Beyond south Delhi’s wedding venue of the Chhatarpur farms, we scout Rajpur Khurd Extension - the city’s corner of pan-African society - to confirm rumours of food to be had from Congo. During our search, we run into Flora, a friend of Angela (the Cameroonian chef who opened this series). Flora runs her own Cameroonian kitchen in Chhatarpur.
Uday, the auto-driver, who does the supply-shopping for Flora’s Kitchen, turns out to be the genie who knows everything about African food in this neighbourhood. Through the rain-ravaged kuchha roads of Rajpur Khurd, Uday drives us, relaying his favourites: “When I get Flora’s tilapia stock, I also buy some for myself, and fry it up in mustard oil at home.” (He skips the plantain.)
It’s early evening, a little early for the kitchens to open; but a few knocks at the right doors, and we’re soon in a second-floor flat overlooking a narrow street, talking through a mesh-and-iron door with Cedric, a young Congolese man, while Uday leaves for his next round of supply-shopping. We’ve land up out of the blue, and Cedric has to ask: “Who are you?” His suspicions are valid; African nationals have had difficult experiences in this part of town, as in others.
Still, Cedric lets us in to his two-bedroom house that he shares with his domestic partner. As soon as we settle on the sofa, he starts talking on the subject, business-like: “We have the mongo fish, and the crawfish.” There’s also “madesu,” red kidney beans. A short pause later, there is mention of makayabu, a salt fish well-known along the Congo river. Since there aren’t many Congolese kitchens in Delhi, it means cooking your own food or making do with the cuisines available here.
“When we don’t cook, we have food from KFC or some other place,” he says. But, to feel full, he must have fou fou – the staple Congolese starch made of water mixed with some flour - corn, rice, semolina, cassava, or yam - a mixture that’s then rolled into balls; eaten with soups, stews, and just about everything. “If I eat fou fou at 7 this evening, I can go on till noon the next day,” Cedric proclaims.
To prove how this arrangement works well for the Congolese immigrant in India, he checks the time on his phone. “Most Congolese go on living by the time back home even upon shifting here,” he says. (The time difference with the Democratic Republic of Congo is between 3.5 to 4.5 hours). He doesn’t seem to be joking.
Cedric has kept Congo hours here for a long time: eight years, ever since he came to get a BBA at a private college in Delhi. (He’s a capital city kind of person; “never even visited parents’ villages in Congo”). He went on to work as phone-booking staff in a tour-and-travel company; now, he is part-time cook at his Congolese kitchen and part-time guitarist for Rio Des Djika, a band of Congolese nationals in Delhi. “We recently performed at Sharda University; you should come for our upcoming show around Lodhi Road.”
Today, he’s at a break from both jobs. “We cook 4-5 times a week, based on orders.” The “we” he refers to is himself and his partner, Kirsesa, sitting on a chair opposite, observing us in quiet scrutiny. “She is a wonderful cook, really,” Cedric says, and then jokes, “She’s called Kinshasa!” punning on her name. She gives him a sharp look, even though she has trouble following English, unlike Cedric. He got halfway through his English and Hindi-language courses at a class in South Extension. His own languages - the ones he prefers to speak around his people are “Lingala, Swahili, or French.” The latter “is learnt like you learn English in school, while Lingala, Swahili are what Hindi is to you.”
The food-lesson resumes: we learn about pondu, whose mention makes Cedric dreamy-eyed. This is a dish made of ‘pondu’ or cassava leaves and mfumbwa (another set of greens, that are natural forest produce and not cultivated). He likens pondu to paalak. This staple of Congolese households circulates in New Delhi through WhatsApp. “Whoever brings pondu from Congo, posts about it on our WhatsApp group,” he says, and this means an open invitation to come and eat this mass-favourite. Cedric has less trouble finding most of the other ingredients he needs. “Everything that’s found in African shops.”
Cedric gives us a checklist of foods common to many African nations: tilapia fish, chicken, goat and cow meat. There’s also dika: “melon used in my country,” he says, “as well as in Nigeria, Ghana, and most of Africa.” Spices? “Maggi and Knorr cubes,” he says, poker-faced. For grease, there’s palm oil. “Like, you cannot make pondu in Fortune oil. You need palm oil.”
That’s how you know Congolese cooking is unique and distinct, he goes on to explain in detail. “If we’re making chicken, we first burn the chicken with spices and then fry it in sauce, while most others just add the chicken to the sauce and fry it together,” he explains. “What is this for, some survey?” Kirsesa interjects, still suspicious.
“Do you know black fish?” Cedric asks us, and passionately explains how they make smoked fish out of the mongo fish he’d mentioned at the start. “We put it over a wood fire for four-five hours.” He rests, as if content, he has relayed enough about his cuisine to us. We take this as our cue to go, and to come back when they are cooking.
To eat Cedric’s food, call +91 8745926502. See past installments of The Food We Miss here.
Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia-journalist based in New Delhi. She tweets at @AkshitaNagpal
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