The reason I haven't talked much about food in the Sahel is because it's generally pretty nondescript – it's not terrible, just uninspiring, and if you're used to travelling among the beautiful smells of Asian or European food, then you're in for a shock. The Sahel is incredibly poor, and inevitably it shows in the diet.
Once you get beyond the staple meals of rice with some kind of sauce, couscous with some kind of sauce, fried chicken and chips, and (if you're in a posh restaurant) steak, then you should prepare yourself for disappointment, because there's practically nothing else. Vegetables are a genuine rarity, and apart from white bread, that's your lot; there really isn't a great deal going on in Sahel cuisine.
This isn't that surprising when you look at the countryside. It's a marvel that anything grows here in the first place, but what is surprising is the lack of products that you'd think would be freely available. For example, Mali's neighbour Côte d'Ivoire is the biggest producer of coffee in Africa and the third biggest producer in the world, but throughout the Sahel coffee is sold as instant Nescafé rather than freshly ground beans. This instant coffee is made in Côte d'Ivoire, but real coffee just doesn't seem to exist in the Sahel.
There's precious little in the way of dairy produce, either. The chances are that your instant coffee will be served with powdered milk, or if you're particularly lucky, sweet condensed milk from a tin; in two months I've only come across one place that served real coffee with real milk, and that was a posh tourist patisserie in Mopti. You sometimes see kids selling bags of fresh milk in the street, but more often than not the only milk you'll see is UHT milk in the shops, and even that's not that common. Cheese is only available as triangles of processed crap, and yoghurt might make the odd appearance on a menu, but it's mainly wishful thinking; it's always out of stock. Yet when you drive through the desert there are always plenty of cows willing to tackle the bus head on, and beef is one of the most popular meats, along with mutton and chicken. It's weird that milk only seems to come in tins when there are cows everywhere.
Add to this a distinct lack of greenery – apart from onions, tomatoes, potatoes, cassava, the odd bean and maybe some peanuts you're hard pushed to find any vegetables worth writing home about – and eating in the Sahel can sometimes feel like being on an extended camping trip. You'd think that fruit would save the day; this is Africa, after all. But outside the large cities, your choice is limited to the odd bunch of bananas, green and surprisingly dry oranges, possibly some guavas in season, and small lemons... and that's about it. I haven't seen mangoes since Dakar and St-Louis, which is a shame as they're a heavenly taste sensation; it's possible that they're simply out of season, so I could just have missed the boat, but they're nowhere to be seen.
All of this makes the discovery of a good restaurant an experience to savour. I'm taking daily multivitamins just in case, but sometimes – as in Gao – you find a restaurant that seems to have found the only supplier of quality food this side of the Sahara. In Gao I ate genuinely succulent lettuce for the first time since arriving in Africa, and I could feel the nutrients spreading through my body like a benign drug. When you've reached the point when you can actually feel vitamins, you know you're in gastronomically choppy waters.
On the Street
There are some saving graces, but they come at a price. Street food is a hoot, and if you're willing to take your life in your hands, it breaks up the monotony of rice with sauce and mixes in lashings of atmosphere. In every town worth its salt you'll find a bunch of dibieteries, small roadside shacks that sell meat straight from the source. Your average dibieterie consists of a mud oven – normally a grill over a wood fire – on which you'll find racks of mutton, done to a turn, and precious little else except a roof and maybe a wooden bench. You rock up, take a pew, and ask for a certain amount of meat; CFA1000 is enough for a reasonable meal. The chef gets to work straight away, hacking the cooked mutton ribs to bits with a blunt machete and shaking salt and spices over the result. It's normally served in brown paper, and you simply tuck in, ripping the meat from the bone with your teeth. In the classiest dibieteries you'll also get treated to tea, but this isn't the norm; street food is fast food, and you can be in and out in minutes, fed to the gills with wonderfully fragrant barbecued meat.
Of course, dibieteries represent the Russian roulette of African cuisine. Most of the time you're sharing your meal with thousands of flies, attracted by the piles of raw meat that sit alongside the cooked, waiting for their turn on the barbecue; at other times you'll be munching through your mutton, only to be stopped in your tracks by a change in the wind that brings you a heady nose of open sewer. But perhaps the most risky experience – and also the hardest to resist – is bisap. This gorgeous drink is made from water, hibiscus leaves and lots of sugar, and it's sold by kids pretty much everywhere. It's easy to spot; bisap is ruby red and is sold in clear plastic bags, and often it's frozen solid, providing you with a deliciously refreshing slush-ice drink for CFA25 (about 2.5p) a bag. Bisap tastes a bit like very sweet Ribena, and it's to die for.
Unfortunately, because it's made from local water, this is all too often exactly what happens. Drinking the local water is the best way to get ill, but if you want to experience the delights of bisap you have to go through the initiation at some stage, and the chances are your first few bisaps will affect you in some way. One way of getting round it is to stop drinking mineral water and switch to tap water, pop down to the local dibieterie for some freshly cooked mutton, eat some unwashed guavas, and round it off with a few frozen bisaps. Then, once the after-effects have subsided, your body will be set up to repel bacteria from all four quarters.
It worked for me, anyway, and I've been sampling the delights of street food and drinking local water for a few weeks now. The only side effects I've encountered are all those vivid dreams of steamed broccoli, banana milkshakes and ham and cheese pizzas... and a nagging desire to head for the Ghanaian coast, where apparently things get a lot better.
I hope they do, anyway. If I'd wanted to look like Twiggy, I wouldn't have bought such baggy trousers.