Culture through cornmeal

Nsima with ndiwo (stewed vegetables)

As a Canadian national the idea of a staple food was foreign to me before I moved to southern Africa; growing up as part of a “cultural mosaic” meant every meal could come from a different corner of the world.  But Malawi is no melting pot, and a lot can be understood of the landlocked southeast African country’s culture through nsima (en-see-ma), the thick, starchy maize flour mixture that fills the majority of pots in use.

Nsima is made by boiling a pot of water and slowly adding maize flour, stirring until the porridge is thick and smooth.  This is easier said than done and locals will advise you to learn from a Malawian woman before trying to prepare the porridge on your own; the mixture must be skillfully “paddled” and the thicker the maize meal gets the more difficult it is to muscle around.  My first solo attempt produced a finished product with lumps as large as popcorn pieces.

There is also more to eating nsima than meets the eye.  While the palm-sized white “pats” are arguably not much to look at, a foreigner might find themselves eyeing a utensil-less dinner set longer than they’re used to.  Steaming and sticky and served with no fork or spoon in sight, nsima is eaten with the hands in a practice that embodies the importance Malawians place on hospitality, community and an appreciation for the organic.  Before a meal, water is poured over the hands into a receptacle bowl with guests shown respect by being attended to first.  One to three pat-sized nsima servings are paddled onto a plate and garnished with scoops of relish or “ndiwo” on the side and the meal is topped with a gravy-like tomato brew or “soup”.  Each patron breaks off marble-sized pieces of nsima, and rolls and dimples the piece to scoop up the relish.  A guest will customarily be served in this fashion until they are unable to finish the food left on their plate.

The relishes add colour, flavor and essential vitamins and nutrients to the otherwise empty-carbohydrate-laden meal.  (The Atkins Diet would not do well in Malawi.)  They are made from fresh ingredients grown in the sprawling gardens that garnish fields, backyards, front yards and pieces of land that  otherwise seem unclaimed.  Ingredients can also be bartered for at the local outdoor market – a practice that makes grocery shopping more time-consuming but also more of an event and more social than queuing at a self-serve superstore checkout station.

Due to the lack of food processing plants in Malawi, relish ingredients stay true to their original form and recipes focus on featuring the simple flavours of the produce that is in season.  The shortage of forex in the country since 2010 also means few imported foods are available and for this reason Malawians have a full appreciation for enjoying seasonal offerings to the fullest before they are “finished” for the year.  Arriving in January at the end of mango season remains the biggest regret I have with regard to my experience of Malawi.

With mango off the menu, favourite pescatarian-friendly relishes include stewed chambo, a species of tilapia native to Lake Malawi, basic vegetable ndiwo which is pumpkin leaves stewed in tomatoes and onion, and mkhwani which adds groundnut flour to the basic vegetable ndiwo mix.

When I first arrived I ordered nsima to gain “street cred” in the newspaper office cafeteria and save money, as a full plate costs under CAD$1.  But after four months in-country the staple food has become a staple in my diet by choice.  Nsima is easy to stick to because of the way it sticks to your fingers; the new organic appreciation of the food and textural element of taking a meal.  Nsima is easy to stick to because of the way the starchy staple sticks to your ribs on days that include a four kilometer walk to and from work and life without labour-saving technology at your disposal.  Nsima is easy to stick to because it feels good to take part in something so central to the sustenance and culture of Malawi – it’s amazing the common bond that can be formed by cornmeal paste.

This article was originally published in The Chatham Daily News

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About karissagall

Karissa Gall is a Canadian journalist.

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