Forest Foods of the Forest People

'This is a unique opportunity to narrate the little-relayed story of the ingredients, dishes, purchasing and sustainability struggles of living in the Congo rainforest'. For the latest post in our Dark Kitchen section, we follow eco-chef Sadhbh Moore as she makes the perilous and bumpy journey into the local market to shop for supplies. A rich and leafy food story of palm oil, cassava bread, green bananas, wild mushrooms, honey and weevil grubs.
has lived in the Congo rainforest of eastern DRC for the past year, pursuing her interest in the intersection of human and planetary health through the lens of food sustainability. She co-authored the book Sustainable Kitchen, and has worked as an eco-chef and community cookery teacher for much of her career, including a stint in Antarctica.
Gleaming, vermillion oil palm fruits are roasting in an old barrel over a fire pit at the edge of the wildlife reserve. The fortnightly journey to collect rations was only halfway through. The one laterite mud road through this part of rainforest is so deeply pitted that you learn to hold your tongue to the roof of your mouth for fear of biting it; the double cabin land cruiser hits the dining-room-table-sized potholes with such a thud that your jaw often clacks shut involuntarily.

Stopping at this roadside rokl mill for a snack of oily palm carp was a welcome break. The caramel flavour and richness of the fatty, bright pericarps as they roasted made it instantly apparent why this crop is so valuable. Palm trees are to the tropics what olive trees are to the Mediterranean; multi-use and integral to food culture – palm oil has a high enough saturated fat content that it semi-solidifies when cool, and it has a high Vitamin A content in its unrefined state. Fortunately for the forest, the orange, viscous palm oil that these small cooperatives of forest inhabitants churn through a rudimentary oil drum press is for local use and sale only. Palm tree plantations are not permitted within this wildlife reserve in the troubled east of DRC, where I’ve lived for over a year now. There are clusters of trees scattered about that the indigenous hunter-gatherer Mbuti and Bantu forest dwellers alike collect the fallen fruit from.

Palm fruit roasting in an old oil barrel at a roko

This morning, without hesitation, the oil press workers shared a handful of these roasted fruits with our logistics team on our food buying mission for the conservation NGO we work with in the heart of the Ituri Forest. The millers seemed entertained by my inquisitiveness – it was my first time stopping at an artisanal huilerie, or makeshift oil mill – and they willingly assisted with cracking opening some kernels too, so I could try the messa, the oily white nut inside the stringy fruit.

The fortnightly food-supply refill mission to Mambasa is both exhausting and enthralling. After the chaos of the day, I reflect on the bumpy drive home, appreciating all the new ingredients and foods I’ve learnt about from the local cooks I shop with and from the street vendors. Food supply chain logistics in this region of eastern DRC are extremely challenging. There is little formal economy, on top of a multitude of other security, infrastructural, climatic and related issues. 

In the market, I recognise the blackened, roasted palm fruit kernels I’d seen en route at the roko, piled in sacks outside a mud-walled warehouse in the market. In this small-scale palm kernel oil factory, kernels are fed into a mechanical mill to crack them open and crush the oleaginous insides. This palm kernel oil (known as PKO in industrial food production), distinct from the red fruit oil, is mostly used in soapmaking. The global demand for palm kernel oil and the consequent tropical deforestation and habitat loss is well documented. Campaigning organisations highlight multinational corporations’ use of PKO to cheaply bulk out ultra-processed foods, and to use in toiletries, and cosmetics. Palmitic acid, a palm oil derivative, was also used in combination with naphtha, a liquid hydrocarbon, to produce napalm. 

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Tarp and corrugated tin cover the narrow alleyways that make up the meandering food market. There are butchers’ stalls, fruit and veg vendors with goods perched on roughly cobbled together planks, overflowing tubs of beans and rice being sorted through for stones and twigs by their seated sellers, and roving vendors selling wares from tubs effortlessly balanced on their heads as they duck and weave through narrow lanes of the market. Deep in the market, beyond the smoked fish stalls, there is a section that sells smoked bushmeat. As necessary as this protein may be in some locals’ diets, the consequences of the global bushmeat trade are catastrophic for biodiversity loss and it also poses a zoonotic disease transfer risk. The head cook always leads me brusquely past these stalls, knowing I would be disappointed to see the array of wild animals’ body parts on display, some of which could even come from within the reserve. She guides us to the chalkiest tubs of dried cassava roots she can find, and we have them milled into cassava flour, kaunga, in the dusty, rickety mill behind the market. 

Selecting cassava flour in the tub, Mambasa market

Kaunga is a component of the African staple fufu or ugali. Fufu are fist-sized, doughy, white orbs made with cassava flour, cornflour and water. A main meal is not complete without fufu, much in the same way a meal in much of Europe is not seen as complete without bread. Fufu is eaten with beans and sombe, the minced leaves of the cassava plant boiled with local palm oil and alliums. Chikwangue, or cassava bread, is a fermented cassava flour mash found across Congo. The fufu-adjacent mash is steamed in banana or marantaceae leaves, making it an indigenous convenience food contained in its own biodegradable parcel for takeaway. Fufu is to bread what chikwangue is to sourdough bread. It takes up to two weeks to ferment chickwangue flour, so it’s usually purchased ready-made. Plantain and imported, often low quality, rice from Asia are the next most widespread staple starches. 

Chickwangue and beignets

Stalks of sturdy green banana plantains, referred to as régimes, arrive at market strapped to the side of delivery taximen’s motos (motorbikes) throughout the market day. The vendor women mob them for first dibs on the best branches, and haggle for the best price. This happens in front of us with a fresh delivery of pineapples, as we negotiate the purchase of a régime of bisamun plantain (a less sweet, more slender variety). The moto driver pulls up with a selection of pineapples that the vendors know they can sell us big spenders from the HQ of the reserve. We wait as the tussle and barter process between vendors plays out once more. It strikes me that we could have cut in and bought the fruit directly from the driver ourselves, cutting out the middle (wo)men and extra mark-up cost, but of course we couldn’t have. There are unspoken rules and processes in even the most informal of economies. 

Ripe plantains are often mashed to make ‘lituma’, eaten in much the same way as fufu, with the right hand as an aid to scoop up sauce. Potatoes, white-fleshed sweet potatoes, pumpkin, yam, taro and bread make up other carbohydrate foods of the northeast region of the DRC, but they are more expensive and less widely available. Faustin, driver and a local friend, explains that potatoes are more integral to the diet of those outside the forest towns, around the cities of Beni and Bunia, where there is more agricultural growing land. In Goma, in the shadow of Mount Nyiragongo, North Kivu province, potatoes are simply referred to as ‘Irish’. Their flavour is unrivalled due to the mineral rich, volcanic soils of the region. In categorising carbohydrates, beignets deserve a mention. They are eaten across DRC and much of the African continent; deep-fried sweet doughballs, ubiquitously eaten as a grab-and-go breakfast or snack, known variously as puff-puff, bofrot or mandazi, from West to East Africa. 

On market days we find a menu-less roadside eatery where we have lunch. This usually consists of one of the starchy staples accompanied by beans, greens and either pork, beef, chicken, goat or fish, usually grilled or in a thin tomato sauce accompanied by pili pili, local chilli sauce. For most inhabitants of rural areas, meat is prohibitively expensive and as a result, not eaten regularly. Storage of fresh meat is also impractical when most buildings don’t have access to electricity or a generator for refrigeration. Fodo fodo, or salted fish, can be bought in most market areas, for use in the nationwide dish makayabu. 

As abundant as the market may sound, this variety does not stretch as far as the village stalls that line the often impassable mud road through the 100km-wide stretch of the wildlife reserve. Other than logistics, growing crops in the reserve is challenging. If plants make it past seedling stage and into the sandy soil, there will be huge competition for them, in one of the most biodiverse places on earth. As soon as banana ovaries develop into a hand of miniscule green bananas on the rachis (flower stem), any of the seven plus monkey species present around the village will gobble them all up, if not the baboons or elephants raiding the spoils of the ‘agricultural zone’. The same goes for attempts to grow tomatoes, pineapples, or any flowers or fruit that monkeys can get their little opposable-thumbed hands on. This human-wildlife conflict is a constant struggle in a reserve.

If plants make it past seedling stage  there will be huge competition for them, in one of the most biodiverse places on earth.  As soon as banana ovaries develop into a hand of miniscule green bananas … any of the seven plus monkey species will gobble them all up

There used to be a market day in the village, when farmers came to sell their food produce. The threat of violence drives food insecurity in multiple ways, at multiple points along a food supply chain, but this is one such example that really hit home when first exploring why there isn’t more choice of produce in the village. With armed groups residing in the forest, often linked to the illegal mines and poaching, predictability of movements and the concentration of goods and money in forest villages on a recurring day is not safe. It makes a market an easy target. Even the food logistics team venturing to the nearest bigger town outside the reserve, 70km, or two hours extremely bumpy drive, on a regular day of the week sets off alarm bells for the security team. The cow butchering days in this market town are Wednesday and Friday, which doesn’t leave much choice for days to restock food rations, when a lack of consistent refrigeration may mean running the risk of giving your camp food poisoning if you don’t buy meat as fresh as possible, on those days, and transport it in cool boxes with ice. 

Back in the village, spiky-edged, cloud-shaped leaves of gourds, known as bishusha, tumble across the uneven, sandy red terrain. One of the cooks harvests some leaves from her vegetable plot, to sell to us for the staff kitchen. These pumpkin leaves cook down to make a soft, bright green side with a meal. A hardy purple stemmed spinach variety and amaranth leaves, sold attached to soil-laden pink stalks ,can occasionally be bought in the village too. We stock up on these when we can, and process and freeze them in batches, to ensure dietary diversity for staff, instead of defaulting to cassava leaves, the only fresh leaves consistently available in the village. 

Mbuti man carrying foraged mushrooms in a marantaceae leaf parcel

The indigenous forest people of this area, the Mbuti, gather and sell, or trade, wild honey, forest mushrooms, fruits, seeds, medicinal plants, leaves and fibres used for construction of forest huts and homes; these are all classified as a non-timber-forest-products, or NTFPs in conservation jargon. We buy mushrooms, honey and wild passionfruit for the staff kitchen. Some Mbuti men bring bags of fumbwa (Gnetum africanum) having come to learn we have a taste for it, although it is not typically eaten in this region despite it being freely available, growing wild in the forest. The leaves of this evergreen, perennial, shade-tolerant vine are eaten across Congo basin countries. In Cameroon it’s known as eru, in Nigeria it’s wild salad or afang.

One of the cooks hailing from outside the region knew of it and cooked it one day, introducing diners to a new dish, boiling the fibrous leaves down with peanut butter and smoked fish (see recipe below). There is already a multi-million-dollar cross-border trade of this plant from the forests of west Africa, bringing this nutritious leaf to Europe and America. This trade is resulting in a significantly increased demand for the species, threatening the resource base for local populations. As we see time and again, no food supply chain is without its potential negative impacts.

Mbuti woman with baby selling wild forest mushrooms on the roadside

We also buy mpose, or palm weevil grubs. These have traditionally been gathered by the Mbuti and Bantu communities of the forest from raffia stems and palm tree trunks, but a more consistent supply comes from the alternative protein pilot project that the conservation NGO co-managing the reserve has helped to establish; the palm weevil grub house where they are farmed, fed on sugarcane. Once mpose are fried in oil with seasoning they make for a tasty, crunchy protein source popular across much of the Congo basin region. The mature form, the capongopongo beetle, as it is locally called, is also an entertaining pet for young forest inhabitants. I came across children keeping them on a string, laughing giddily as the beetles buzz and fly around their heads. It reminded me of the simple childhood joy of keeping a tadpole in a bowl as a temporary pet.

Anthropologists, filmmakers and international travellers to the Congo basin rainforest have long observed and celebrated the indigenous knowledge and ritual embodied in the Mbuti’s honey

A novelty was coming across foraged fuzzy caterpillars and huge, green-shelled snails being sold on the market on different occasions, depending on their season. These alternative proteins and NTFPs are integral in the diets of forest people. In one store in the bigger town, a dark, unpasteurised forest honey is sold, but it is rebottled and the packaging does not credit the Mbuti gatherers. We even get requests for bottles of the wild honey from urbanites in the eastern DRC city of Goma when we pass through. Anthropologists, filmmakers and international travellers to the Congo basin rainforest have long observed and celebrated the indigenous knowledge and ritual embodied in the Mbuti’s honey, recorded in their writings and media outputs over the decades. Mbuti men climb up colossal trees with a smoking faggot to smoke the bees out of their hive in order to harvest this central energy source in the Mbuti communities diet. The raw, wild honey is often strained through an upcycled mosquito net and bottled in 1.5-litre repurposed water bottles. It is considered by many to have medicinal properties.

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Mpose, palm weevil grubs

Most stories that come from eastern DRC are harrowing, focused on the state of insecurity, disease outbreaks, natural disasters, mining, or any combination of these complex and interwoven issues that usually involve loss of life, suffering, environmental issues, and an insufficient humanitarian response. But amongst poverty and hardship, and without trivialising the huge challenges DRC faces, there is always food culture. This is a unique opportunity to narrate the little-relayed story of the ingredients, dishes, purchasing and sustainability struggles of living in the Congo rainforest. There are distinctive ingredients, dishes, expressions of place and community through food. And beyond the seemingly infinite biodiversity and fascinating plant and animal life in the Congo basin rainforest of eastern DRC, there are human lives, eating their local cuisine every day, both to survive and to thrive. The continuous balancing act of wild nature and human subsistence, with its rapidly expanding list of needs and desire for development, plays out here in this village everyday, beside the ever raging rivers through the Congo basin.

Despite strife in eastern DRC and many areas of the Congo basin, there are noteworthy and distinct foods, with celebrants and associated occasions, dishes, interactions and reliances that are little recognized, overshadowed by the dark cloud of hardship. When it comes to food, DRC is large; she contains multitudes.

 

To make an approximation of fumbwa:

Serves: 5

Prep time: 20 mins

Cook time: 30 mins

 

400g of baby kale, cavolo nero and/or spinach (or if you’re in Central Africa and have a source, use Gnetum africanum)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium fresh tomatoes, chopped 
1 finely chopped onion or 4 medium sized, washed spring onions, chopped, including green stems
1/2 a crumbled veg stock cube or 1 teaspoon of bouillon stock powder 
1 cup smoked fish, such as mackerel, with bones and skin removed and flaked
4 tablespoons red palm oil (look for RSPO certified, such as Nutiva), or coconut or vegetable oil
4 heaped tablespoons of peanut butter (preference: dark roast). Traditionally people roast and grind the peanuts themselves).

Bring half a cup of water to the boil in a medium saucepan, add greens, and turn down to a simmer. Stir them into the water to wilt them down. Then add stock cube/powder, onions/spring onions, minced garlic, smoked fish and chopped tomatoes and mix together.

Allow these to simmer together for 10 minutes, before adding 4 level tablespoons of red palm oil and 4 heaped tablespoons, or roughly a measuring cup, of peanut butter/ground roasted peanuts.

Cook all ingredients together for another 10 minutes. Serve with fufu, plantain, rice or mashed potato, accompanied by beans or grilled meat. 

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 23 – Dark Kitchen

The Spring issue 2023 is set around our Dark Kitchen table where writers, artists and cooks explore food culture in a time of unravelling

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