Campers on African safari enjoy meals of inventive cook

Home-baked breads, a variety of fresh vegetables, and Polish sausage were not at all what I expected to eat on a camping safari in East Africa. It didn't seem possible that after a day of photographing the savage rhinoceros and jackal, we could return to our safe circle of tents and find wonderfully civilized dinners waiting.

What was even more remarkable was that our inventive cook had to bring all the food and water for the entire 900-mile, two-week trip with her in our truck.

At each new campsite, baskets of tomatoes, eggplant, sweet potatoes, squash, and cabbages, as well as plantains, mangoes, and pineapple, would be lifted down from the tailgate.

Fondly remembered meals followed shortly, eaten while listening to the night sounds of the Serengeti Plain or the murmur of the shallow Ngare Sero River.

I had elected a camping safari as opposed to a lodge safari because of the chance to meet the Masai people and to be closer to the animals and nature. The one I took was run by Overseas Adventure Travel of Cambridge, Mass., and is the only American-operated trip of this type in Tanzania.

We traveled in an open-sided British Army truck that carried 16 passengers of all ages, a driver, cook, and tour leader.

Because we sat up high, in comfortable airplane-type seats, we were away from the dust of the dirt roads and could see the animals above the high grass and forest understory.

There are few tourists and even fewer hotel accommodations in Tanzania, yet this is where the great free-roaming herds are concentrated.

During the day we might see only one other truck or car. We visited several government-owned game lodges, beautiful to look at but woefully short of food supplies and other amenities.

So we had the majesty of the Serengeti and the serenity of Ngorongoro Crater to ourselves, as far as human beings went.

We were camped in the crater, an extinct volcano, one night when a lioness walked through the camp just as we were about to sit down to dinner.

And near Lake Manyara an adult elephant grazed peacefully only 50 feet from where I was taking an outdoor shower. Baboons swung down from trees and tried to steal bath towels.

Three distinct food cultures were discernible in the part of Tanzania where we traveled. One is based on Indian, one on British, and one on Masai.

British colonials brought Indians to the country, and they stayed to become the leading class of merchants. As a result, curries, rice dishes, and banana desserts are the predominant fare in hotels.

Sometimes these foods are combined with East African favorites such as ugali, a stiff, white cornmeal porridge similar to the Italian polenta, that's served as an entree with Indian stews as toppings.

At Ndutu Safari Lodge, with zebras nibbling at the grass nearby, we ate curried antelope with cooked native greens, and an international smorgasbord of beef and game dishes.

When we stopped at Gibb's Farm for buffet lunch we tasted British fare, including cold meat pies, spinach and onion quiches, potatoes roasted in a wood fire, bread pudding, and rhubarb pie.

The menus on our safari were adaptations of Indian, British, and American recipes. Breakfast was granola cereal, toast, and fresh fruit. Occasionally we had eggs, despite the price: 50 cents apiece.

Lunch while traveling from one campsite to the next was a rather monotonous routine of mixed salad, bread, and fruit. Dinners ranged from vegetable curry to pork chop and onions to hamburgers.

Here are a few recipes typical of camping safari meals in East Africa. Lois Piercy's Vegetable Curry 3 tablespoons oil 2 cups coarsely chopped onions 1 cup white potatoes, cubed 1 cup sweet potatoes, cubed 1 cup carrots, cut in 1-inch pieces 10 cups cubed mixed vegetables, including at least four of the following: zucchini, cauliflower, eggplant, leeks, celery, cabbage, green beans 4 tomatoes, diced 2 cups fresh peas 3 tablespoons curry powder 2 sprigs roughly chopped fresh coriander (Chinese parsley) 1 banana, sliced 1/2 cup chopped peanuts or cashews 4 minced scallions, white parts only Chutney

In a large skillet, heat oil and saute onions slowly until soft. Add white and sweet potatoes and carrots and cook until almost done.

Add mixed vegetables and tomatoes. Simmer until vegetables are barely done. Add peas and cook a few minutes longer. Stir in curry powder.

Serve over rice and top with coriander leaves. Pass separate bowls of banana slices, peanuts, scallions, and chutney. Serves 6. Curried Meatballs 2 pounds lean, ground meat (beef or lamb) 1 egg 1 cup minced onions 1/3 cup flour 1/3 cup slivered almonds 1 teaspoon saffron threads 1 tablespoon minced garlic 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 cup minced fresh coriander 3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger 2 tablespoons curry powder 1 cup yogurt 1/2 cup lard

Mix all ingredients except yogurt and lard and form into 1-inch balls. Pour yogurt into a shallow, ovenproof casserole dish and place in warm (200-degrees F.) oven.

Saute meatballs in the lard until browned on outside and cooked inside. As you finish each batch, arrange in casserole and return to oven to keep warm. Serve with rice or ugali. Serves 6. Ugali 1 to 1 1/2 cups white cornmeal 2 cups boiling water Salt to taste

Pour white cornmeal slowly into boiling water. Continue cooking, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the consistency is too thick to stir.

Remove from stove and let rest until hardened but still warm. Invert cooking pot and turn ugali onto a platter.

To eat, cut off a large portion, make an indentation with the back of a spoon , and fill with stew or curry. Serves 6.

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