Eating vegan in Kinshasa

Rooftop view of Kinshasa

This is not a typical Jozi Uncooked posting. I hope you’ll indulge me– there’s no recipe, no menu or workshop announcement, just a brief account of the trials and tribulations of trying to eat a high-raw vegan diet in Kinshasa, the bustling if somewhat decrepit capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (or DRC).

Another view from the roof

This is the view from a 9th floor rooftop. In the distance, just out of view, is the mighty Congo river, which runs along the northern edge of Kinshasa and separates it from neighbouring Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. The city looks a bit greener and shinier from up on the roof than it feels when you’re walking or driving along its broken down roads, which often boast more pothole than road.

Kinshasa potholes

Despite having some of the richest agricultural land in the country, and plenty of water, the DRC has to import much of its food. In Kinshasa, this means that the small wealthy population who can afford fancy imported food from South Africa and Europe pay exorbitant prices for it. The only thing you can get to eat that’s locally produced is fruit, which grows all over the place, including in abandoned lots in Kinshasa. This is great for me, of course, since I can start my day with a delicious breakfast of fresh, local fruit– bananas/ plantains, papaya, pineapple, watermelon and mangosteen are apparently in season at the moment. There are giant local avocados for sale on the streets as well, for about US $1 each, and locally grown peanuts.

Breakfast of local fruit: banana, mangosteen, watermelon, papaya, mango and an orange

After breakfast things get slightly more complicated. Restaurants here are for the wealthy few, so the prices are insane. They tend to feature a mix of Franco-Belgian and Congolese dishes. Anything from frogs legs to foie gras to fish from the Congo River. Obviously I steer well clear of these dishes. The concept of vegetarianism is little known at these places, and even vegetable side dishes (such as cooked cassava leaves) tend to be made with meat or fish.

While there is usually a green salad available, this is often just iceberg lettuce with 2 pieces of tomato. If you’re lucky it may come with the addition of cucumber, carrots, sweetcorn, etc. Here’s a tiny little “tomato salad” with cucumber and onions– literally on a plate slightly bigger than a saucer– that I got for US $8. That’s more than many people here earn in a day, or even a week!

Tiny tomato salad for US $8

Other dishes that I’ve managed to find in restaurants include steamed veggies for almost US $20, plain spaghetti with a few vegetables (also almost $20) and of course the perennial side order of fried plantain, which is delicious but not exactly healthy.

The exception is a lovely restaurant where the chef made me a big mixed salad, followed by a delicious all-vegetable lasagna. It was by far the best meal I’ve ever had in Kinshasa. Sorry, no pictures of that one.

Naturally, I brought snacks on this trip– raw energy bars, raw nori bites, raw sun-dried tomato flax crackers, raw lemon-chia seed crackers– but not enough to live on. So I hit the grocery shop to supplement my snacks. The big grocery shops here are also for the wealthy few, and the prices of the imported goods are mind-blowing. But what can you do? On this visit I cast my net wider than usual and tried a few new shops, with amazing results. I found some healthy(ish) vegan goodies. The most exciting find was soy ice cream, but at US $20 for a 1 litre tub, and without a freezer to keep it in, I decided to skip it. I did splurge on some other soy products:

soy yogurt

Crazy coffee-flavoured soymilk

I’ve enjoyed Alpro soy yogurt for years, and was very excited to find it in Kinshasa. Well worth the crazy price. And while I generally try to keep my consumption of processed soy products to a minimum, at least with Alpro you know it’s not genetically-modified soy.

The “soya macchiato” is a sugary coffee-flavoured soymilk drink. I’d never buy this under normal circumstances, but perhaps the hot Kinshasa sun affected my decision-making, or perhaps it was a result of regularly spending $15 on a tiny meal with little nutritional value in a country where people don’t have enough to eat. In any case, I bought it and I’m enjoying it, though I won’t become a regular consumer.

In addition to the soy products, I also picked up some other goodies: Wasa oat crackers and dates.

Wasa oat crackers

Fresh dates

I made myself a delicious snack of Wasa crackers topped with banana slices and yogurt, reminiscent of a snack I used to eat in Europe. And the dates are great for an energy boost in between meals.

Organic locally-produced peanut butter

Another good find was organic (!) locally produced peanut butter. It’s delicious on the little local bananas, and on the Wasa crackers. There are veggies available in the shops as well, but with no access to a kitchen, they’re not as practical to buy. I had to “borrow” a spoon from the hotel dining room just to be able to eat the soy yogurt. I suspect that borrowing a plate, knife and fork to make a salad might be a bit much.

While none of this compares to a giant kale salad or bell peppers filled with raw sunflower seed paté, at least it’s healthier than baguettes made of refined flour, the most commonly available vegetarian option in Kinshasa.

This entry was posted in travel, Uncategorized, vegan food and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.