Baraka Zambia Programme Manager
My first evening in Lusaka was with my colleague Cos, and his family. As we sat in the dark, with food and faces lit by candlelight, I could see Cos and his wife, Rebecca, looking at me, eagerly anticipating my reaction to my first spoonful of nshima, the infamous staple food I'd been hearing about prior to my arrival. 'It's polenta?' I thought. Very simple, but perfect accompaniment to the incredibly flavoursome relish, chicken and a dark green leafy vegetable called 'rape'. For me, when it comes to food, it's all about the subtle flavours that bring your taste buds to life. However, things can be a little different in Zambia.
I very quickly adapted to, not just the food in Zambia, but the process of making it: Lighting the coal brazier, boiling what I can only explain as a bathtub sized pot of water (yes, this takes forever), adding the powdered corn (mealie meal), and then there's an extraordinary form of art when transforming the content of the pot from a white liquid into an overflowing pot of thick nshima. Once that's cooked the brazier gets a swing around to reheat the coal for the next dish. Note, when I say 'swing around', I mean you pick up the brazier and swing it around as if you were bowling a cricket ball. Seemingly more effective than just blowing on the coal though.
Two hours, six chicken legs, four tomatoes, one onion and half a litre of oil later - dinner is ready, and we are famished. The nshima, stays in the pot and everyone sits around it, taking small lumps and rolling, squishing it in the palm of their hand before dipping in the relish and combining with the chicken. Just a heads up to newbies or anyone who is not used to piping hot food in the palm of their hand, you might prefer to use a fork.
It wasn't long before the team really wanted to test me. About two weeks in the bush, my colleague Andrew returned from town with a bag of (dead & dried) caterpillars. I was intrigued, slightly grossed-out, but nevertheless, intrigued. I had to try them - if I could do snail kebabs in Cameroon, I could do deep-fried caterpillars. Result? Delicious. The first one taste like liver, the second a bit like beef, the third chicken...just a fantastic variety of flavours. However, ever had a packet of revels? It all goes well until you get a coffee centred chocolate? Well, this was just like that, every so often you get a caterpillar that tastes precisely how you'd expect a caterpillar to taste. The taste buds didn't exactly approve.
During my first trip to the Maamba Safe House in the Southern Province, I not only had an opportunity to taste Inswa (flying ants), but was inadvertently involved in the cultivation process. Attracted to the lights, these insects flew in, and around the house, by the hundreds, if not thousands. All the girls closed the windows and rushed outside with buckets of water. Curious, I went to observe. They were catching the flying critters and throwing them in the buckets. It transpires that 'Inswa' are quite the delicacy, and an opportunity of such a swarm appearing, quite literally, on our doorstep, should not be missed. So, I rolled my sleeves up, tucked my trousers into my socks and got stuck in! And yes, all the girls found it utterly hilarious. The wings are then removed, the body dried and then fried - no oil needed, they produce their own. The result? A salty and crispy delight.
Other delicacies that may have, at some point or another, contributed to my expanding waistline, are the 'Vitumbuwa' or 'fritters' (basically doughnuts), but the biggest culprit is peanut butter. Peanuts (or groundnuts as they are referred to in Zambia) are the second-largest crop in the country, so there is never any difficulty finding a decent selection in a shop. My colleagues and I often debate which we think is the best brand. "No, that one has quite a bitter after taste," "Yes, but that's only the smooth one, the crunchy version is sweet," "Yes, I'm detecting some earthy flavours in this one… hints of cedar maybe?"
However, we all agree that the best peanut butter comes from our colleague Cosmas, who grows and makes his own. I think just knowing it comes from such an organic and ethical source, already makes it that much more enjoyable. Being so easy to get hold of however, all I can say is, it's a good job I have to cycle 20km every other day.