aboutWe are Akila and Patrick. Ourminds (and waistlines) expand as we travel, cook, and eat our way around the world with our two dogs.
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savoring zambia
a cooking class

Baskets of beans

Beans and dried greens at Zambian market

We tourists rarely gain access to the food that fills the bellies of a nation.  Even if we try to eat at the restaurants frequented by locals, those locals will be eating something very different at home.  The home kitchen might serve meals that are less greasy and fatty than a restaurant kitchen, or rely on the freshest ingredients, or perhaps the cheapest ingredients.  But, we don't see that; we don't know what the locals eat because those home kitchens are closed to us.

View of market

Zambian market

It's a problem we have found all across the world, but especially in those places that rely largely on tourism.  In a city like Livingstone, Zambia, where tourists flock to the famous Victoria Falls, we found plenty of Italian restaurants, traditional English five-star restaurants, and restaurants serving "African fare" with traditional African dancing as entertainment.  But, after several days in the country, we had no clue what the locals ate.

And, so, we signed up for a cooking class booked through our fabulous hostel Jollyboys Backpackers.  We didn't expect our eyes to be blown wide open.

Anna helping me tie on a chitenge

My chitenge

Anna helping me tie on a chitenge (and a close-up of my chitenge)

Anna was a skinny African woman with beautiful wide eyes and short cropped hair in a polo shirt clearly two sizes too large for her.  I suspected that she was a decade younger than me, and she confirmed later that she was not yet 21.

Woman at Zambian Market

Woman at Zambian market Women with chitenge and infant

Women at Zambian market

We rode to the market, a sprawling assortment of stalls and stands well past the touristed areas.  Chickens squawked noisily and women sat under umbrellas in the blazing sun.  They wore bright woven chitenges wrapped around their waists and we soon bought one for me to try.  Mothers walked with infants slung across their backs, swaddled and tied to the mother's back with another chitenge ---- the cheap and easy predecessor to the Baby Bjorn, I suspect.

Brooms and tamarind pods Beans and bitter greens
Sardines Soap

Brooms, tamarind pods, beans, dried fish, and soap sold in slabs

Most of the vegetables I knew.  But, some I did not.  Anna picked out bunches of chibwaba (pumpkin leaves), bitter leaves, and a green leafy vegetable she called rape (which is what we use to make rapeseed oil), dried okra leaves, and sweet potato leaves.  We bought some of the vegetables themselves --- okra, tomatoes, and onions --- but others like sweet potato and pumpkin were considered too rich for daily consumption.  We in the United States would never consider cooking the leaves of many of these vegetables but these greens were the foundation of the Zambian diet.

Chicken at Zambian market

Chicken at Zambian market

The chicken that eventually went into Patrick's stomach

And, there was a chicken.  Anna picked out a squawking live bird and stuck it in the trunk of the car.  When we reached the small hotel at which we would cook, she asked us whether we wanted to watch her kill it.  We vigorously shook our heads no.  She walked to the back area and whacked off its head, returning in moments after rinsing off her hands in water.  Anna's assistant plucked the feathers off the chicken, then boiled it in water for about 30 minutes, and finally sauteed it in oil.

Pulling the strings off pumpkin leaves

Pulling the tough inedible strings off the pumpkin leaves

We stood at a table, chopping vegetables under the shade of an acacia tree.  At first, she did not want to talk much, but I've never been known to shy away from a conversation, and pretty soon, we chatted like old friends.  She told us how she learned to cook.  At thirteen, every Zambian girl goes to her home village to learn how to be a woman: to cook, clean, and care for a man.  At fourteen, every Zambian boy does the same.  By nineteen, she was pregnant but she lost her boyfriend soon after to a disease that haunts all of Africa.  She told me that she and her son live with her sister, while the rest of the family remains in the village, many of these infants being raised by grandparents.

Zambian way of cutting vegetables

Cutting tomatoes the Zambian way

Cutting vegetables the Zambian way

She laughed when I could not master the Zambian way of cutting greens: a method involving gathering a bunch of the roots in one hand and sharply running the knife blade directly through the vegetable while still held in the air.  Only children use cutting boards, she said, though she gave me a plate to use if I needed it.

Okra leaves cooking

Vegetables with tomatoes and onions

Greens with peanuts

Finished vegetable

Sauteed greens with tomatoes and onions and greens with ground peanuts

For each of these vegetables, we used one of two main cooking methods.  In the first, we sauteed tomatoes and onions in oil and then dropped the greens into the pot shortly after, allowing the ingredients to meld together before taking them off the pan.  In the other method, we boiled a small amount of water, dropped in the greens, and added a thickening agent, such as ground peanuts, maize flour, or a pinch of baking soda, after the leaves wilted.  Anna liberally salted all of the dishes.

Bags of cornmeal for nsima Nsima boiling
Nsima paddled Nsima

Making nsima

Last of all, we made nsima, the staple of the Zambian diet.  If you're a Zambian girl, you better be able to make a proper batch of nsima, or no mama will marry you off to her son.  Many Zambians consider making nsima akin to an art form.  Like polenta, pap, and grits, nsima is nothing more than cornmeal poured into boiling water until it forms a thick consistency.  The cook uses a wooden paddle rather than a spoon to stir the nsima together, resulting in thick almost-doughy wedges.  

Our Zambian meal

The variety of vegetables

When we were done cooking, we had a feast of:

  • nsima,
  • pumpkin leaf with peanuts,
  • pumpkin leaf sauteed,
  • rape with peanuts,
  • rape sauteed,
  • bitter leaf sauteed,
  • dried bitter leaf boiled,
  • dried okra leaves sauteed,
  • okra boiled with soda and tomatoes,
  • sweet potato leaves sauteed,
  • natural wild greens sauteed,
  • eggs with tomato and onion,
  • and chicken with tomato and onion (whew!)

Our Zambian meal

Vegetables with the chicken at the right hand side

To eat, we grabbed a small ball of the nsima, rolled it into a ball with our palm, and pressed a hole into the center of the nsima ball, which we used to pick up one of the vegetable relishes.  Everything was delicious, though the clear winners were the sauteed okra leaves, the pumpkin leaves with peanuts, and the sauteed rape.  All of the greens had a slightly bitter flavor which contrasted nicely with the bland nsima.  We went back to our hostel, satiated and stuffed, happy in the knowledge that we finally understood a little bit more about the Zambian lifestyle.

Details

To be honest, even if the food had been bad, dry, and disgusting, we still would recommend this cooking class as a fantastic way to penetrate the glass wall of tourism.  As it turned out, the food was among the best we had in Africa and we can highly recommend this tour.  We booked through Jollyboys Backpackers in Zambia and paid 500,000 kwacha (about $100 USD) for a full day's worth of activities and a very heavy meal for two people.  (This might sound expensive but activities in Livingstone tend to be quite pricey, so this is actually a very reasonable price for a fantastic excursion.)

09/06/2011 15:07
As much as I rail on people for making generalizations about Africa, there are so many things shared by cultures south of the Sahara. Chopping veggies in your hand, chitenges, pagnes, insert local name for fabric here, infants on the back, a doughy starchy staple that forms a central part of the diet. Great post, loved the write up and the photos are excellent. Sounds like quite a meal!!
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09/27/2011 16:24
Phil, that's so good to hear! I love the similarities between these regions too because it shows some unity amidst the many dissimilarities, too.
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09/06/2011 19:53
Wow, what a fantastic experience that must have been. Typically, I no longer do cooking classes when I travel, but I would seriously consider that one if I ever make it to Zambia!
09/27/2011 16:26
Kristina, I would highly recommend this course simply because it offers a glimpse into a cuisine that is very hard to penetrate. And, it was delicious!
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09/06/2011 21:43
This looks wonderful--wow! I love the idea of "penetrating the glass wall of tourism"; it's definitely the way to go. The food looks fantastic, too. I'd love to try those greens!
09/27/2011 16:27
Thank you Lisa! That class has inspired me to try cooking more greens whenever I buy them at the store.
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09/07/2011 00:15
beautifully photographed and told. As a person who has no clue when or whether she will ever make it to Africa, your most recent posts have been an inspiration to me, and a window into a continent I know little about.
09/27/2011 16:28
Thank you so much Denise! I do hope you make it to Africa one day because it is a continent that touches the soul.
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09/07/2011 08:43
Such an incredible experience, minus the poor chicken's death! Your pics are gorgeous, as are your words.
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09/27/2011 16:29
Thank you Andi!
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09/07/2011 10:10
i enjoyed reading this nice post
09/27/2011 16:29
Thank you Henry!
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09/07/2011 11:23
What an awesome experience! I think if that plate had come out I definitely would have eaten it wrong without being told. I love the details of using the dough to eat the greens, so interesting.
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09/27/2011 16:31
Oh, I'm sure we would have eaten it wrong, too. In fact, I found it easier to eat than Patrick did because eating it was somewhat similar to eating Indian food.
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09/08/2011 02:25
I really enjoy learning about other cultures through food. Your photos are wonderful. What a fascinating story. Glad you were able to engage Anna into conversation! Cutting vegetables without a cutting board huh? I guess all the chefs in America are children ha! Do they cut themselves often? What a skill, especially with a sharp knife. I would slice myself at least once a day!
09/27/2011 16:41
Thank you so much Mica! They don't cut themselves at all but I found it incredibly difficult to cut without a cutting board. I would have sliced myself constantly, too!
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09/09/2011 01:23
The photos are perfect so is the description, detailed. It was easy to cook it though, but I never really heard of that dish before. It was quite rare that travelers request and look for a cooking class just to learn what the locals prepare in their tables daily. You did a good job on that. Kudos!
09/27/2011 16:42
Thanks Xights! I think that cooking is one of the best way to learn how the locals eat and love taking classes like this one.
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09/09/2011 04:51
Looks delicious. I didn't realise African food could be so veggie-friendly. We've just done a Japanese cooking class and it's one of my favourite ways of learning more about a culture.
09/27/2011 16:54
Erin, Southern Africa was one of the most surprisingly veggie friendly places we've been on our entire travels. Every restaurant had at least one good vegetarian option and they even marked it with a "V" for Vegetarian (and sometimes went so far as to mark out Gluten Free and Vegan dishes, too). I think the reason the restaurants are so veggie friendly is because their traditional cuisine is very veggie-heavy, too.
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09/11/2011 09:50
Glenn
Next week I'm heading off to Cape Town for the Desert & Water Wanderer trip that you've so nicely documented. I had not yet figured out what I would do with my extra couple of days in Zambia - seeing the falls from Zimbabwe looks like a "must" in October, as the water flow will be quite low. This cooking class I had never heard of, and as a serious foodie and photographer the idea appeals to me greatly. This nudges us away from "tourist" and closer to "traveller". Thank you for this post, as well as the others from that trip! I'll look for the class.
09/27/2011 16:57
Glenn, Wonderful! So glad that you're going to be doing this tour of the cooking class --- I'd love to know how it goes if you take it. And have fun with A-i-F; I hope your trip is wonderful and you get to see tons of amazing wildlife.
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09/12/2011 08:41
those sauteed greens look delicious
09/27/2011 16:58
Thanks Henry!
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09/14/2011 11:35
Nsima sounds really interesting. I'd really like to give it a try. I'm also curious as to what the sweet potato leaves taste like. Sounds like a wonderful meal and a good time.
09/27/2011 16:59
Thanks Mack! The sweet potato leaves were wonderful and I would definitely recommend trying nsima sometime - it's a bit like polenta but less creamy.
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10/01/2011 14:40
Beautiful photos. Those solid bars of green washing soap definitely take me back to growing up in Nigeria
10/04/2011 11:24
Thanks Lola! I wonder if you remember seeing some large rocks at the Nigerian market. We saw piles of them and they sparkled, asked our guide, and she told us that they were somehow used in cooking, but I can't for the life of me remember how they used them. I know this is a vague description but if you've ever seen rocks being sold at an African market, I'd love to know what they're used for!
Akila's recent blog post: the taste of two years
10/04/2011 12:20
Hmmm. It depends. Some rocks contain minerals that are released into soups to enrich them. Some of the rocks (like alum) are used to scrub slime off those giant African snails before cooking, and some rocks (depending on size) are used for grating and grinding pepper and such.
10/13/2011 09:09
Great info - thanks Lola!
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11/20/2011 18:52
I had a pumpkin leaf dish in a market in Lusaka and it was one of my favorite veggie dishes in Africa. Your photos brought back memories :) I also laughed the first time someone told me that a green leafy vegetable was called rape. Great photos!
03/23/2012 02:23
wow, i really want to visit there once! thanks for awesome photos!
03/27/2012 06:57
Thanks Friv!
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07/07/2012 08:07
My favourite dish is chikanda, African polony!
08/31/2012 22:10
I'm longing for some of this Zambian food after reading this post. Many of the dishes are quite similar to Tanzanian foods as well. Looks like a great experience and tasty food!
11/27/2012 18:56
One of my school teachers when I was about 12 had worked in Zambia. I think that was my one of first experiences of knowing it was possible to live and work in exotic places. It was so exciting to hear about.
12/13/2012 13:06
This very nice full image sharpness and focus. how many pixels to shoot objects in the camera noise and the size of its number
02/20/2013 17:52
The food looks delicious. I've seen greens cut the same way in Jamaica which has so many similarities to different African cultures. I wonder why we don't eat sweet potato greens and the like here in the U.S.?! Heck, I didn't even know that sweet potatoes have greens!
02/25/2013 15:37
Dana, I really don't know. My guess is that a lot of those greens are used as feed for animals here in the farms, while in Africa, animals just graze on grass because they're free roaming. Interestingly, I was telling someone about how much I love using beet greens in recipes and they were saying that they didn't even know you could use beet greens. They're one of my favorite types of greens, actually!
05/18/2013 18:04
What a thoroughly enjoyable post! I couldn't stop reading and really wanted to taste all of the food that you pictured. Thanks so much for sharing!
05/22/2013 12:47
Thank you Barbara!
10/21/2013 10:00
Wow, that seems like such a fun idea/class to do while traveling! I think that really give you a chance to amerce yourself more in the culture and obviously you have a great story to tell.
03/10/2014 08:08
I'm going to be honest and say that I am guilty of eating at Italian restaurants while I was in Zambia :-D Now that I've read this, I kinda wish I ate more of their local food.

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