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17.12.2018

Caira arrives a little later than her usual in-time this afternoon. She falls, immediately, to vigorously scrubbing the heavyweight steel utensils of Caira African Food, a Tanzanian kitchen in west Delhi’s Nawada. Before the kitchen is permeated with food scents, Caira ensures it smells of soap and detergent – a lemony lather on the utensils, and later, soapy water to mop up the counters and floor.

“It’s very small,” says Caira of her four-chaired, one-person enterprise. The cooking and dining areas form roughly the floor area of a table-tennis table. One shelf on the wall holds a sparse collection of crockery, another indicator of the scale of operations here. 25-year-old Caira, dressed in a leaf-print green cotton maxi and matching head-wrap, glides breezily from one task to the other.

Her curls swing along in orderly motions; she did her hair herself. She used to work at the women’s salon next door until four months ago. Indeed, on a Sunday in October, it was Tz New Bless Salon’s Tanzanian entrepreneur, Blessing, who told us of Caira’s kitchen. “But the salon is not mine. This is mine,” Caira says.

These establishments are a little island of Tanzania with their shared landing and its snoozer occupant, a white Pomerarian bitch. Every now and then, one or the other compatriot emerges from Tz’s with towel-wrapped heads – as they wait for their hairstyles to set in -- to say hi to Caira, or to check in on their prospective dinner. Locals who stroll past like to glance in, but Indians, by and large, tend to give it a miss: “Indians say my food is expensive at INR 300 a plate.”

Today, Caira is making ndizi nyama, Tanzania’s beloved delicacy. It’s a stew of plantain and goat meat (or fish) done with carrots and tomato, in coconut milk. As Caira cleans and boils the meat, she demystifies Tanzanian cuisine for Indians. “We eat rice, chapati,” she says. She leaves her task and walks to the glass door at the entrance, made opaque by all the food photos mounted on it. She taps her left foot at the bottom-left-corner picture of chapati rolls. “We love chapati – we eat it in morning, night.”

Another picture is of wali na maharage,literally rice with kidney beans (wali is rice, and maharage, red kidney beans). “I know you call it najma,” Caira says, with a wink and a smile. She knows all about rajma-chawal. “No masala needed unlike in Indian cooking, though – only maggi cube and red chilli powder”. The palate of her Tanzanian food is on the bland side for a north-Indian used to heady spice mixes. “There are lots of Indian Punjabis in my country, you know,” says Caira. “They do business of clothes, make-up, and have big houses in Tanzania.”

Tanzania has about 70,000 persons of Indian origin, including expatriates. “In my country, if you see Indian people, we treat them with respect,” Caira says, referring to a racist attack on two Tanzanian and two Nigerian nationals in the neighbourhood last fortnight: “But I don’t know why Indian people do this here.” Her daily challenge is going home after shutting shop around 11pm “Lots of drunk men around here at that time.”

Caira and her husband, came here for better opportunities, much like the Indians who go to their country. “Those who study here get good jobs back home in Tanzania.” Caira’s husband is about to get a medical degree from Punjab University, and her brother is also training to be a doctor at a Bangalore college. Her four-year-old daughter stays back home in the care of her mother in Dar es Salaam: “I miss my child.”

As she lights up the burner, three of her friends drop in to eat ahead of time. Suddenly, there are as many pairs of hands helping Caira. One starts to peel and chop the plantains, another fetches tea and milk from a nearby shop, while the third gets maida and sooji to make the mandazi and ugali, respectively. The mandazi, an accompaniment to tea, is the Tanzanian version of the doughnut – made by mixing maida, eggs, coconut milk, and cardamom, cut in triangles and left to rise before being deep fried. The ugali, originally done with maize flour, is similar to the Congolese fou fou; and eaten with a variety of stews.

Before today’s meal is ready, a portion of okra-chicken stew is retrieved from the freezer and paired with freshly done ugali for a young woman diner. Caira cooks a dish or two each day, mostly picked from the collage of pictures posted on the front door. Small portions of leftovers from the previous day make it to the next (we score a bow of maharage). On a given day, the menu might feature chipsi samaki (chips and fish), mshikaki (marinated bits of meat that are skewered and roasted over charcoal), kachumbari (a finely grated salad whose name is similar to the Hindustani word for finely grated things: ‘kachumbar’), deep-fried ndizi (plantain) and viazi (potato).

While the cooking pot is being layered with the ingredients for the ndizi nyama, one of her friends readies a milky tea for all. Before we know, someone is sipping from an oversized plastic container, another from a mug (like one used with a bucket, to bathe). Caira bursts out laughing. “I don’t have cups!” and takes a sip from her rectangular container.

When the stew comes off into plates, it’s shared among twos and threes. The resident chef herself takes a plateful of the freshly done favourite dish to Tz’s, along with a gift – a handbag for her friend there – that she purchased during her recent shopping for the “very cold” Delhi-winter. The diner friends stay back at Caira’s, watching Swahili pop on their smartphones. As the mandazi dough rises, they eye their next culinary task that’s already cut out. It’s nothing unusual at Caira’s: “When my friends come to see me, they also help me”. The friendly local -- the snowy Pomerarian – ends her nap to unsuccessfully coo her way in and partake in the food. Through the open door, Tanzania’s inviting food-scents waft to the all neighbouring Indians, friendly or not.

Getting there: Caira African Food, opposite Delight Public School; Vipin Garden, Nawada, Delhi – 59 (nearest stop: Dwarka Mor metro station on Blue line)

Akshita Nagpal is an independent multimedia-journalist based in New Delhi.

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