Friday, August 27, 2010

Recipe Fridays: How to cook (and eat) Zambian food

The staple Zambian food is N’shima, a cooked maize product similar to grits or polenta. It’s dense and highly caloric, thanks to the cooking process by which a small amount of maize meal is cooked into a porridge, then additional meal is beaten in until the N’shima is thick and sticky. There are two kinds of maize meal, or mealy-meal, from which N’shima is made: Refined meal, called “Breakfast”, and whole meal, called “Roller” (pronounced Rollah). N’shima is eaten with a variety of “relishes”, such as vegetables, small dried fish (kapenta), beans, and/or meat with gravy. The major Zambian vegetables are: Rape, a dark green, slightly bitter leaf similar to chard; Chinese cabbage, a slightly lighter colored and more crisp leaf; Chabwawa (pronounced almost like Chihuahua the dog), pumpkin leaves, which are thick and often sandy if not washed enough; Kalembla, pointy, sometimes star-shaped leaves which can be slimy if over-cooked; and Bondwe, basil-shaped leaves with a distinctive fragrance. These vegetables are usually cooked with tomato and onion, and sometimes in a groundnut (peanut) stew called V’sachy.

Zambians eat with their hands, but this is certainly not an excuse for poor hygiene or table manners. Washing hands before and after meals is mandatory, and you’ll find most Zambians somehow keep their hands clean throughout the entire affair. This is managed by the process of taking a golf ball-size lump of n’shima, rolling it into a ball, and flattening it with the thumb before picking up any food. The n’shima and the thumb together are used to pick up vegetables and sauce, leaving the rest of the hand clean. For tearing apart meat and fish you will have to use your hand—but only one. The other rests on the table clean. Westerners seen grabbing food directly off the plate by the handful are considered just as uncouth here as they would be back home, so be warned—eating with your hands isn’t as simple as it seems.

Below are some Zambian recipes, starting with those that are most transferable to Western grocery availability.
Tomato gravy
Use a small-hole grater to grate 3 ripe tomatoes into a pan (a technique I'd never used before Zambia, but which makes a very nice sauce!). Use some water to wash the grater over the pan, so you get all pulp. Place pan on stove and bring to boil, then turn down to simmer. Add one cube veggie bouillon OR seasonings to taste (such as pepper, curry, garlic powder). Grate in one clove garlic, and add some chopped onion if you like. Chop one additional tomato and add this. Cook until the chopped tomato has lost its shape and gravy has thickened somewhat. You may want to add a bit of water. Mix a tablespoon of flour in a bowl with four times as much water—it should be thin, not pasty. Add this slowly and stir. Heat until liquid returns to clear and has thickened.

Sweet potatoes with groundnuts

Peel sweet potatoes and cook covered in just a bit of water, about an inch. When soft, cut in pan into small pieces. Add about one-half cup of peanut butter for every two potatoes, and add additional water. Let mixture boil and cook. Stir. Peanut butter and water will thicken. Salt to taste.

Fried rape
(can be made with chard or kale)
Start with a large bunch of rape, as it will reduce to almost nothing upon cooking. Wash rape leaves thoroughly. Pile tightly together and cut off bottom half of stems and discard. Holding leaves in tight bundle, thinly slice crosswise starting from bottoms of stems, continuing to top of leaf bundle. Place cooking oil to cover the bottom of a large pot and heat. Add cut rape leaves and cover. After about one minute, flip the leaves so that the cooked ones from the bottom are on the top. Sprinkle on top one tomato and half an onion, chopped. Cover again. After a few minutes, stir again, and add a bit more oil. Add salt. Continue covering and stirring until rape is bright green and onions are soft.

Beans with tomato, onion, and green pepper
Cook beans according to package directions. Add salt. Add one-half chopped onion and cover. Add a chopped tomato. Last, add a chopped green pepper. Add cooking oil to taste. Serve with rice, preferably Mongu, and hot sauce to taste.

V’sachy (Chabwawa is best, but any dark leafy vegetable will do)
If using Chabwawa (pumpkin leaves), prepare vegetables by washing thoroughly, plucking off leaves at mid-stem, peeling strings from stem, and slicing thinly. Wash again to remove all traces of sand.  Put a bit of water in the bottom of a pot and heat. When it boils, add vegetables. When vegetables are bright green and mostly cooked, add pounded groundnuts (you can substitute peanut butter, but the taste will be slightly different). First mix groundnut powder with water to make a paste, then add to pot. You will add about one cup for a bunch of vegetables. Let ground nuts boil. If using Chabwawa, add a pinch of soda. Now add chopped tomato and onion. Cook until groundnut mixture thickens and darkens in color, about 15 minutes. Salt to taste.

N’shima (try it with fine cornmeal and let me know how it goes!)
Heat two cups water in pan. Add 1 cup mealy-meal mixed with water to make a paste. Cook until a thick porridge has formed. Gradually beat in additional mealy-meal until N’shima reaches desired consistency. If using Roller meal, allow to simmer before serving. Use a wet spoon to scoop out in lumps.

[Image via Mina in Zambia]

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