It’s a paradise on earth for tourists, and a harsh place to live for many of its own people. Traveling between the various islands of Cape Verde, on slow boats and delayed inter-island flights, it’s clear that the complex historical identity of this Atlantic archipelago, mixed with its heavily diasporic culture and unique natural extremes, make it somewhat of an anomaly on the African continent. Its maddening magic – as well as, of course, its cuisine – lies in its long, mixed-up story.
Cape Verde is generally associated with “Caribbean-style” holiday packages and tour group vacations. But its mainstream appeal, helped by the sandy white beaches, palm trees and the emerald waters of its eastern islands, obscures the country’s dependence on foreign aid and remittances from its emigrants, who actually outnumber the national population.
Despite its name, Cape Verde is not as green as it was when the Portuguese occupied the islands with plantations and seafaring might in the 15th century. Stricken by water shortages and no stranger to poverty, the islands’ tropical reputation sometimes doesn’t match the dry landscapes you pass on the aluguer (shared minibus) on your way to the beach. At the same time, coconut, banana, squash, beans and papaya are some of its food staples, thanks to the lushness of islands like Santo Antão and Fogo.
The Portuguese, who brought West African slaves over to these volcanic rocks to work on agricultural experiments, paved the way for other European empires to engage in trade and port-related activities thanks to Mindelo’s natural harbor on São Vicente island – the first truly global port that attracted ocean liners and the coal trade, and the prosperity that accompanied them.
Portuguese rule was brutal, although perhaps not as bad as its actions in other African colonies, considering that the lighter-skinned, biracial Cape Verdeans were seen as useful for administering other colonized territories. Yet, in more recent history, victims of famines and natural disasters were offered no help, with the rightist Salazar regime in the 20th century unwilling to give up on its overseas territories as “easily” as the British and the French.
Cape Verde’s maddening magic – as well as, of course, its cuisine – lies in its long, mixed-up story.
In the early 1970s, the success of the independence movement – led by one of the continent’s liberators and pan-African heroes Amilcar Cabral – saw Cape Verde become a joint republic with Guinea-Bissau, a tiny territory 500km away on the mainland. Shortly after, in 1975, the two former colonies broke their union, and this cluster of 10 small volcanic islands – two still uninhabitable – in the middle of the Atlantic became its own independent nation.
The Portuguese presence is still felt here, from the language (Crioulo) to the food. Linguiça, the smoked, spicy sausage, is a common ingredient for the national dish, cachupa: a hodge-podge stew of vegetables, beans and whatever meat is affordable. Hominy, pumpkin, squash, white potato and sweet potatoes are often included. In some communities, neighbors even cook with a common pot, sharing what little produce they have with each other.
Amid the fancy, Western-focused restaurants in Fogo’s main town of São Filipe, a canteen on the main square called Bar Coral is popular for its working breakfasts – it serves up its refried cachupa with bananas, Fogo cheese and a large flask of coffee. We found Bar Coral’s plant-filled indoor patio to be a good option for wiling away the hot midday sun.
On most weekday mornings, fishermen can be found amid the ocean spray down the hill, casting their nets in the shadow of volcanic rock formations. Red grouper, dorado, wahoo, prawn, lobster and shrimp are the main catch, depending on the island. Like its former colonizer, sardines are also big here – outside the street markets in main towns, people sell bags of them for so little that it’s difficult to understand whether it’s worth their while.
In Mindelo, the restaurant Pica Pau is probably the best place for trying all the shellfish found in the surrounding waters in one unique dish – arroz de marisco. Pair it with a glass of white wine produced on the steep plains of the active Fogo volcano, and you have one of the best culinary experiences on the archipelago. Pica Pau was apparently the first restaurant to open in Cape Verde after independence; Senhor Limas, its chatty 84-year-old owner, is well known all around the world, not only because of his travels in several former Portuguese colonies (he worked as a fisherman in Angola and as a chef in São Tomé), but also due to his kitchen, as shown by the many thank you notes left by customers. This global archive covers the walls of the tiny and humble restaurant.
Most guides to Praia – capital of the biggest island, Santiago – recommend only a half-day stopover on the way to the other, more Instagrammable islands, but it’s worth a bit longer for it’s two main markets. The sprawling Sucupira, with its CD vendors, spice stalls and even hairdressers, is probably the closest you get to an “African” market in the country, with the other main fruit, veg and fish municipal market a great place to hang out.
Although Platô, the elevated central neighborhood, is the commercial center, there are other, more genuine bairros worth exploring in the daytime. Terra Branca, which caught the national media’s eye after an artist-run mural project on one of its residential roads, is home to a few restaurants that serve local specialities at a fifth of the price of those downtown. Amadora, named after the town in greater Lisbon where the owner used to reside, is a great lunch spot for trying serra fish or tuna steak, the most common large fish that are hauled every morning by the sizeable community of fishermen to the crowded local port.
Cape Verde is a country of extremes, but it’s worth spending the time (and it does take time) to get to know it.
Editor’s Note: For more about the Cape Verdean community in Portugal, take a look at this edition of our “Postcolonial Lisbon” series.