Saturday, August 09, 2008

Festivals of Baltimore: Festafrica

I'm glad I was in town this year for Festafrica, Baltimore's yearly celebration of African cultures and the African immigrant community. I'm usually out of town - at least I was the past two years. This year it moved to Patterson Park, and parking was so scarce I had to park on the exact opposite side of the park from the festival. Not that I mind the walk.

Admission for Festafrica was $5, and since I deliberately left my ATM card and all but $20 in cash at home, I had $15 to get me through the festival. Enough, I reasoned, to sample a few foods and maybe buy a souvenir.

Oh, how silly I was to think that!

Compared to other area festivals, Festafrica is relatively modest - though about as big as most festivals held in Patterson Park. And that is despite the two competing stages of music on either side of the festival. Many vendors sold beautiful African and African-American art, including a handful of Kenyan-American "Barack Obama for President" paintings. As for the food booths, these were a bit lower key than most food booths at Baltimore's ethnic festivals. While a handful had official signs advertising their wares, most just had a piece of paper taped to the front of the wooden kiosk with the name of the vendor scribbled on it in marker. Doesn't mean the food isn't still good, of course.

I did the rounds around the Pulaski Monument, mind-boggled at the prices for food, which typically ran around $10 to $12 per plate. Buying just one thing meant I could try nothing else, so I had to hunt for cheap things where I could. But with little exception, most everything I could eat was about $10, so I went ahead and made my first selection. This was a choice between the following:

A nice couple tried to help me figure out what to choose, but to no avail, since one got the suya and the other got the chicken and jollof rice platter. And, of course, each was duly impressed with his or her meal. I finally went on impulse and went with the suya, a Nigerian shish kebab of beef, chicken or some other meat, covered in a spicy peanut rub. The gentleman at the kiosk gave me a plate of three hot, steaming suyas with some chopped-up raw onion.

As far as kebabs go, I really like the suya. The meat is nice and thin, and not at all gristly or even very fatty. Plus, the flavors of the peanut rub - some of just sloughed off onto the plate - were sweet and spicy (picante) at the same time. I would eat this again.

If I don't make it myself, at least I can get it at Olangela's in Waverly, or Peju's in Woodlawn (The latter was recommended to me by one foodie at the Great Tastes exhibition at the beginning of the year, but since I am incompetent with all directions, I have yet to find it).

Since I still had $5 burning a hole in my pocket I went in search of something cheaper. Between a man selling fresh roasted corn, and a yoga and meditation booth (?), I found the Divine Kitchen's booth, selling a cornucopia of Nigerian and West African dishes. Among the standard dishes such as jollof rice ($10), fried fish ($10), grilled chicken (dang, is everything $10) was something I could afford: the moi moi (steamed black eyed pea cake) for $2.50. A Nigerian dish usually wrapped in banana leaves, mine came in a little empanada-shaped aluminum foil pouch. Handy if you can't find banana leaves.

It had a nice, savory, beany flavor, with the consistency of a light but thick bread pudding (if anything can be light and thick at the same time). After having the suya (and eating before I came, so really I was quite full), I knew I wouldn't finish this, so I carried it waaaaaaaaay back to my car. Maybe it'll be breakfast tomorrow.

Other photos:

The concourse facing the African arts. The main stage is out of the range of this photo, to our right. Note the Pulaski Monument on the left side of the photo to orient yourself.

The stage toward the back - the main stage - featured several groups. Here is the Kenyan group Jabali Afrika.

Even as I contemplated the Suya Spot, I was swooning over Olangela's myriad offerings.

When I left, I had to go completely around the festival. On the way, I heard some drumming and was able to get one last photo.