May 16, 2005
Americans are used to a plethora of foods. If we want to go out to eat, we say to ourselves, “Let’s see, do we want Italian or Greek, Indian, American, Mexican, or Chinese?” Every supermarket has food from all over the world. In the grocery store in Bethel Park, I can get pasta from Italy, grapes from Chile, lamb from New Zealand, olives from Turkey, cheese from Great Britain and raspberry syrup from Russia. Here in Malawi the situation is slightly different. In the one big supermarket here you can find some foods that were made in different countries, but they are very expensive. A small bottle of Canadian maple syrup is $30, a can of black olives from Greece is $18. The cost of importing food items into Malawi is staggering. Over sixty percent of the cost of every retail item is for transportation.
That is one reason why Malawians rely so heavily on food that they raise themselves. The other reason is cultural. They truly love their national foods. As I have mentioned before, the staple of the Malawian diet is nsima. White corn is ground down into ufa flour. This is added to boiling water and stirred vigorously with a special paddle, stick or nsima spoon. A thick paste is the result. To the American palate, it is a very bland dish.
Even Malawians almost always eat it with something to add flavor. They call this “relish.” Relish can be as simple as some sliced up cabbage with tomatoes. Malawians sometimes add tiny dried fish to their relish for a cheap source of protein. If it is a special occasion, chicken parts will be stewed with tomatoes and onion. Sometimes goat meat or beef chunks are stewed in a similar fashion, and often, rice is served.
Malawians do not use utensils to eat. They scoop up a piece of nsima about the size of a walnut, roll it in their fingers to make it into a small ball, then stick their finger in one side to make an indentation. This is then used to scoop up some relish, and the whole thing is popped into the mouth. Tiny children master this technique. Malawians always wash their hands carefully both before and after eating. In fact, the most modern dining rooms that we have been in are equipped with a built in sink for hand washing. Otherwise, the women of the house will pour warm water from a pitcher over your hands into a basin to clean your hands.
Everywhere you go in Malawi you will be served nsima and relish. Whenever Dan comes back from an all day meeting, the girls will ask him, “What did you have for lunch?” They know that he had nsima and relish. His pat reply is, “Malawian Standard Fare” or “MSF.” Sometimes he will add, “we had that cooked cabbage relish that I like,” or “I took some chicken stew and got the neck.” (The neck and feet are delicacies here, as is the gizzard.) Even when you go to a buffet at a fancy hotel, you know that there will be nsima and chicken stew. There may be pasta alfredo as well, but a Malawian meal is just not complete without the staples.
To supplement this diet, Malawians eat all kind of greens. Beet leaves, spinach, rape, and Chinese cabbage are all grown in abundance. We have them all in our garden too. These are boiled and flavored with tomatoes and onions or groundnuts (peanuts). Malawians also love fruit and can be seen munching mangoes, bananas and avocados when they are in season. Red kidney-type beans that are boiled with salt are also used as relish.
At CCAP functions, it is really interesting to watch the Mvano cook for a crowd. Huge pots of nsima are prepared and piled onto serving dishes. We even saw a cooler full of the thick paste one time. Bowls of relish, rice and beans are also cooked up and served. We have eaten so much of this food that we consider ourselves connoisseurs. Sometimes we will say to the women, “your nsima was very creamy and the relish was delicious!”
Malawians just love their food. Every day we provide lunch for our gardener, Michael. For the first few weeks, I gave him whatever we were having for lunch – a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or chicken noodle soup or whatever. After a few weeks he told me that he was not happy. He did not like our food. “Please, madame, may I have some nsima and relish?” So now I give him a bowl of ufa flour, some dried fish or an egg, some greens or a piece of fruit. He happily cooks his nsima and relish over a charcoal stove in the yard.
Many Malawians cook their lunches in a similar fashion. Over at the Synod the workers on the new St. Michaels and All Angels building and up at the Domasi Garden, each brings a small sack of nsima and maybe a tomato or some fish with them. One person each day is appointed to be the chef. He puts all the ufa together and makes a pot of relish and serves it to everyone. The security guards do the same thing.
We like a varied diet. If I serve leftover meatloaf and mashed potatoes to my family, they complain, “We had this last night.” Malawians, however, never seem to tire of having the same items for lunch and dinner every day. (For breakfast they will often have cassava root, sweet potatoes, rice porridge or sometimes, hard boiled eggs.) One day I used the Malawian beans to make a Boston style baked bean dish with brown sugar and ketchup. Michael told me, “Those are too sweet. I like salty beans.”
So we will concede to the Malawians. Although we find it hard to understand why they do not use many spices and why they eat the same things every day, we appreciate that it is part of their culture. We like Malawian food, it can be tasty and filling, but we would not want to eat it at every meal, every day.
When Malawian missionaries return from Pittsburgh to Malawi and you ask them what surprised them about America, they will almost always say, “There was no ufa. I missed eating nsima.” I think we will miss it too. When I make beef stew, Dan and the girls will say, “I wish we had some nsima to go with this.”