Eating and drinking
Burkina’s hotel industry is dominated by well-equipped but slightly bland hotels that pick up a healthy trade from the endless conferences that criss-cross Burkina. That said, there is some excellent budget and not-so-budget accommodation across the country that combines comfort, ambience and service. Plush lodges, lush courtyards, cosy traditional huts, roof terraces or desert beds under the stars offer lovely variety.
In recent years, it seems that everyone with a few savings tucked away has decided to build a campement or a little auberge; the top end of the market is expanding at a similar rate. The result is that Burkina is awash with accommodation, perhaps too much. You’ll rarely find anywhere fully booked, and older establishments with maintenance issues are languishing in the shade of newer ventures. Even the most obscure of towns is likely to have several options, although they can be aimed at the NGO or company budget rather than the independent traveller. Many towns have cheap maisons de passage that take visitors. Bars with budget rooms attached often double as makeshift brothels.
In general, décor is not always tasteful, but the basics of a comfortable bed, a shower that works, and a mosquito-free night are usually possible. A fan or air conditioning is normally the dividing factor in price. With a bit of acclimatisation, it is usually possible to sleep in a room with a powerful ceiling fan (smaller standing fans are oft en a poor substitute), although air conditioning is more comfortable. Some towns cut the electricity at night, so the debate may prove pointless. Hot water is not usually available in budget and some mid-range accommodation. In the hot months, this is almost a boon; less so in the cooler months between November and February.
Breakfast is often an overpriced disappointment. A bit of stale bread, a cup of Nescafé and an omelette is delicious when bought at a buzzing breakfast kiosk; paying ten times the price for it in a hotel is not. So, generally, avoid breakfast in your hotel and grab something on the street.
A note on hotel beds
Some hotels charge by the head, some by the room. When sizing up rooms, bear in mind that ‘single’ rooms usually contain a double bed. A ‘double’ room usually contains a larger double bed for more money. A ‘twin’ room will contain two separate beds. In rare cases, however, a single room really does contain a single bed, and many double rooms contain two separate beds. Clear? Best to see the room first.
Eating and drinking
The national staple is tô (sagbo in Moore), a white, starchy mountain made from pounded millet and water. Tasteless and filling, it’s often combined with a fairly tasty green sauce (sauce feuille) made of baobab leaves, rich in calcium.
A more adventurous alternative is foutou, from neighbouring Côte d’Ivoire. It has a similar texture to tô but is made from yams. Foutou banane has plantain added and is delicious.
Classic dishes are riz gras and riz sauce, available at resto-bars across the country. Riz gras is rice covered with cabbage and bits of bitter African aubergine, with a few morsels of meat in a tomato sauce. Riz sauce consists of plain white rice with one of two sauces – sauce tomate is the most common, but you’ll also find sauce arachide, a thick reddish-brown groundnut sauce; a Burkinabe satay. Vegetarians take note: both have chunks of meat thrown in. Prices vary (150–1,500f a plate), depending on how smart the restaurant, and how much sauce you get. Fish and chicken soup are readily available. Th ey can look unappetising, but generally slurp down well.
Chicken is easy to come by in the smallest of bars, often killed the moment it is ordered and taking some time to arrive as a result. Be warned that nothing is wasted by locals – head, neck, eyes and all – although a maquis may take squeamish foreign sensibilities into account. Several tasty preparations mask the often poor quality of meat, including lime juice, mustard and onions, garlic, tomato and green peppers.
Two chicken stews, poulet yassa, strong on onions and lemon and from Senegal, and poulet kedjenou, from Côte d’Ivoire, are popular in Burkina. Poulet bicyclette is a classic, local take on rôtisserie chicken and when done well, with lashings of garlic, is difficult to beat. Poulet rabilet makes good use of soumbala, in a pungent, slightly sweet, nutty sauce.
Another Burkinabe classic is pintade – domesticated guineafowl; their raucous cackling is commonly heard across the country. You’ll find them roasting alongside chicken at countless roadside chop stalls; they tend to cost a bit more. They also feature on numerous restaurant menus.
With so much cattle in the country, there is also plenty of beef on offer. Small chunks, skewered and grilled, are called brochettes, and available for as little as 100f, sometimes served with onions, tomatoes, green peppers and plenty of garlic. You can also find merguez sausage.
Pork is popular in animist/Christian districts. A favourite way to cook it is in a little mud-brick oven, when it’s known as porc au four (oven-cooked pork). Some maquis make it their speciality and are justly famous as a result; good porc au four is heavenly. It’s more of an option for late morning/lunchtime than for evenings. Not to miss out on a treat, Muslims have their own variation – oven-cooked mutton, or mouton au four.
Agouti is a gamey, rich meat that could easily pass for rabbit when you don’t know what it is. When you learn that it is cane rat by another name it quickly becomes a little harder to swallow. Dogs and cats are also eaten in Burkinabe villages.
If you see anyone with food in front of them, wish them bon appétit. This is often met with the response vous êtes invité (you are invited) – not an actual request to share the meal so much as a warm expression of hospitality.
In the markets
A wander around any town market will offer several eye-openers, along with a good selection of tomatoes, onions, peppers, aubergines and garlic. Soumbala smells, and tastes, of dirty socks. It is a bundle of tightly packed soft black balls made from fermented nere seed, high in protein. It’s pretty much the original African stock cube, and is used to add fl avour to dishes, although it’s something of an acquired taste. Children are also particularly fond of the sweet yellow powder found inside nere pods. Kurakura is the equivalent of the Burkinabe pretzel, made of dried peanut butter. Dried fish, flat and angry-looking, can be underestimated. One poor traveller once combined the dried offering from the marketplace with lettuce and cucumber in a sandwich. Suffice to say he didn’t get much beyond a bite. His error was to eat it raw; it is another pungent seasoner used as a stock cube, dispersed in giant pots of liquid with stewed vegetables and sometimes meat, to accompany starchy tô, or rice for special occasions. You may even see women selling pieces of calcium-rich cement, which expectant mothers are advised to chomp on for the sake of junior.
Watching the preparations for Burkina’s endless night-time meat barbecues can be fascinating, if a little off -putting. Men bring razor-sharp machetes down onto a wooden chopping block, splicing all manner of meat cuts into small chunks. You can’t help but shut your eyes in an involuntary wince every time the knife comes down. Portions are parcelled out in brown paper over grills, and a powerful orange spice, called can-can-can and made from groundnuts and chillis, is added. It makes anything taste edible, and has a local reputation for aphrodisiac properties. Day and night, women fry up plantain and maize on the streets, sell mangoes and groundnuts and fry up starchy snacks. Samsa (beignets in French) is made from black-eyed beans (benga), pounded until their starchy skin comes off. The remaining powder is added to water, fashioned into rounds and fried in shea butter. Eaten hot, ensuring flies have no time to settle, they’re pretty good. You can also pick up sesame-seed biscuits – shaped like hearts come Valentine’s Day – in every street-side shop and petrol station.
With so much fruit in Burkina, delicious juices are available, often sold on the street in 50f plastic sachets. Bissap juice is a bit like a cross between elderberry, cranberry and blackberry, made from deep purple petals of the bissap flower. Tamarind juice looks like light-coloured Coca-Cola, but tastes entirely different: sweet, rich and slightly spicy. Limburghi, or gingembre (ginger juice), can really pack a punch and, served ice-cold, is delicious. Brakina, the nation’s brewer, also makes a range of soft drinks. Flavours such as mango, cola, pineapple and fruit cocktail can become a bit sickly after a while, but their main advantage is that they come in plastic bottles, so you can take them on the road with you. They can be bought from street-side kiosks from 300f. The canned, non-alcoholic version of Guinness, called Malta, is also available.
Sharing Chinese tea, oft en several servings from the same pot, is a much-enjoyed social activity. The preparation process has a laborious, ritualistic element to it that, rigorously observed, can take half an hour, providing the opportunity for a good gossip. A small iron stand is swirled around to introduce as much air as possible to the coals, and a small teapot placed on top to cook slowly. When finally ready, the dark tea is poured into small thimble-like glasses, with a fine froth on the top. This ensures the tea is not too hot when it touches the lips. The more froth you’re offered, the greater the honour.
Burkina’s two main beers are Brakina and So.b.bra (pronounced ‘So-baybra’), sold in big 650ml bottles (about 600–800f). Both have a delicious wheaty taste and the latter is slightly stronger. The slightly more upmarket favourite is Flag, brewed in Burkina but hailing from Senegal. It is available in a smaller 330ml bottle (known as a flagette) and is slightly heavier. Castel is another option. Locally brewed beer (dolo or chapalo) is widely available in villages and towns. Palm wine (banji) is popular in the south, as is an extremely strong sugarcane liquor known as qui m’a poussé (‘who’s pushed me?’).