing bitterleaf greens, meat, shrimp, pork rind, and peanut paste).
During the month long observance of the holiday of Ramadan, Cameroon's Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. This means they are forbidden to eat or drink during this time. The evening meal during Ramadan may include a rich soup.
In most areas, a ‘fete des mouton’ festival is celebrated two months after Ramadan to remember the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice a sheep from his flock. This celebration lasts several days. During this season, it is customary for people to slaughter a sheep and then visit their friends and neighbours to give them gifts of meat.
Most Cameroonians celebrate Christmas, even those who are not Christian. It is a time for visiting friends and family, and exchanging gifts. Holidays and events, such as coronations; Farewell to friends and family going abroad; weddings, and even funerals, are marked by feasts and meals where friends and neighbours gather to eat local favourite dishes. It is traditional to slaughter and cook a sheep or goat at important occasions. Chicken dishes are also popular on holidays.
At mealtime, damp towels may be passed out to diners (before and after the meal), to wash their hands; Cameroonians eat out of common bowls. Using their right hands, they dip three fingers into the starchy food, often fufu or a millet dish, and use it to take some stews or sauces at meal. It is customary for the men to serve themselves first, while the women wait patiently and the children eat what is left after the adults have finished.
People of Cameroon eat three meals a day. A variety of foods including fruit, porridge, and boiled plantains, may be eaten for breakfast. Eggs and boiled cassava are also popular choices. Lunch and dinner are likely to feature a starchy dish such as fufu, boiled cassava, rice or millet, generally served with a vegetable soup or a tasty stew.
Meal preparation is very time consuming. Preparation of fufu for example, can take days. The cassava or yams must be boiled and pounded into a pulpy and consistent sticky mass. The current processed fufu from powdered starch or rice is less complicated in its preparation but still require tough continuous stirring.
Cooking in the villages generally takes place on a wood stuffed stove or charcoal fires, with iron pots and wooden spoons. In towns, canisters of propane may be used to power gas stoves. Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century electricity was seldom available for cooking except in the large cities.
POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
The government has tried for years to improve nutrition and health care, but there is a shortage of doctors and medical supplies, so the life expectancy is around 50 years. Less than half the children receive immunization against common diseases such as tuberculosis, polio, and measles.
Families spend about one-third of their income on food—mostly on plantains, cassava, corn, millet, and small amounts of meat. Peanuts (groundnuts) and beans are also an important source of protein.
FOOD & DAILY LIFE
Life without a safety net
Food is considered essential to hospitality and Cameroonians will go out of their way to feed a guest, even when they have little to offer. Life is a struggle for poor families, who rely on foodstuff from their own subsistence farming.
If drought or floods destroy harvests, there is no welfare system to which people can turn.
In traditional communities, women are seen as responsible for household work and face discrimination in a male-oriented society. However, perceptions are changing slowly.
Meals and snacks
Because of the high rainfall and good growing conditions in many regions, Cameroonians grow a wide range of crops. Meat and fish are also plentiful (for those who can afford them). With an abundance of home-grown produce, the country’s cuisine is known as one of the widest in West Africa.
In restaurants, French-style dishes are particularly popular, drawing on a range of ingredients. Cafes and small eateries, sometimes referred to as ‘chop bars’, focus on chicken, fish and chips. The chips can be made out of potato, yam or plantain.
For family meals, Cameroonian cooking often involves preparing a sauce of meat, fish or vegetables to accompany a carbohydrate staple of rice, millet, corn or tubers, such as taro or cocoyam.
In the north, meals are often based on maize and millet and peanut or palm oil sauces are common. In the south, yams, cassava and plantains are more often used in dishes.
Kola nuts are popular in Cameroon. Chewed for their bitter juice, which acts as a mild stimulant, kola nuts are often exchanged as gifts. Along the coast, coconut is also an important nut.
On the street
Street vendors offer barbecued kebabs of meat or fish (known as brochettes), often with a spicy powder made from magi, powdered pepper, curry and groundnut powder. In the south, fried plantains and cassava are sold. Sweet snacks such as doughnuts and pastries are also popular.
Although coffee is grown as a cash crop in certain parts of Cameroon, locals more often drink the instant variety. Coffee stalls open up early in the morning, serving locals with bread and fillings for breakfast.
Later in the day, tea and green tea are more popular as a hot drink. When it’s time to relax, locals often head to the ‘buvettes’, small bars serving beer, lager and soft drinks. However, if you’re looking for a bit of peace and quiet, these bars aren’t always the best place, since music or television is often tuned aloud.
Popular home-brewed beverages include millet (bilibili) and corn (kwatcha) beer. Palm wine (matango) is also popular in the south and along the coast.