Food in Malawi

Let’s talk about one of my favorite topics: food.

Just today, I was sitting down to eat with a fellow Malawian friend and I remarked that there is one truism regarding Malawians: they will feed you until you are past content — then offer you more.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The country has no discernable abundance of natural resources to speak of. It is a landlocked country making importing and exporting goods (including food) expensive. The country is hardly industrialized and thus does little in terms of value added products for the goods it does produce in-country.

85% of Malawians rely on subsistence farming for their daily nutritional needs. The staple food of Malawi is called nsima (pronounced IN-SEE-MA). The dish is prepared by taking dried maize and putting it through a mill to make flour. The flour is then added to boiling water and stirred constantly, adding more flour to thicken it until it is the consistency of mashed potatoes. The nsima is dished out in large patties and served with a relish or two. A relish can be anything: meat, eggs, greens, vegetables, beans, etcetera. The nsima is rolled into a ball using your hand and then with the thumb, a small dimple is impressed into it. The nsima is then used as a scoop to pick up the relish.

Nsima by itself is bland and not appetizing. The relish is where the flavor comes from.

Malawians believe that if they did not eat nsima during the day, they are with hunger — even if they ate plenty. This behavior and mindset feeds into malnutrition, unsustainable agriculture practices, and the high poverty the country faces as a whole.

The Malawian diet is carbohydrate rich and Malawians are hard workers. Nsima replenishes the lost energy expended working in the hot fields all day. Nutritional concerns arise when the body is only fed carbs and little else. Meat is something bought or harvested for a special occasion or as the money becomes available. The number of livestock a farmer has is seen as a status symbol. The livestock is not so much a future source of meat as it is a symbol of power and astuteness.

Rice is often viewed as originating from East Asia though rice has been harvested in Africa for centuries if not longer. Rice is harvested in large quantities in Malawi. It is served in various ways from tea to breakfast porridge to good ol’ fried rice.

Depending on the geographic location in Malawi, there are plenty of vegetables and fruits growing year round. In Nsanje, I have access to copious amounts of tomatoes, cassava, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, pumpkins, beans, cabbage, bananas, papaya, oranges and lemons.

Dairy products are not commonly found in Malawi. In the cities, milk and ice-cream are available (but is quite different than American milk). In rural areas — if milk is drank at all — it is in the form of concentrated milk powder mixed with water.

Food is prepared over a fire in the village. There are different methods to how the fire is created. The method most commonly used is the three-brick method. This is just as it sounds: three bricks are used to support a pot that is suspended over a wood fire. The next method most commonly used is with a small clay or metal stove called a Veolia. The last is a built stove (least common but most needed!). A built, improved cook stove is made of brick and has several components to its efficient design (it is my intent to introduce more of these to the rural villages).

Kitchens are outside the main living area for practical reasons. They are usually no bigger than 10 feet by 10 feet and are constructed out of brick or thatch with either tin or thatch roofs. They are often ventilated poorly and are not equipped with any tables or working surfaces such as counters.
Women do all the cooking. Men do not usually prepare food (I’ve never seen a man prepare food except in towns where he is selling the food for profit). I’m often laughed at because I prepare my own food (and do my own dishes, laundry and cleaning).

I am currently in a honeymoon phase of my service and I know it. Preparing food is fun and tasty (so much fresh food!) but I know that in due time, I will see it more and more as a burden. What I wouldn’t do for a fat bacon cheese burger and a piece of strawberry cheesecake!

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