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Food Letters: Out of Africa

March 7th, 2009 · No Comments

Letters from friends about foods…

Nshima and bream dinner

Nshima and bream dinner

A friend in Africa writes about the national dish — nshima, a dish made from maize meal. The closest common food to it, she says, is a very firm, congealed polenta.

(Somewhere in Zambia)

Hi, Jan!

The photo above is of my favorite meal –nshima and bream dinner, with vegetables. The nshima is the side starch that looks like mashed potatoes, but is much firmer. It is, apparently, the national dish. It goes with everything and shows up everywhere; it’s even listed on local fast-food joints’ menu boards: Nshima dishes.

The interesting thing about nshima is what a difference eating it with the hands makes.
Originally I poured on a little of the bright orange gravy servers put in front of me, and picked at it with a fork. I enjoyed it, although could only pick away so much before I got bored. My dining companions, on the other hand, ate with gusto, and made it disappear with help from utensils.

But doing so the right way isn’t easy to do right, even if you’re a finger food aficionado, as I am. This isn’t just a pick-it-up-and-pop-it-into-your-mouth endeavor.

No – to do this right you have to dig in to the pile of nshima on your plate, and start a sentence about the current state of politics in Zambia. This will tend to be a run-on sentence, so as it goes on, you will have plenty of time to knead the nshima in your hand with your thumb, against your other four fingers. When you are about ready to stop talking, you bring the kneaded nshima down to the main dish and use it to mop up the vegetables, meat or fish. In this way, the entire serving will disappear rapidly.

I do want to note that the dining room where I was staying had a little sink with running water in the corner, where guests washed their hands before and after eating.

Still, that much hand contact with one’s food can be difficult for a germ-phobic American to get comfortable mastering. I figure I will practice in the privacy of my home, once I get my kitchen equipped and figure out how to make it.

 – T.


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