I move slightly from one butt cheek to the other, as subtly as I can, hoping my face does not reveal my deep discomfort after sitting on a six inch high solid wood plank stool for the last two hours. It is the best seat in the house, and as the guest getting a one-on-one cooking lesson from cook Afura, matriach of the household, I don’t want to look like the soft western tourist I obviously am. Sweat breaks out on my forehead and also trickles down my backbone in this midday heat. I am in Afura’s house in this very basic village on the outskirts of Stonetown, and we are cooking on a charcoal brazier in the bare open courtyard, between the three concrete-block rooms which form a house about the size of my bedroom.
I get to choose four african dishes from a list, and I select curry, chapatis, samosa and masala tea – and if that sounds more Indian than African then welcome to the island which has been a trading post for Arabs, Indians, Asians, Africans and Portuguese for over 1000 years.
We have already made the curry and are about to start on the chapatis. Daughter Sophia brings Afura a flat round tin tray with about 5 cups of flour on it, in a ring with a hole in the middle. We dissolve a couple of tsp of rock salt in a cup of water, and I add it drip by drip to the flour as Afura starts mixing and kneading it with her fingers. I stop adding water while it stills looks like a flaky dry mixture, and Afura adds about 100gms of soft butter, and kneads through thoroughly, using her thumbs for power, until the dough is very smooth and elastic. We separate it into five apple sized balls and knead each again until smooth.
More flour is sprinkled onto the flat wooden board and Afura rolls out the first globe of pastry until about twelve centimetres in diameter, and then rubs a tbsp of oil across the top of the rolled circle of pastry, to keep it soft. She folds it over and over until it is a strip about 2cm wide, tugging it gently lengthwise as she does. After resting the strip for a few minutes, she stretches it gently until it is about 25 cms long, double its original length. Lying it on the board, she rolls both ends into the middle, and when the two coils meet, she folds one on top of the other , like a double decker cinnamon roll, and then rolls it flat one more time until its 12 cm diameter again. Now it is time to throw it onto the hot oiled pan on the charcoal to cook to brown flaky perfection.
I finally admit comfort defeat. I rise unsteadily to my feet, my rear and legs numb, to the gentle laughter of the family. And we’ve still got two more dishes to make – ouch!