By Lindsay Sterling
The young man at the front desk of my office building had an accent. He was from Rwanda. I asked him if he’d teach me how to cook a dish for Immigrant Kitchens. He shook his head, but he knew an African friend who liked to cook, and he’d ask her. In the meantime, he suggested I go that Friday to the African Gala, a festival of African food and entertainment. There would be a big buffet of African food and I might meet someone there who could teach me how to cook.
That Friday, I stared perplexed into my closet. What does one wear to an African Gala? I opted for a black knee-length skirt and heels, a colorful top, and a large sparkly necklace. Later inside the Cathedral Guild Hall, which is part of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, I saw what others wore. The Burundian women wore tank tops and silky floor-length wrap skirts with a swath of the same fabric over one shoulder. The Congolese women wore more tailored dresses made of stiffer fabric showing bright colors and patterns that had been block-printed in Holland. A troupe of dancers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo wore grass skirts.
I noted that out of the hundreds of African women there, only one wore the headscarf in the Muslim style. When I read the program for the evening, I realized that the reason why was that the event was put on by a Roman Catholic community, Sacred Heart/Saint Dominic Parish. The gala was to raise money to fix the roof of their church, a historic building on Mellon Street (between the Parkside neighborhood and the West End).
The dinner alone was worth more than the $10 entry fee. In the buffet line there were cooked beans, seared pork roast with cooked peppers, cassava root (which tastes kind of like a creamy potato), fried folded packets with meat inside, and spiced rice with peas and green beans. There were twenty dishes to choose from. Throughout the meal, performances of traditional dances from DR Congo, Burundi, and Rwanda made me wish everyone I knew had been there to see them. I did not know that the human body could move in those ways or make that particular kind of magic. I’m definitely bringing my family and friends to the African Gala next year.
I saw my officemate from Rwanda in the crowd. He waved me over to meet his friend. Her name was Assumpta Karire. She was a tall, strikingly beautiful 27-year-old wearing the traditional Burundian dress. She said she loved to cook and we set a date. She would teach me how to make the rice dish that was in the buffet. She was the one who had made it.
Two weeks later in her apartment, she taught me to not be afraid to put 14 different spices in my meal. The spices turned the rice a pale brown and gave it pizzazz, as did peas and green beans. She called the rice dish ipilau (pronounced [ee-pee-LA-oh]) in Kirundi, her native language. She learned how to make the dish from Muslim neighbors when she was 15 in her hometown of Gitega. She also taught me to make two dishes to accompany the rice:: chicken with summer squash and bell peppers, and spinach. I’m making them all for a party tonight.