Friday, Oct. 17
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Eating grilled fish in Cameroon is an art, and I haven’t quite mastered it yet.
But it’s so tasty that I continue to struggle, taking the yummy fish as a meal every chance I get.
Cameroonian fish mamas, or cooks, start grilling early, setting up on the side of the road in the early afternoon. They work from the same location each day, usually next to a bar so clients have a place to sit and can order a drink, too.
I love choosing the fish I’ll consume while it’s still on the grill, the skin slowly browning. I usually pick a small one, which, for the equivalent of less than 2 bucks, is a steal for me but on the expensive side for the average Cameroonian family. I often find myself eating amongst men, who tend to have more disposible income than women, and no doubt have left their wives at home to feed the children.
The fish is served whole, still too hot to eat when the fish mama lifts it from the grill to the plate. So I start with the side, usually fried plantains, if I bothered to order one. The fish is all I really came for.
Some Americans lose their appetite when they look down at their plate and an entire fish stares back at them. But I’ve come to enjoy this moment, for it means I’m about to chow down.
I dig in with my right hand — no utensils necessary — and the flesh falls easily from the bone. The skin, seasoned with spices, is the best part. There’s always hot red pepper sauce on the side, too, but I avoid it at all costs, not wanting my lips to burn for the rest of the evening. I order a cold Coke, and it comes in a glass bottle, which makes it that much more enjoyable.
And now, the hard part: I’ve eaten all the easily accessible meat, and I’m into the areas of the fish that contain thin bones, tiny ones that have to be navigated before swallowing.
In French, bones are called “arretes,” which I find very fitting. “Arreter” is the verb “to stop,” and these little buggers always force me to pause during my meal.
If I was Cameroonian, I’d have no problem separating the dangerous pokers from the meat inside my mouth with my tongue, then spitting the unedible parts to the floor. But they’re so tiny, and there are so many of them, that I always end up interfering with my fingers, pulling the bones out of my mouth manually and placing them on the side of my plate.
Afterwards, the fish mama who served me — by now I know her name — provides a bowl of water to rinse my dirty hands, often the same bowl she offered before I began eating.
The meal is heavenly. It’d be even better, I hear, if I finished it off with an eye of the fish. But I’ve tried this before, and I found the squishy, salty ball hard to get down, and so I leave the head untouched, alone on a plate of bones.