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What’s Eaten Where: São Tomé and Príncipe

The second smallest nation in Africa, the São Tomé and Príncipe archipelago is a tropical paradise in the Gulf of Guinea roughly 200 kilometres off the coast of Gabon. São Tomé and Príncipe are the two main islands. 150 kilometres apart, São Tomé is six times larger and the main population centre; Príncipe has just 7,000 residents and is a little wilder.

Originally a commercial base for the Atlantic slave trade, the islands’ rich volcanic soil and tropical climate made them ideal for the cultivation of sugar, coffee and cocoa. Today, São Tomé and Príncipe is one of Africa’s most stable and democratic countries, increasingly reliant on the tourist trade. Pristine forests and deserted beaches make for an ideal holiday destination, as does the marine-based cuisine…

Although the islands are far from self-sufficient when it comes to food production, there’s one thing in abundance: seafood. A staple of the island diet, this comes either grelhado (grilled), asado (barbecued), or cozido (boiled), and accompanied by all sorts of tasty local sauces and herbs.

The local red grouper and sea bass are favourite, along with the con-con – an incredibly ugly fish that’s nevertheless said to taste divine, especially when served with baked breadfruit. Flying fish (often dried on racks on the beach) and grilled Atlantic sailfish are also popular, but it’s calulu that’s the gastronomic winner: the signature dish of São Tomé, this smoked fish dish takes hours to prepare but is worth the wait – light, delicate and multi-layered, it’s usually served with prawns, tomato, okra, aubergines, and breadfruit, and a divine sauce made from palm oil, okra, chili, watercress and handfuls of fresh, local herbs.

Of course it’s not all fish. You’ll find the odd chicken or goat meat stew, while estufa de morcego (bat stew) is considered a real delicacy. Arroz doce is a traditional breakfast food made from sweetcorn and coconut; chicken in coffee sauce is another favourite, and dessert is often a delectable coconut and sugar confection. Small though these islands may be, the flavours are always big!

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