A Picky Eater in Botswana (Daily Life: Food)

This blog gets this title because it is the exact phrase I Googled approximately 30 million times in the months leading up to my departure for Botswana. It was my biggest worry going into the semester, and I figured now was the time to write a blog about food. This one goes out to all of you potential study-abroad-ers who have the palate of a five year old and are cowering in your room wondering if you can get mac and cheese in southern Africa.

The answer is no. (I know, I’m going to eat SO MUCH mac and cheese this summer, I am VERY ready)

But the bigger answer, the answer to whether or not you can make it as a “selective” eater at the University of Botswana is a resounding yes.

In some ways, it is almost easier to be a person who likes a lot of the same foods, not a ton of flavor, and not a ton of variety. If you want to eat plain rice for every meal of the day, every day of the semester, it’s so easy to do that. But what kind of life would that be? I’m a picky eater, but I’ve been known to enjoy a little bit of flavor too.

So here are some thoughts on food at the University of Botswana. I’ll include pictures of food at the bottom. Bon appetit!

You can eat on campus

The refectory (dining hall) closest to the Las Vegas hostels (dorms) where exchange students typically stay is called Curry Pot and it’s decent. You pay P15.30 ($1.53) and get a plate with a starch, meat, some veggies (which they refer to as “salads” no matter how cooked or uncooked they are), and a cup of concentrated juice. The basic things you can always count on:

Starch:

Pap: Ground maize meal, which looks like mashed potatoes but tastes like absolutely nothing. Still a decent base if you mix it with stuff

Sorghum- Also made into a porridge-type thing, sorghum also doesn’t taste like much, but has a ton of fiber, is generally pretty healthy, and is a lot more gritty than pap

Rice: So much rice. All the time.

(Pretty frequently)- Pasta. Usually spaghetti, the only trick is that they don’t use marinara sauce or any typical American type of spaghetti sauce. You can get “soup,” which is kind of a stew/gravy kind of thing on top of it, but it’s kind of gross and non-vegetarian friendly. Plain pasta it is for me!

-(Occasionally) Samp- Basically maize cooked with some salt and stuff. Actually tastes super good.

(Occassionally)- Samp and Beans- ding ding ding, we have a winner, this is the BEST thing ever. I am seriously going to miss samp and beans so much when I leave Botswana, it tastes amazing and it’s so filling. Not everyone agrees with me, but I LOVE it.

(occasionally)- Dumplings- These are pretty rare, but sometimes they have what is basically just a round blob of wheat flour, cooked. They’re alright.

            Meat:

-Lol, sorry, I can’t really comment on the meat much cause I’m a vegetarian, but there is almost always chicken, and sometimes beef and sausage. The meat-eaters in our group seem relatively content with it. Pro-tip, some in our group have bought bottles of Nando’s peri-peri sauce at the grocery store and bring it with to add to their food to make it tastier.

Salads:

Butternut: I’ve become a big fan. Butternut squash (though no one says “squash,” they just stop at “butternut”) is a staple and usually prepared just as chunks of boiled squash. Doesn’t taste like much, but it’s alright.

Beetroot– They call it “beetroot,” not “beets” and will look at you weird if you say “beets.” I hated beets before this semester, but now I eat them all the time and they’re pretty good. Just call me Dwight Schrute.

Cabbage: Oh goodness, so much boiled cabbage. In my first few weeks here I started to really like it. There are some seasonings they put on it that make it taste pretty good, but now I’m pretty sick of it.

Broccoli and Cauliflower– Mom, look at me, I eat this now!!! It’s just steamed Broc and Caul (do people ever shorten those names? They should) and doesn’t taste like much, but they have it about twice a week and it’s exciting

-Steamed Carrots: The best. Tastes like home.

-Weird carrots shredded and mixed with mayonnaise (maybe, I can’t really tell what it is). This tastes weird.

-Boiled potatoes: Chunks of potato either covered in mayonnaise (mayo is way to common here), or with a pretty good tasting redish sauce that I can’t describe or identify on them.

– Chakalaka: This is a mix of beans, pepper, onion, tomato, and chili pepper (and maybe some other stuff). It’s way too spicy for me, but I mix it with pap and it’s alright.

-Spinach: This is African Spinach, so it tastes a little different, but it’s pretty good. It is usually cooked with some onions and tastes like pretty standard cooked spinach. I’m a fan.

-Actual Salad- This is what to be wary of. It looks good, a chance to finally have some lettuce again (The Grinnell salad bar will look SO GOOD next semester), but in our group we have noticed this is the most common thing associated with us having… “intestinal trouble” to say the least, and that happens enough here that you’ll be pretty eager to avoid it if possible. I stay away from the salad now.

I might have left of one or two things I forgot about, but that’s pretty much it. It sounds like a lot of variety when I type them all out, but if you tried to type out all the dishes in the Grinnell dining hall it would take forever. I’m not exaggerating when I say this is the complete menu, on rotation. So if you can come to enjoy these foods (or tolerate them), you’ll be alright.

Street food:

Sounds sketchy, really isn’t. There are people selling food at the gates of UB all the time. They generally have the same traditional food that is at Curry Pot, but sometimes it tastes better and you can always get samp and beans at the gates even when it’s not at Curry Pot (my main reason for using it).

Hot Spot: This is the little stand in the UB student center that sells fatcakes and phapata bread for 3 pula (30 cents), but the best thing is THE EGG AND CHEESE (dramatic theme music plays). We’re all obsessed with this. It’s literally just an egg and a slice of processed cheese on a sliced phapata bread, but it tastes more like home than anything else, is quite filling, and only costs 10 pula ($1). After Sestwana we always race to try to get one before they run out (and they run out early). Egg and cheese will change your life.

Another pro-tip: if you get a fatcake (which is basically just fried dough) and dip it in yogurt or put yogurt in the middle of it it tastes really good and feels like a better approximation of a donut.

Restaurants:

I have always hated restaurants, but I have eaten at a lot more of them this semester. The Riverwalk shopping mall is about a half hour walk from campus and has a decent range of places you can eat where you can get things to switch up the boredom of Curry Pot food. Also, the No. 1 Ladies Coffee Shop is close by and a really wonderful place with a lot of good food. If you follow their Facebook page you’ll see notifications when they have events. They host a lot of interesting art events that are fun to check out. There is a fast food Mexican place called Mochachos (yes, it’s spelled weird) that is near the Three Dikgosi Monument in the Central Business District. It’s hard to get there without a taxi, so I’ve only been once, and the food wasn’t great, but it’s nice when you’re just desperate for some Mexican food. Don’t expect much more than Taco Bell quality, though. Finally, the mother of them all, we discovered a restaurant at Airport Junction (a mall closer to the airport, pretty far away, but you can get to it easily on the Block 8, Route 3 combi) that is just wonderful. It’s called Cappuccinos and it’s relatively cheap for a pretty nice restaurant (You can get a milkshake and a meal for around $10), but it is the sort of place that I would think was really fancy and nice even in the US. It’s become our Friday night splurge and it’s fantastic and will restore you for another week of Curry Pot.

 Groceries:

We don’t have access to a kitchen, but my roommate has a mini fridge (and you can rent them at the start of the semester), so I keep milk, yogurt, cheese, carrots, and bread in there all the time. I have cereal, peanut butter, nuts, and a bunch of other snack food in my closet and it makes it pretty reasonable to eat things in your room when you don’t feel like Curry Pot. Pick and Pay is the one store I have found that has avocados, and that’s a game changer. Sometimes I mix avocado and cheese in with my pap from Curry Pot to make it taste good. I was too cheap to spend $12 on a hot water pot at the start of the semester, so I make instant coffee and oatmeal with hot water from the sink, but that’s kind of nasty and it would be worth it just to get a hot water kettle here.

Some familiar brands won’t taste familiar

Soda is the most obvious thing, Fanta orange and Coke are common here, but they are made with real sugar so they taste wildly different (and much better) from American soda, but there are lots of other things too. Oreos, Doritos, and ketchup are some foods that don’t taste quite the same, but they get the job done. Oh, also fruit juice. There isn’t any pure fruit juice of any one type. You can get fruit juice blends, which are misleading cause the box will say “Orange: 100% pure fruit juice” but then in small print it says “a mix of orange, pear, apple, and other fruit juices” but they still taste alright.

When I was little, my preschool wouldn’t allow kids to bring their own lunch from home, saying that if kids don’t have another option outside of the school lunch, they will learn to eat it. My mom (bless her soul) thought that was ridiculous and told me I didn’t have to eat anything I didn’t want to, knowing that her stubborn daughter would (and did) refuse to eat the food. I would hold out to the end of the day, and my mom would bring me peanut butter and cheese sandwiches (yes, I was a gross kid) after school or take me on a trip to the nearby AM/PM for a corn dog and a slurpee on the way home. My preschool’s logic is horrible for 3-5 year olds, but honestly it kind of works for college students. I have become a lot less picky this semester, cause when I’m hungry, I eat what I can get. I’m going to appreciate food a lot more when I get home. Sometimes I watch cooking documentaries on Netflix and just salivate over the thought of sautéed veggies. We will be there soon enough.

My main message here is that if you are thinking about studying abroad (anywhere, really, but especially in Botswana) and are a picky eater, vegetarian, gluten intolerant, allergic to cashews (just reppin’ all the ACM Bots 2017 identities here), or anything else, you might have a slightly more difficult time, but you can make it work. And it will be fine. Don’t stress. I know how scary the fear of a semester unable to find food you enjoy can be, but it’s very doable and you will make it work.

Pictures!! You can mouse over these or click on them to see the captions of what everything is.

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