I’ve had several questions about the specifics about my daily life: how I cook, what we eat in Zambia, how I live without electricity, how I get around and so on. In this blog I’ll talk about how Zambians eat and cook because it is very different from how I cook and eat in the village.
Food here in Zambia takes center stage in the culture, of course like most other cultures as well. The only difference is the food options here are limited and, to an American palette, bland. Nonetheless food is the ultimate bonding experience here and no matter where I am or who I’m talking to in Zambia one of the first questions I get when they find out I’m living here is “do you eat nshima?” They’re impressed when I say yes and I straight up blow their minds when I tell them I’m also able to cook it. I do make fun of myself and tell them my nshima isn’t good because it comes out too lumpy. The Zambians get a kick out of my supposed lumpy nshima. I could kill here being a standup comedian just by making nshima jokes from a white person’s perspective.
You’re probably thinking what the heck is nshima??? Fair question. Nshima is Zambia’s staple food. In the villages you can find those who eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. However, most Zambians only eat it for lunch and dinner; every single day. There are three types of nshima: breakfast, corn and cassava. In the southern half of the country they eat corn nshima and in the north, where I live, we eat cassava. Breakfast nshima isn’t really for breakfast. It’s super processed corn nshima you buy from the market and you’ll find only it served in restaurants. Let’s see if I can adequately describe nshima. You start with the flour (or milli meal) which is either ground corn (think corn meal) or cassava flour. Making cassava flour is much more involved than just grinding up corn kernels. Cassava is a white root with a tough brown skin. First you have to remove the skin with a knife then you have to soak the tubers in water. I’m not quite sure how long the roots have to soak but it has to be long enough for them to start to rot. When the roots are good and fermented then the drying process starts. There are tough long fibers in the middle of the root that are first removed and thrown away. After the fibers are removed the women break up the rest of the wet cassava root into small pieces and lay them out on a drying rack to dry out for a few days. Once the cassava pieces are completely dried then the pounding begins. For corn flour everyone just takes their bags of dried kernels to a diesel powered hammer mill to mill their flour but pounding cassava is still done by hand. Little by little they pound the bejesus out of the cassava in giant mortar and pestles. Believe me when I say this is very hard work and takes a whole lot of muscle. The women make it look so easy but when I tried I could only do it for about 10 minutes before my arms felt like jello. The women were sweet and applauded my strength and thanked me for helping them but let’s be real; the children can pound better than I can and they all know it. After the cassava is pounded into a fine powder the powder is sifted into an even finer powder. And that is how you make cassava flour. Ta-da!
To make nshima all you need to do is add water. Depending if you want to make corn, cassava or a mixture of corn and cassava nshima, you add the flour to the hot water at different times. No matter which nshima you’re making you’ll follow some general guidelines. Basically you need a pot of really hot water. You then add the flour little by little while you continuously stir it with a wooden spoon. You keep adding and adding and adding until it gets to the right consistency. First it’ll feel like thick water, add a little more, now it’s the consistency of creamy soup, add a little more, now it’s cream of wheat, add a little more, now it’s oatmeal, add a little more, now it’s play dough. Stop. You want play dough. Now you have a molten hot pot of a substance that looks like cream of wheat (and kind of tastes like it too) but is as thick as play dough. Cooking nshima is equally difficult as making the flour. I can cook a small one portion pot by myself no problem but no one ever just cooks a small pot. You’re always cooking big family pots of nshima. You have to have some pretty impressive muscles to cook a big pot of nshima. Not only that but the contents are so hot it bubbles and spits boiling hot porridge on you and you have to stand back while you stir or else you’ll get boiling hot porridge in your face. Ouch! You can’t touch the sides of the pot to steady it because it’ll burn you and villagers don’t use oven mitts. Well, I should say you and I can’t touch the edge of the pot but the women can. The palms of their hands are just one big callous from a lifetime of hard labor. Then once it’s the right consistency it still probably needs to be stirred a bit more so you’re sure all the flour is mixed in well. The women pick up the pot, with their bare hands and take it off the fire and then wrap their feet along the sides of the burning hot pot to keep it steady while they finish mixing the nshima which is so thick it’s basically unmixable.
[Rinence mixing some nshima]
For corn nshima the traditional way to serve it is in small lumps piled on a plate while with cassava you mold it into a perfectly shaped giant ball in an equally giant bowl. However, no matter which nshima you’re eating the nshima is communal. That means everyone sits around and grabs from the same bowl or plate.
Nshima is eaten with your right hand. Before eating there is a separate bowl or pitcher of water to wash off your hands before you eat. From the giant bowl of nshima you grab a small piece from it and roll it around in your right hand into a perfect little ball. There is actually a verb in the Lunda language that means “to roll nshima in your hand”. Then you use that and like a fork, or better yet, like a piece of tortilla picking up other food. No one eats just nshima by itself. We eat relishes with nshima, like side dishes. You use your ball of nshima to pick up a bit of food from the side dish and eat it all in one bite. If you’re rich you eat beef, chicken, goat, or fish as your relish (you are also permitted to use your left hand when eating meat). Normal relishes are cooked greens such as Chinese cabbage, rape (similar to kale), cabbage, cassava leaves, pumpkin leaves, sweet potato leaves, or local greens found in the bush. Other popular relishes include eggs, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes and onions, dried fish, caterpillars, grubs, flying termites, and small rodents such as field mice or moles.
No matter if you’re cooking nshima, relish, boiling potatoes, or heating bath water all is done over a log fire in their chinsambu, or kitchen shelter. Kitchen shelters are open and normally beside or behind the main house. If you’re looking for the woman of the house there’s a good chance she’s there. Some chinsambus are made of brick and some are just made of 4 wooden poles but all of them have thatched roofs. How they use firewood is different than we do in America. In America we almost always pile our firewood and often in a teepee structure. Here they lay their pieces of firewood flat on the ground, not in a pile. For one fire one might use 3-5 pieces and they all lay them flat on the ground with one end of each of the logs coming together in the middle. It kind of looks like a star then as the logs burn together in the middle of the star you slowly keep pushing them together to maintain the star shape. I’ve realized that method is a much better method of cooking. If you want a bonfire you should pile it high but if you’re cooking over a fire while camping your logs will burn quite a bit longer with them flat on the ground.
[My host mom, the lovely Mineva, starting a pot of nshima]
Who you eat with differs from American culture. In America the idyllic picture of our family meals is everyone sitting around a table all eating together. In Zambia men and women eat separately. Girls always eat with the women and small boys eat with the women too but once the boys reach puberty they start eating with the men. Men will eat their meals in the chota or just out in the open while the women and children always eat inside or right outside of the chinsambu. Whenever I eat nshima with my host family I eat with the women. However, I still get the white person treatment where I sit on my own reed mat, have my own plate or nshima, my own plate of relish, and my own hand washing bowl usually of nice warm water. If it was up to my host mom I would eat with the men because she thinks it’s more proper for me to eat with my host father. I refuse and insist to eat with her and the kids but we meet in the middle with the special treatment she gives me.
Village Zambians grow almost all their own food. They are the definition of subsistence farmers. But because they are subsistence farmers food is often scarce. The beginning of the rainy season is hunger season. I can’t imagine what hunger season will bring since even after the harvests most of the kids in my village only ate one meal a day. The kids do a lot of chores for me, mainly fetching water and I give them a lolly pop when they finish but maybe if I have bread or peanuts or popcorn I give them the option of candy or food; they always choose food. Sometimes it makes me laugh thinking about how different they are from American kids and sometimes it makes me sad knowing how hungry they must be. There’s a reason why my main job here is to increase food security. Food here is so important to their culture and to their existence but there is still so little to go around sometimes. And yet, there are days when my neighbors will just show up at my front door with plates of food for me. It just goes to show how deep the culture is. They’d rather feed their guest and make me happy even if that means less food for them.
*Sorry for the lack of pictures. Time ran away from me but I’ll be sure to add them to the blog at a later date.