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São Tomé and Príncipe - Eating and sleeping
The staple item of the Santomean diet is fish – grelhado – grilled, baked (asado) or to a lesser degree cooked/boiled (cozido). The most popular are flying fish (peixe voador), and you will see these cut open and laid out to dry on the beach or drying sheds in large quantities. They have a delicate taste, but aren’t seen much in restaurants as they are full of little bones.
One of the most popular fish you will be served in restaurants is the red grouper (cherne). Another is the sea bass (corvina), with firm flesh and great flavour, associated in forro culture with prestige, luck and knowledge. A good option for a beach lunch is to buy a fish directly from the fishermen, around midday. Expect to pay around 20,000$ for a big fish, and ask whether you can grill it over the fisherman’s fire (pode-se grelhar o peixe?); if you bring a lime and some salt from town, you can have yourself a real feast.
(Photo: A woman sells fish along Ana Chava Bay – the staple item of the Santomean diet is fish © Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com)
In forro culture, to be well-fed is a sign of wealth and status, and two words commonly used to describe people outside the norm are massabruta, meaning a portly person, and socanina used to describe a very thin person. For breakfast or matabicho (literally ‘kill the little beast’, the hunger inside), most Santomeans reheat the remains of the previous evening meal (jantar), and only eat a snack for lunch (almoco), while a standard tourist breakfast is rolls, jam/cheese and fresh papaya. Currently, 90% of food is imported but small agricultural ventures, often funded by NGOs, are trying to promote more self-reliance.
The Santomean signature dish is calulú: dried smoked fish in a delicious sauce made from oca leaves, palm oil, lady’s fingers (okra), malagueta chilli and watercress, plus a variety of fresh herbs, resulting in a multi-layered flavour.
Small eating establishments – petisqueiras, churrasquerias, quitandas and quiosques – might not be immediately visible to you as they often look like small wooden shacks. For those with a sweet tooth, pastelarias are a welcome Portuguese heritage and serve a selection of homemade pastries. At lunchtime, in every village, there should be at least one person who will serve simple cooked food; you just have to ask Onde ha comida quente? The food, mostly fish or chicken with manioc, fried banana or jackfruit, is often very tasty. I have, however, heard of travellers being charged a hefty 300,000$ for a simple dish at some of the plantations on both São Tomé and Príncipe island already used to visitors. Be sure to discuss prices beforehand.
Roadside food – grilled corn-on-the-cob, safu fruit, stews from big pots – can be an excellent and cheap choice. Expats will usually warn you off street food and eating dangerous food items such as salads, but everybody’s stomach reacts differently; try to acclimatise it gradually to the unfamiliar bacteria.
Traditional Santomean dishes
The grilled fish ‘belly’, barriga de peixe (usually peixe andala, Atlantic sailfish), is frequently served with rice (arroz), breadfruit or manioc. Beans (feijao) are a staple food. Another staple is banana cozida (cooked banana), the blandness of the banana off set by wonderful spicy sauces, like the red malagueta piri-piri sauce found in every restaurant, or a green parsley salsa sauce at more upmarket places. The Santomean signature dish is calulú: dried smoked fish in a delicious sauce made from oca leaves, palm oil, lady’s fingers (okra), malagueta chilli and watercress, plus a variety of fresh herbs, resulting in a multi-layered flavour.
In forro culture, to be well-fed is a sign of wealth and status, and two words commonly used to describe people outside the norm are massabruta, meaning a portly person, and socanina used to describe a very thin person.
Calulu takes about five hours to prepare. Other similar dishes are blabla and djogo, and cachupa is a popular Cape Verdean dish cooked with corn, green and broad beans. It is not that easy to find these time-intensive traditional specialities and in most places you have to request them a day in advance; the upmarket restaurants tend more towards Portuguese cuisine and fish dishes. I only know of one place where you can just turn up and have a calulu – in the market building in the capital. If you’ve made friends locally, you could ask them whether you could try specific dishes at their house. I’ve usually bought a few beers from the local loja (shack store) if I found myself invited for some food in a village.
Beach picnics on agency excursions are an opportunity to try cocoyam (matabala), papaya, banana snacks, etc. At popular celebrations (festas), such as saints’ days, you will get the opportunity to try delicacies like estufa de morcego: bat stew. The poorest sections of society, lacking the money to buy fish, often eat forest/sea snails (buzio) as a source of protein. Don’t follow suit unless in an emergency, they are harmful. You’ll see the yellow-red flowering wild manioc by the wayside sometimes; its roots are a popular food, ground into flour and made into a pudding. Sold occasionally by kids on plantations, the fluffy starchy white heaps don’t honestly taste of much.
The national drink is palm wine. Vinho de palma, or vim pema in creole, comes in three qualities; the purest, most undiluted variety is made at high altitude, decreasing in quality the closer to town you get.
The ubiquitous refreshing Sagres lager (you will notice blown-up bottles as decorations in restaurants) and the slightly sweeter Super Bock are imported from Portugal. The national Rosema beer, Nacional, brewed in the north of São Tomé, comes in big bottles with no label; easier to drink is their Pilsner-style Criollo. Wines sold in the cheap restaurants/shops are usually Portuguese table wines such as Faisal or the light Casal Garcia vinho verde (‘green wine’). Upmarket restaurants and supermarkets have a large selection of Portuguese wines (including a pleasant red Capote Velho), plus French and South African vintages and even champagne.
At the other end of the scale, on Príncipe I came across white wine mixed with Sprite. Wine is usually sold by the bottle (garrafa); it’s difficult to get wine by the glass (copo) and that combined with the hot humid climate turned me into a dedicated Sagres drinker. Aguardente (from agua ardente, ‘burning water’) is made of sugarcane, as is Gravana rum, and if you come across an artisanal distillery, you can see it being produced and buy some cheaply. Locals often drink the hardhitting cheap cacharamba gin-style firewater. Less commonly available is ponche, a basic cocktail made from aguardente and honey; other versions are made with white rum, quinine leaves and lemon. Mé-Zóchi is a sweet liqueur (43%) that comes in various flavours such as orange (laranja), cajamanga and pineapple (ananas). Cocoa liqueur is a popular newcomer and miniatures make a nice souvenir, but few shops sell them.
The national drink, however, is palm wine. Vinho de palma, or vim pema in creole, comes in three qualities; the purest, most undiluted variety is made at high altitude, decreasing in quality the closer to town you get. Buy a small bottle (sealed with a bit of twisted palm leaf or newspaper) from a street stall for around 500$ or, even better, buy some straight off a palm wine worker in the forest. Bring your own container/thermos cap, as the sawn-off mineral water bottles or beer cans used can be pretty filthy. The wine ferments during the day. In the morning, it is like milk (doce, sweet); the longer the liquid ferments, the more acidic it becomes, turning into what is called ussua. Come night, a cork will come flying out of the bottle, champagne-style, and the increased alcohol content makes it more explosive, too. Unfortunately, alcoholism is a growing problem on the islands, in the wake of a degradation of living conditions and loss of trust in the future over the past decade.
On Príncipe (apart from places like Bom Bom), coffee means a pot of the local earthy brew. Unfortunately, few hotels and cafés actually serve Santomean coffee, but you can always try and ask for local coffee (cafe de ca).
Don’t be surprised if your waiter/waitress asks whether you want them to open your drink (posso abrir?). The reason for this cautious approach is to reassure the customer that the bottle hasn’t been tampered with. In the past there have been cases of poisoning on the island when romantic scores or workplace grievances needed to be settled; tourists were never involved. Soft drinks all go by the same local name here: ‘Sumol’ (passionfruit, orange or pineapple, lemonade, even Coca-Cola sometimes). The main type of juice is mango juice (sumo de manga), imported from Lebanon. If you would like/rather not have ice in your drink, ask for com/sem gelo.
Fresh coconut water is not often sold commercially, but it’s usually easy to ask somebody on the beach to find a green coconut and open it for you. The contents, dawa, is meant to be incredibly healthy, but the slightly sour juice didn’t agree so well with my stomach at least. As for coffee, in Western cafés on São Tomé you can find the range of Portuguese-style variations: café, garroto, carioca. A galao has more milk than coffee (my favourite is a galao escuro, with two shots of espresso, which is like a latte or latte macchiato). On Príncipe (apart from places like Bom Bom), coffee means a pot of the local earthy brew. Unfortunately, few hotels and cafés actually serve Santomean coffee, but you can always try and ask for local coffee (cafe de ca).
Tea (cha) is available in Western hotels/restaurants and in some local places too, often the Lipton brand, and in varieties such as peach or green tea. You can ask for milk (leite) or a lemon (limao) – which here means lime. Chalela or erva de Principe is the local lemongrass tea, lovely! Or you could try asking for a delicious alternative common in Portugal used to treat colds: carioca de limao, hot water with lemon peel.
An example of the coconut palm oil process on Sundy beach in São Tomé and Príncipe © Marco Muscarà, www.marcomuscara.com
Accommodation on the islands ranges from a beach shelter made out of palm fronds by your guide and basic dives for €10, through city hotels and restored plantation houses to a five-star resort. Although São Tomé and Príncipe do not have a developed backpacker infrastructure, there is now a great deal of choice for a range of budgets, with new places springing up all over the place. Options include guesthouses in the city, ecocamps, B&B stays with expats, and four- or fivestar international standard hotels and resorts.
The high season is August and the Christmas/New Year period. You shouldn’t need to bring a mosquito net, as it is provided free of charge in nearly all hotel/hostel rooms. However, the nets might have been hanging there for years, losing their permethrin impregnation, so bring a permethrin spray to treat them. When you get to your room, it’s a good idea to check everything is working: that the taps are running and the loo flushing, and that there is toilet paper.
Rate-wise, single travellers get heavily penalised although often the difference in price is very small. If you want to book online, try the www.logitravel.pt website. There is no formal set-up for staying with local families yet, but try Navetur for contacts or guides like Luis Mário Almeida may be able to put you in touch with Santomean families and/or a plantation. Ask around and explain that you want to experience how ‘normal’ Santomeans live, conhecer a vida do dia em dia dos Santomenses; as a guideline, a fair rate to offer for B&B is €20, though you will probably be asked for €25.
You can camp anywhere on public land in the islands (ask for permission for the Obô National Park) but have to bring nearly all your own equipment. Also, in practice, unless you know exactly what you are doing with a compass, etc, it is always better to have a guide. The Navetur agency can arrange tent and sleeping bag hire but you are better off bringing what you need. I’ve found that in the dry season a hammock with mosquito netting and strong poncho-style rain flaps is enough, so you can get away without carrying a tent. If you find yourself stuck, build a shelter from palm fronds. Some travellers staying for longer periods of time choose to rent a cheap room to use as a base, where they leave their stuff while off on camping trips.