There are three things towards which the Bemba people feel particular pride:
The Bemba language.
Nshima is Zambia’s staple food – a maize-based product made with ground maize flour cooked in water until formed into a stiff, moldable porridge. Nshima is usually eaten with a side dish called a “relish.”
Whenever we meet a new friend here in Zambia, we are always asked, “do you eat nshima?” The question comes at us with same concern and seriousness as if they were really asking, “Are you a decent human being?” To refuse, reject or poo-poo nshima is a high insult which can only be remedied by the best of excuses (I just five seconds ago nshima).
Picky/finicky/snobby eaters are unwelcome here. If you accept and appreciate the nshima of this beautiful country, you will be welcomed with open arms and a hospitality second-to-none. However, if you disrespect the nshima, you’ll be hearing “Bye Felicia” faster than you can learn to say, “Hello Bwalya.” Though very different from the American home-cooking I grew up with, I’ve developed a love and admiration for nshima and even seek it out as my “comfort food” when I’m having a bad Zam-day.
Nshima love (in heart, soul mind and taste-buds) starts with an appreciation of how nshima is made and enjoyed communally. The preparation itself is masterful, and after eleven years, I still don’t do it 100% “right.” For this reason, I will never be a good Zambian wife. (Jeremy says he’ll live.)
But! I have a good handle on the steps, and I’ll share those with you here, hoping that you too can develop some nshima love.
It starts with the maize, better known to you as corn, but in Zambia, most all maize grown is WHITE. The majority of Zambian farmers are small-scale subsistence farmers, growing enough maize to eat and maybe a little more to sell. Fields are prepared and planted BY HAND, which is basically where I tap out of the ring. More than once I’ve trekked out into the field with my hoe, determined to show my *tough*, only to blister in about five seconds followed by some Ba Mayo ripping the hoe away from me with a laugh and an eye roll. Girl, your skin is basically made out of satin. Just stand there and entertain us so you don’t shred yourself.
The maize is then shelled either by beating it with sticks or shaving the kernels off with nimble hands.
To make the flour, the kernels are either taken to a hammer mill, or for those who don’t want to spend the money, it will be pounded and sifted by hand.
This ground maize flour is called mealie meal, or just mealie.
Most rural families (the nshima process is quite different in more privileged/urban areas) cook their nshima over an open fire in a small cooking structure called an insaka. The water is heated and mealie added, but when it comes time for the vigorous stirring part (see recipe below), most women remove the pot from the fire and grip it with their feet to hold it still while they stir.
Large pots of nshima require an extra large stirring spoon called an umwinko and often require two women to stir it in tandem to make it smooth and perfect.
The nshima is placed in a bowl and smoothed into a perfect mound and then served along side the relish which is often some kind of green (chard, cabbage, pumpkin leaves etc) and/or a protein (chicken, beans, fish – even catepillars!)
Some families serve nshima in lumps on individual plates, but most families in the village eat communally, grabbing handfuls of nshima and relish out of one set of bowls.
Its hard to convey the “vibe” when nshima is being consumed. The Insaka or home or wherever nshima is being eaten always feels content, even safe. There is a saying, “As long as we’re eating nshima, it will all be ok.” This sentiment is written on the faces of everyone dipping into the nshima pot. I might have 99 problems, but nshima ‘aint one, and that matters.
Supplying nshima is a labor of love, making love and nshima synonymous. The proverbial needle point above the hearth would read, “Home is where the Nshima is.” And what I find even more interesting is that MOM is whoever makes you nshima. Because of the centrality of nshima in a family’s life, a child quickly associates the provision of nshima with the provision of all basic needs. Mom, who makes the nshima, she’s the heroine, and the world spins around her. A Bemba proverb reads, Umawna ushenda atasha nyina ukunaya ubwali, explaining that a child (particularly one who hasn’t been anywhere else) really does think her mother is THE WORLD.
The pride, comfort and love wrapped up in nshima is something I want for all of my children, equally for the bush-baby transplants and for the one for whom nshima is his birthright. I still chuckle as I remember taking baby Bronwyn back to the states and watching friends take a few polite bites while Bronwyn devoured her whole bowl of nshima and little fish.
While you may never have the full experience of planting, harvesting and pounding your own maize, I can still share with you basic cooking instructions. This will produce roughly 4-5 medium nshima lumps, suitable for a meal for 2-4 people or maybe just as a sample for your next international dinner party.
Instead of cooking over an open fire, this recipe assumes a gas or electric stove. I asked the fabulous Bana Chiti to be my model and what you can’t see in the pictures is her cackling through the whole thing as I took measurements of everything she did. Why Americans can’t eyeball it like she does is beyond her, but she gives you all a thumbs up for spreading the nshima love abroad.
(*** Disclaimer – there are more variations that are not shared here, specifically for different grit or fineness of the ground mealie, and also the different combinations including cassava flour. This recipe uses Mothers Pride Breakfast Meal. For all other variations, and for the finer details of how to roll nshima in your hands etc., I recommend an in-person tutorial from a Zambian with a PhD in Nshima.)
****How to make nshima for amateurs***
In a small to medium sauce pan, heat 4 cups of water till its warm – approaching hot - but not boiling.
Add to the water one cup of mealie, stiring with an umwinko or wooden spoon, working out any lumps until you have a smooth porridge.
Cook covered on low heat for roughly 10 minutes.
Uncover and add one cup of mealie and stir vigorously for 3-5 minutes or until you hear the hiss of the pan indicating all of the liquid has been absorbed and cooked off. Notice how Bana Chiti is holding the spoon? And how blurry her fast-moving hand is? This is key. Give that nshima and your arm a good workout. If there are un-integrated lumps of flour in your nshima you are fired. Stir it like you mean it! If you stir too little, your nshima will be lumpy and sticky. As long as you don’t smell burning, you can keep working the nshima around to make it smooth and consistent.
Serve in one communal bowl, or scoop into lumps.
Wash your hands (the right hand in particular) as that’s all you should be using to eat it.
Salt may be added to the relish but NOT to the nshima. That is heresy.
Eat till you can eat no more.
Announce that you are satisfied.
Basque in the post-nshima glow.
Feel the love.