June 25, 2011


To theorize food is to study culture, in particular the path which arrives at the mouth and continues into the stomach, but begins elsewhere, in the intersection of agriculture, politics, geography, and the cultural tradition. To know Zambia one must know Nshima: it is as well received here as it is difficult to explain to outsiders. It is a type of porridge, thick enough to be taken by the right hand while hot, kneaded, accompanied by various relishes, and enjoyed. It is eaten by everyone and with every type of food (which, next to nshima, are termed relishes, because they are and will always be secondary). It is said a meal without nshima is not a meal at all. It is also said in times of hunger, at least there is nshima. It is made from dried and pounded grains combined with water just about to boil, and stirred. And stirred. When the mixture is too thick to be stirred, add more grain, and continue stirring. It is spooned out in lumps, so Zambian men can boast about how many of them they can eat. It is also found in communal pots, because it is particularly African not to separate, thus bestow individual ownership, to food.

To know the ingredients of nshima is to understand history. Most nshima is made from maize because this is the staple crop brought and introduced by the British and popularized under their management of the country. After deterritorialization (Zambia, unlike its southern neighbor, was never a British colony), maize remained in the forefront, eclipsing traditional nshimas made from cassava, millet, and sorghum. To eat nshima at an expensive lodge or restaurant in Lusaka is to enjoy breakfast meal (a finely pounded grain powder opposed to its village equivalent, mealy-meal) and revel in its whiteness, tastelessness, and lack of nutritional content. Maize nshima, even in the village has less nutrition than its traditional counterparts, so the distended stomachs of rural children - what some have termed "nshima bellies" - are not due to eating daily amounts of the substance, but a deficiency of nutrition contained within. White nshima, ironically a remnant of white territorialism, is sastisfying to the hunger as it is ultimately less than satisfying to one's health. Despite this, it remains popular throughout the country.

As mentioned before, nshima is accompanied by every locally available food, but there are some specialities. As a farmer in Chongwe related, Zambians eat not only vegetables, but the leafy extensions of them: they eat pumpkins and sweet potatoes, but also the leaves. Pumpkin leaves (chiwawa) are prepared by removing miniscule thorns and cooked with pounded peanuts (ground nuts) to make ifisashi (in fact, pounded ground nuts added to any vegetable is termed ifisashi). Note that with chiwawa, blossums and stems are cut and consumed along with the leaves. Sweet potato leaves (kalembula) are a darker leafy type, and taste of a tarter spinach when cooked. As saladi (cooking oil, usually sunflower oil) and salt are symbols of wealth as they are not locally prepared, and require a trip, often, to the closest town or tuck shop. So they are extensively used in the cuisine of those who can afford them, without regard to health concerns. Like nshima, they are Zambian essentials.


  1. Great blog post and really helpful and your blog are very interesting.

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  3. HUH, Really, Zambia was never a British colony? You need to review your history...And, while most of the facts are accurate, almost all of the analysis is ignorant, and even mean- thats what happens when you judge people in your own lens- I wish America had a healthier diet, then I would have reason to listen to the "Ugly American's" genius...glad only one other person has read and been misled by this post since 2011!