September 14, 2004
Food for Thought
Shopping in Malawi is quite an adventure. First of all, I am convinced that everyone in Blantyre is selling something. There are stalls set up on every inch of curb in the city. People sell towels, pots and pans, groundnuts, CDs, fabric, sugar cane, candy, vegetables, buckets, baskets and a multitude of other items. Everyone is trying to make some money.
As a white woman, I am besieged every time I get out of the car downtown. “Madam, would you like to buy some strawberries? Oranges? Necklaces? Pens? Limes? Onions?... I just say “No thank you, not today,”very firmly and walk through the curbside merchants. Some are more persistent than others, but they usually get the message eventually.
The stores here are interesting too. Most of them are small and dark and usually crowded with merchandise. Very few of them are run by Malawians. Indians and Arabs are the owners, although Malawians work as clerks and salespeople. The merchandise can vary from shoes to upholstery fabric to hardware. It may take a while to find something, but it can usually be had…for a price. And that can vary a great deal.
We needed hooks to put in the ceiling to hang our mosquito nets on. The hardware store sold me some for about $2.75 each. We installed them and they fell out a day later. We found better ones at the grocery store for $.73 each. They are still hanging in there just fine.
In order to do the grocery shopping for the family each week, I have to go to at least six or seven places. First, I must stop at the bank and get cash. Nobody takes plastic or checks. Then I usually go to Shop Rite for my staples. This store is rather Wal-Mart-esque –it has a bit of everything. You can get a garden hose, laundry soap, pencils and milk there. It also had nice “brown”or whole wheat bread –sometimes. More often than not, they are sold out, so when I do see it I usually grab about five loaves and put a few in the freezer (we have a small one beneath the fridge.) I buy sugar, flour, milk, cleaning supplies, rice, beans, butter, jam, etc. at Shop Rite. I can get Pillsbury Cake mixes too, but they are $6 each, so I have only bought one, for Brooke’s birthday. Anyway, they have the best prices for those things.
Then I usually go to Shopper’s Choice. This is a smaller store that has the best beef in town and has a wide variety of specialty items, such as granola bars and pancake syrup.
I buy my chickens, whole, (and much to Brooke’s dismay, with a few feathers still attached) at my friend Doreen’s house. She and her husband raise them. Every three weeks, she has fresh chickens for me, and I put several in the freezer.
The best place for vegetables is the Blantyre open air market. Here dozens of people come to sell produce, eggs and household goods. We bought straw mats for the house here, and I found a rosemary plant, as well as baskets. The freshest vegetables and fruits are found here too. However, when merchants see me coming, the prices go up, so I usually drop Alfred off there and he will come back to the car with a kilo of tomatoes, a big bunch of bananas, a nice cabbage, several bunches of fat carrots, some beautiful purple onions, and several pounds of potatoes for about 1000 Malawian Kwatcha, or less than $10. Fresh vegetables are the biggest bargain in Malawi.
Processed foods are very expensive, so are frozen items. Cheese is out of sight. A small (about 8 oz.) container of Blue Cheese is about $12. Enough mozzarella to put on a pizza is $24. A 1 lb. wheel of Cheddar will set you back $32. Needless to say, we haven’t had any parmesan on our spaghetti. I think this is what I miss the most –I love cheese! But Oh, well!
Then I usually stop at Elly’s market, a small store in downtown Blantyre. They have the only canned soup I’ve seen, and wonderful breads. Their Portuguese rolls have become a family favorite.
For beverages (I buy skim milk in boxes at Shop Rite) we have been drinking a lot of iced tea which I jazz up with fruit flavored concentrates. Our indulgence is stopping at the Coke factory, though. There we pick up a case filled with Diet Coke, Orange or Grape Fanta, Pina Cola, Pineapple, or Cherry Plum soda in glass bottles. Dan figured out that they cost about $.17 each. When one case is empty we take it back for recycling and refills.
So after all that, what do we eat? Well, I have to cook everything pretty much from scratch, but here are some of the things that I have made so far: chicken pot pie, chicken and vegetable curry, beef stew, hamburgers (they call ground beef “mince”here,) chicken noodle soup, buttermilk biscuits and pancakes (buttermilk is available in a plastic bag,) ham and scalloped potatoes, stir fried vegetables and rice, and oven fried chicken. Tonight we are having taco salad. There are no tortillas in Malawi.
We have also enjoyed trying Malawian food. Rev. Nasayaya taught Brooke and Heather how to roll the nsima (a thick corn paste similar to grits, that is the staple of the Malawian diet) in their fingers and pick up some “relish,”usually cooked greens or cole slaw, and pop it into their mouths.
At the Katawati’s house they fell in love with samosas, which are triangular shaped fried pastries, filled with mince and onions. The chicken here is cooked with a blend of spices and their beef stew is tasty, although the beef here can be tough, no matter how long you cook it. A Malawian specialty that I love is Chambo, or fish, fresh from Lake Malawi, which is pan fried, whole, and presented to you on a plate, eyes, fins and all! (My family is not quite used to that yet) But we are trying just about everything (OK, we passed on the fried chicken gizzards too) and are really enjoying the fresh fruits and vegetables. Tomato sandwiches are a family favorite at lunchtime now.
As I was writing this, A woman stopped in to thank us for delivering a letter from America to her. Her name is Fanny and I invited her to have tea with me. She is an Elder in the Ndorandi CCAP church and runs a day care center for orphans. Eighty show up everyday.
She said that she struggles to find maize (corn for nsima) and vegetables for them, and relies on “well wishers.”Only a few of the children are able to pay for the food she provides. And here I sit complaining about the price of cheese!
That is what Malawi does to you. It constantly reminds you how blessed you are.
Fanny is going to take us all to see her Day Care Center in the very near future.