The Best Veg. Biryani
By Carolyn McPherson
The best Vegetarian Biryani I ever ate was in Luanda, Angola.
The waiter who brought it to me was a thin African man, speaking politely in Portuguese. He deposited the steaming plate of rice, vegetables, and Indian smelling spices on my table, then left.
“Excuse me,” I called after him. “Can I have a knife and fork please?”
When I finished my job in India, working at AyurYoga Eco-Ashram, my boss was ready to buy me an airplane ticket back to Canada, home.
“I don’t want to go to Canada now.”
“OK. Choose anywhere in the world that you want to go, and I will buy you a one way ticket to that country.”
I didn’t have to think long.
“I want to go to Luanda.”
“Luanda? Where’s that? Why?”
“Can you bring me to the Angolan embassy?” I asked a rickshaw driver in New Delhi.
“I’m Vilma, assistant to the ambassador. I will be helping you through the process of getting an Angolan visa. Tell me, why do you want to go to our country?” She said as she presented me with a gift: a large book about the economic climate of Angola, with plenty of pictures of Luanda’s impressive skyline.
“Because I love kizomba.”
I was worried about missing Indian food when I got to Angola. I searched on the internet for an Indian restaurant in Luanda and I found Vista do Fortaleza.
“Hi. I’m coming to Angola next week directly from India,” I wrote in a Facebook message to the restaurant. “I have extra space in my luggage. Are there any spices or products that you would like me to bring from India for you?”
Sangita, the owner of the restaurant replied, “You can get me some yellow moong dal and besan which is gram flour and some jeera seeds.”
On my last night in India, I went dancing kizomba. I told the Indian kizomba dance teacher that I was leaving tomorrow, going to Angola. I thought he would be excited to know that I was going to the birthplace of kizomba, the dance he was teaching.
“Angola. What’s that?”
“Um. It’s a country. In Africa. It’s where kizomba comes from.”
“Oh really? I thought kizomba came from Malaysia.”
“Carolyn McPherson. Please present yourself to the KLM check in desk,” I heard over the intercom at the Bangalore airport.
“I’m Carolyn McPherson.”
“You can’t go to Angola with a one way ticket. You need to have proof of onward travel after.”
“I’m going to Zambia after by bus,” I said, which I wasn’t. I had no idea where I was going after, how long I would stay in Angola, or who would pick me up from the airport when I got there. He was stumped.
I smiled at him and he let me go.
On my first day in Angola, I went to Vista do Fortaleza. I gave Sangita her products from India and she gave me a free lunch at her restaurant. Our view, if you looked in the distance, was a beautiful fort and a stagnant body of water. Our view, if you looked closely, was a shirtless man fishing in a small boat. Fishing for I don’t know what, because all I saw was garbage. An old couch. A fender from a car. Plastic shopping bags. Plastic water bottles. There was a slum below. The smell was a combination of fish and sewage.
“There is someone I want to introduce you to, ” says Sangita.
She presented me to Debbie, an American lady whose husband was the boss of one of the oil companies in Angola.
“Do you like playing cards? Come with me tomorrow to our weekly card meeting. You can meet a lot of other expats here. We play Canasta.”
Canasta was my favourite card game as a child.
The ladies who I met playing cards wanted yoga classes.
I started teaching yoga in Luanda. Eventually, twenty classes a week. I stayed in the country much longer than I expected.
“I saw you dancing on TV Zimbo, ” said Vilma in an email to me. “We play the Angolan national TV here at the embassy in Delhi, and I recognized you. I’m so glad you are settling in well in my country.”
Roopa and Vamshi, from Bangalore, had been living in Luanda for a decade with their two children. Roopa taught me how to make idli, a typical south Indian breakfast food, and gave me an idli steamer. I taught Roopa yoga classes. They invited me countless times for home cooked Indian food, which tasted just like the food I ate on the ashram.
Some of my Brazilian and Portuguese yoga students from Angola – Carla, Susete, Carima, and Maria Teresa – went to India, individually, over the span of a few years. They liked my yoga classes and they wanted to learn more. Based on my recommendation, they all visited AyurYoga Eco-Ashram. Carla became a yoga teacher and returned to Angola to teach there.
I went to Portugal and I made a new friend, Deb. Her mother is Angolan and her father is Indian. Deb and I are both yoga teachers, both like dancing kizomba, and both have travelled all around the world.
After getting to know me better, she told me, “You are half Angolan and half Indian, just like me.”
I went to a yoga class at the Indian embassy in Angola. The same day I went there, on the same street, a Portuguese dentist was murdered. He had been to a cash machine and had a bag full of money to pay his staff salaries. When he got out of his car he was shot dead by a man on a motorcycle, who then took the money and fled. A life in exchange for a bag of cash. There was a recession and people were desperate.
The Indian yoga teacher, who was a diplomat from 9-5, exchanged his suit for a track suit.
“Smile and breathe,” he said, in the same voice my yoga teachers in India spoke with.
Carla invited the Swami from AyurYoga Eco-Ashram to Angola. He stayed for a couple weeks and gave speeches on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita.
In his orange robe, he posed for pictures with Angolan kids. He visited all the sights that were achingly familiar to me. He saw baobab trees, giraffes, Luanda’s beaches, the African sunset. I wasn’t in Angola at the time. But it warmed my heart to see these connections, the overlap between my two favourite countries.
On my fourth visit to Angola, I visited Sangita at her restaurant. I ordered Veg. Biryani. It was the best Veg. Biryani I had ever tasted in my life. When I left, I tried to pay her for my meal. Four years later, it was still on the house.