Turning up the heat
As I sat on a balcony in Maputo in Mozambique, flashbacks from the film Eat, Pray, Love entered my mind. It was almost lunch time on a sunny Wednesday and while my colleagues, friends and family were at work feeling the wrath of South Africa's winter, I was savouring the view of Maputo Bay.
Like the character Elizabeth Gilbert (played by Julia Roberts), I was alone in a foreign country, content with food and my own thoughts to keep me company.
But unlike her, I hadn't abandoned my life back home.
The gastronomic festival I was attending would last just four days. The Polana Serena Hotel, popularly known as the "Grande Dame" of Maputo, hosted it to celebrate Mozambique's 37th year of independence, on June 25.
The hotel has three restaurants. The first I tried was Varanda. It is buffet-style and open all day. While Mozambican cuisine is a blend of Portuguese and African flavours - sometimes served with an array of international favourites like pasta - local dishes dominated the spread at the festival.
Determined to taste as many dishes as possible, I took bite-size portions of peri-peri chicken, dried fish in peanut sauce, rice and yellow lentils, grilled prawns, duck curry, salads with avocado and tomatoes, salads with beans and herbs and a variety of dishes made with the starchy root plant cassava, which can be mashed, baked or sun-dried.
During my stay , cassava became my favourite food.
It is filling and subtle - similar to the potato - making it the perfect ingredient to soak up sauces.
I was also amazed at how many different ways fish can be prepared - grilled, fried, stewed and boiled, sometimes with peanut butter or hot spices.
When I asked about the use of cassava in most dishes, a local said "the name means 'all sufficient' and it is a staple for most, especially in the rural areas".
The Aquarius Bar serves sushi and light, casual meals.
I had supper at the fine-dining, French-style restaurant Delagoa .
Before ordering, I asked the hotel's executive chef, Tony Khan, how Mozambican food was incorporated in the European-style restaurant.
"By taking traditional Mozambican ingredients and traditional meals and preparing them using French techniques and my own culinary flair," he responded.
First courses included a traditional Portuguese bread prepared with creamy malanga root and served with camarao (a spicy shrimp dish) and cassava leaves with peanut powder, crab meat and mandioca fritas.
My favourite was a seafood soup served with fresh herbs and garlic croutons.
Bangladesh -born Khan and Mauritius -born chef de cuisine Harry Bhiwa have hired Mozambican cooks , who they learn from and vice versa.
"We want to ensure that the food is authentic, and that locals come here and enjoy it too," said Khan.
- Boikanyo was a guest of the Polana Serena Hotel in Maputo