Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Staple Food of Malawi

When thinking of African food one rarely thinks of Malawian fare. People think of countries such as Morocco, Ethiopia, or Tunisia, that have a very rich food culture. Malawi is not on that list. The major crop in our area is corn which is thought to have been brought to Africa in the 16 or 1700s by the Portuguese from the Americas. Corn became a major crop, displacing sorghum and millet, in Malawi in the early 1900s and the government has been promoting it since. While having a higher yield than the native cereals it is also much harder on the soil. The government has been subsidizing chemical fertilizer which is further depleting the soil. In order to grow enough food for the year Malawians need to plant more and more fields of corn to cover the cost of fertilizer and and diminishing yields of their fields.

In the village there would be twice the amount of nsima
and half the amount of dende.
The major food here is nsima which is made from ufa, corn flour. There are two types, ufa ngaiwa and ufa woyera. Ngaiwa is made by removing the outer part of the kernel and pounding it into a flour. Woyera, the preferred flour, is made by removing both the outer shell and the germ of the kernel, pounding into a flour, and soaking it to make it as white as possible. By removing the germ, much of the nutrients and vitamins are removed leaving only the starch. If you wanted to know what woyera feels and tastes like, just try some corn starch, they are very similar, if not the same. Despite the lack of nutrition, many Malawians will tell you that they have not eaten unless they have had some nsima that day. 

Dried peri-peri peppers along side a cayenne for scale 
 Nsima is made by brining a pot of water with ufa in it to a boil. More ufa is then stirred into the pot until it reaches a very thick consistency. It is so thick that two hands are needed to stir and a second person is needed to hold the pot over the fire. It is then spooned onto a plate creating patties about the size of a hamburger. It is traditionally served with a small amount of dende, relish, made of vegetables, meat, eggs, or beans. All are cooked in a healthy amount of oil and salt, and always with tomatoes. The only other spice used in Malawi is peri-peri, a very spicy pepper.

Vegetables variety is scare in our village. When we go to Mzuzu we are able to get a larger variety however they are almost always picked young. I have yet to see a bell pepper larger than a tennis ball and the guavas and citrus fruits are picked while they are green. This is most likely done to limit the amount of food lost to pests. We have learned that the leaves of pumpkin, beans, and sweet potatoes are not only eatable, but also nutritious.

Food works its way into all conversations. Malawians are always asking 'What is the staple in the US?' and “Do you cook nsima?”. Mostly they ask Tara because culturally women do all of the cooking. They are always shocked when she informs them that not only does she know how to prepare nsima, so does Matt, and he does a fair amount of the cooking. We do not cook nsima for ourselves due to the difficulty in preparing and the limited nutrition. We choose to cook rice or sweet potatoes as our staple because they are easier to prepare and have better nutrition.
Quick garden update! It is giving us some greens, arugula, chard, and kale, and our beans, sugar snap peas, peppers, tomatoes and tomatillos are all flowering and setting fruit. We are very excited to share some of these unfamiliar foods with Malawians.

Some upcoming posts to look forward to. Tara is currently a counselor at Camp GLOW, Girls Leading Our World, and will be posting about her experience once she has a chance to recover from the very busy schedule. We will also be starting a Kids Corner to specifically address the questions that our young readers have. We will be tackling the subject of pets in Malawi first.


  1. Thank you for posting about the food! Since I have had the pleasure of eating the food you two prepare, I know this has been quite the adjustment! I also know you two find ways to make it work. Keep the blogs coming, there is so much to learn! I definitely plan to read the Kids Corner! :)

  2. We had something similar to the relish dish at restaurants in Sudan/Uganda. Is Coke the sweet beverage treat of choice for Malawians? My experience was a glass bottle with a plastic top like on beverages in the states - reuse the bottles but not the tops. Nice to see that your garden is growing! We've got squash, cukes, beans and volunteer corn and pumpkins in Abingdon. I, too, will read the Kids Corner, as I'm particularly interested in learning about your kitten! Miss you guys!