As our friend Andrew T. said at the end of our three weeks in Zambia, “you’ve discovered that most of the traditional Zambian foods are vegan!” And that pretty much sums it up. There is a vibrant variety and availability of vegetables, tubers, pulses, grains, nuts (mostly groundnuts, aka peanuts) and fruits and that’s just in the local markets!
Mr GoodEating and I were travelling as part of a medical mission with Baraka Community Partnerships, a charity we have supported for the last decade (click to related post here). We also went on a canoe safari, paddling 163km (that is the official distance on Riverhorse Safari’s website, but our guide said we paddled 245km) of the Zambezi River, between Chirundu and Luangwa, through Mana Pools, Lower Zambezi National Park and the glorious Mupata Gorge (and all the while flitting back and forth between Zambia and Zimbabwe along the river). We absolutely fell in love with Zambia and Zambians. The country is safe, beautiful and its people are friendly. It should be high on everyone’s list of places to visit.
In this post, I want to talk about some of the foods we tasted and show you a few items we found in markets, some of which were a first for us.
For the most part, we did not prepare our own food because our accommodations during the Baraka portion of the trip were primarily in rustic lodges (Lusaka, Kabwe and Siansowa).
During the canoe safari, we would camp on islets on the banks of the Zambezi River and cook food over coals in the campfire.
Mains and Savouries
The most important staple in Zambia is maize. You will find corn in all forms, from roasted corn on the cob sold in the street, to hominy corn and most of all n’shima!
N’shima (in Nyanja, one of the many languages spoken in Zambia, or ubwali in Bemba)* is finely ground maize meal cooked in water and served as the starch component with just about every meal. It is like polenta, but n’shima is white in colour. It is also known as sadza in Shona (also spoken in Zambia and Zimbabwe), ugali in Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania, pap in South Africa and grits in the United States (thanks to Em for pointing that out to me). It is a staple dish in many African countries. [*Thanks to Mwana Lubemba for correcting a previous version misidentifying n’shima as being a Bemba term, and to Franny Bwalya for pointing out use of the Nyanja term was proliferated by the British colonisers.]
N’shima is cooked in boiling water over a super hot traditional brazier fuelled by charcoal (the primary cooking fuel in Zambia), first making a porridge, then adding more and more dry maize flour.
The porridge part is easy because one just stirs it, but after that, there is a special technique involved in pulling it up and to the side. This allows air into the mixture and makes it fluffier. There is a special spoon too. It is NOT easy. Here I am giving it a go.
And this is how it is actually and properly done (thanks to Martha, Andrew’s wife)!
N’shima is eaten with almost every dish. You take a bit with your hands, ball it up and use it to pick up the food and all the sauces. They make it look so easy. I used a fork and spoon and was promptly and gently poked fun of by my Zambian friends. Fair enough, but if my cooking technique was as poor as you saw, I can only imagine what a mess I would have made trying to eat it with my hands.
I will make n’shima at home (I have used gari before, the cassava equivalent), although I doubt that my technique will be the same. I will treat it as I do polenta and see where that gets me.
I believe that making n’shima chips – much like polenta chips – would be pretty darn good too. Andrew said that fried n’shima was something that they would have as kids. I like that. And I appreciate this “food continuum” between different countries and continents, without forgetting that corn itself is an import from the “New World.” So much more binds us together than sets us apart.
Polenta, like n’shima, is a traditional staple food, particularly in Northern Italy. It is part of cucina povera – what was considered peasant food, but is actually what the vast majority of people have been eating for ages and, generally, is vegan and healthy. Today, polenta is found everywhere and can be “sophisticated” (meaning, restaurants will charge you well for it). N’shima is similar, but lacks that “rebranded” sparkle that polenta seems to have acquired and there is no good reason for that. N’shima/ugali/pap/grits, whatever you want to call it, can be as versatile as the cook’s imagination. So next time you have it in Zambia, Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, the US, UK or anywhere else, I hope you will celebrate it for the delicious and nutritious dish that it is.
Here is the final product n’shima from the evening when I was trying to prepare it alongside other classic Zambian preparations: chikanda, impwa with local vegetables, chibwabwa with groundnuts (aka peanuts) and bondwe.
Details of the dishes below and please note that all these terms are in Bemba, there are many languages and dialects in Zambia and each one has its own term for these foods!
Chikanda was described to me as “African polony.” It is made of dried and pounded groundnuts and the tuber of wild orchids, the latter is what gives the dish its name. Peanut and tuber meals are combined in water until thick with a bit of bicarbonate of soda and chili (although it is not spicy at all). The mixture is then baked until solid. The consistency is not as gummy or smooth as seitan, but similar in the resistance it gives when you bite into it. It is also slightly gritty, which I presume comes from the orchid tubers. The taste is full-bodied, smoky because it is cooked and baked on a brazier and has plenty of umami. We had chikanda twice and we loved it. However, while doing research for this piece, I read that the growing popularity of chikanda is threatening wild orchids. I did not know this at the time and I would be conflicted about having it again. I would very much like to experiment on whether chikanda can be made in some other way, and, like most things, I am sure that it is possible. It is just a matter of trying.
Impwa is a dish made of small aubergine (eggplant) that are either purple as in the above dish or greenish-white, as I also had in the dish below. Impwa is prepared in various ways, sometimes stewed with other vegetables (above) and sometimes mixed with beans (below), but there is aways a base of onions and tomatoes, which are beautiful, tasty and plentiful in Zambia. The addition of hot sauce was my doing. Impwa is somewhat bitter. According to my friend Viviana P., boiling the aubergine first will make them more bitter, while adding more tomatoes will make the dish more sour, but to get the best taste, one should sauté the tomatoes first and then add the impwa. I like the sounds of the last method!
Zambians use the edible leaves of all their vegetables, something we have lost the custom of doing. Chibwabwa combines pumpkin leaves with onions, tomatoes and pounded groundnuts. The combination of a dark, leafy and slightly sweet green with the full taste of roasted peanuts was phenomenal and I very much like the creamy texture.
A word about humble and mighty peanuts (or groundnuts). They are second only to maize as a staple food in Zambia. They are everywhere and in many dishes (please be aware of this if you are travelling to Zambia and have a severe peanut allergy). They are sometimes roasted and sometimes raw. Our friend Cosmas highly recommended mixing roasted groundnut meal into sweet potato mash. I think that is genius and I will try that!
This is what fresh Zambian peanuts look like. The skins are pink and not flaky and the nut itself is whitish and contains a lot of moisture and they taste very much like peas! They are delicious, whether freshly roasted (also sold in markets) or in-the-shell raw and we could not get enough. We purchased about a kilo for £0.50.
To the left of the n’shima is bondwe, a dark, leafy green that I had never before tasted. Bondwe are amaranth leaves that are lightly steamed after sautéing onions and tomatoes. This was another unique taste and somewhat like spinach, which is sometimes used as a substitute, but without that metallic film that spinach leaves behind on your teeth. Amaranth seeds are also part of the Zambian diet, but we did not have any this time.
Sweet potato leaves (kalembula) and green bean leaves (chimpapila) are also used in their own right (see above photo for kalembula and below for chimpapila).
One might say, “hey these are all green leaves. Don’t they all taste the same?” and the answer is an emphatic no! The chimpapila was almost tangy and slightly tougher in consistency, like a softer kale. It was delicious. And the kalembula was almost bitter, but in a good way, and it is a beautiful leaf. These can also be simply sautéed, just like one would cook any other green, leafy vegetable.
Okra was in season and readily available in markets. We are fans of okra and particularly when combined with tomatoes and onions, it is a winner. In the dish below, the okra is accompanied by sautéed cabbage with peppers and rice mixed with green beans. I like this mixing of green beans in starchy dishes. We had a similar dish while on canoe safari, but instead of rice, CB and Best, our guides, combined whole hominy corn with green beans. Why did I never think of that?! I will be adopting this clever two-in-one combo.
In addition to the whole foods available in markets everywhere, there are supermarkets in all large towns in Zambia. They are South African chains, primarily, so I should not have been surprised when I saw this in a freezer case (and this was in Lusaka where the selection was smaller than what I found in Mazabuka, a large-by-Zambian-standards town in Southern Province): Fry’s Family Foods. We bought some polony in Mazabuka for K33.99 (approximately £3.40) for our lunch while we were on the road, travelling between villages during the medical mission portion of our trip. As with any packaged vegan food the world over, Fry’s is not cheap for average Zambians. But it is there if you want it.
There were plenty of other vegan options in supermarkets as well – lots of soya products, almond milk and soy milks. I did not see any fresh vegan yoghurts, but I suspect they exist. And with the Chinese influence and presence in Zambia (China has invested much time and money in large infrastructure projects in Zambia and elsewhere in Africa), tofu is also available.
During a road trip between villages on the first day, we stopped at a roadside cafe and I was extremely pleased to see and buy all these delicious Indian snacks made with gram/chickpea flour – some were quite spicy – and very tasty “health bread”. Zambia has a had an Indian community since the early 1900s, primarily from Gujarat.
I discussed our food requirements with River Horse Safaris many weeks prior to our trip and reconfirmed with them shortly before leaving for Zambia. They managed pretty successfully despite our being their very first vegan guests! There were loads of fresh vegetables and fruit packed in coolers, lentils, hominy corn, canned beans and fruit, soy milk, pasta, crisps and bread.
Admittedly, River Horse were less successful in the packaged foods choices and some of the bread, snacks and fruit juice contained non-vegan ingredients, which goes to show how little people pay attention to ingredient labels and the assumptions they make (why would bread contain milk? Carmine? What’s that and why would crushed insects be in orange juice?). We were not discouraged when we discovered this and we took it as an opportunity to educate.
I do not have any photos of our camp food, not because it was not good (on the contrary!), but because at and near the Equator, it is dark by 6:30pm, using the regular light of our head torches meant getting insects in our food and the infrared light is just not conducive to food photos, unless one is going for a Blair Witch look.
We were involved in the cooking process — peeling potatoes, slicing and dicing, grilling vegetables over the coals and now and again coming up with ideas — and that was very enjoyable (obviously!). Being the sole guests on the trip must have made it logistically easier for us to be involved, but I highly recommend to anyone considering a guided canoe or camping safari to get in there and participate. It was fun in all respects. Breakfast was hearty. We had oats porridge with or without canned pears, or banana and corn meal, which was my favourite, and beans on toast or other bean and vegetables mix. We set off for the day between 7:30 and 8:00, with the sounds of lions with full bellies coming down to the river to drink. Around Noon, we stopped for lunch at a shady and scenic spot along the banks, where CB and Best would set up our picnic tables. Lunch was a salad, often made with leftover rice or pasta from the night before and freshly cut vegetables. Our guides prepared SO much food for us daily, vastly more than we could eat, and we were glad to see leftovers being put to good use.
Dinners were inventive and delicious, plus anything cooked on a campfire is extra delicious. We had a variety of dishes from vegetable stir frys, to charcoal baked potatoes, roasted vegetables (cauliflower, courgette, aubergine and mini squashes), hominy corn with stewed tomatoes, onions and green beans, butternut squash with vegetables and pasta primavera. Rice or pasta were the sides, depending on the other dish. Our favourite were the hasselback potatoes that we scored, covered in a bit of olive oil and salt and wrapped in foil to roast right in the coals. Really, there is nothing more delicious and we could have had that every day for a week and not tired of it.
A variety of fruit is available in markets and some we had never tasted before.
We were in Zambia in time for avocado season and we made the most of that. During the Baraka portion of the trip, I came up with two types of sandwiches for our team: peanut butter and avocado or peanut butter, avocado and banana. Perfect to keep up the energy to see 1,000 patients in one week.
There were gorgeous, sweet guavas, a few varieties of bananas, oranges, dates and pineapple. But what caught my eye in the market in Maamba were those fruits I had never before seen or tasted. They were all “wild” fruits, meaning that there is no significant cultivation of these fruits. They come into season and that is when you will find them in the markets.
The most astonishing fruit was the baobab fruit, or chibuyu in Bemba and mbuyu in Swahili.
The fruit comes from the homonymous tree, which can be enormous and hundreds of years old. They have smooth, grey bark and stand out among all other trees. They are one of my favourite trees in all the world.
The outer shell of the fruit is extremely woody and hard. Cutting it is impossible, but whacking with a great big stone to crack it open is fun and satisfying. The fruit is dry. There is absolutely no juice and popping a piece in your mouth is like eating lemon sherbet! It is sweet, tangy and lightly lemon flavoured. The texture is like melt in your mouth styrofoam, if styrofoam were delicious, a bit like those space ice creams you used to get as a child in the foil packets. There are many ways to use the fruit, including making drinks, roasting the seeds and making nut butter and syrup with the seeds.
I never would have thought that chocolate and tamarind would be tasty together until I tried the waterberry, aka tsubvu or hubva in Shona, njwibbi in Tonga or smelly-berry fingerleaf because, you guessed it, they are pretty smelly. The texture is rather dry and they have a big seed in the middle. So you just sort of swish them around in your mouth, extracting the pulp.
My other favourite was this very humble looking explosion of flavour. It is called wild mettler, or mbubu in Tonga, maviru in Bemba, ngai ngai in Nyanja and mumonsomonso in Lozi (vangueriopsis lanciflora). The texture was, once again, somewhat dry for a fruit and they tasted like a cross between chestnuts and orange. These too have large seeds in the middle of the flesh, reminiscent of mangosteen seeds.
Finally, the little raisin-like African sweets, or birdplum, nyii in Bemba (I believe). The look like raisins, but are less sweet and much more tangy. They contain a very large seed in the middle, so eating them is a bit of a faff. I believe they would make a great jam.
As you can see, we did not perish of hunger or have to rely on snack bars for survival. Being vegan, travelling and experiencing a culture through its foods are not mutually exclusive. You can be vegan anywhere. You just have to realise that veganism is a matter of basic fairness and justice. The animals you love – the elephant and the hippo – are no different than the animals you eat for no good reason other than you like how they taste.