Zimbabwean Cuisine – Cuisine of Zimbabwe
Like in many African countries, a majority of Zimbabweans depend on staple foods. “Mealie meal”, or cornmeal as it is known in other parts of the world, is used to prepare bota, a porridge made by mixing cornmeal with water, to make a thick paste. This is usually flavored with butter or peanut butter.
Bota is usually eaten for breakfast. Cornmeal is also used to make sadza, which is usually eaten for dinner, and by many for lunch too. The process of making sadza is similar to bota, however after the paste has been cooking for several minutes, more cornmeal is added to thicken the paste until it is hard. This meal is usually served with vegetables (spinach, chomolia, or spring greens/collard greens), beans, and meat (stewed, grilled, roasted, or sundried).
Sadza is also commonly eaten with boerewors (a sausage made from beef or pork), chicken, or curdled milk (sour milk), commonly known as “lacto” (mukaka wakakora). Rice and chicken with coleslaw salad is often served as the main meal. Graduations, weddings, and any other family gatherings will usually be celebrated with the killing of a goat, sheep, or cow, which will be braaied (or barbecued) for the gathered family.
- 1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
- 2. HISTORY AND FOOD
- 3. FOODS OF THE ZIMBABWEANS
- 4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
- 5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
- 6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
- 7. FURTHER STUDY
1. GEOGRAPHIC SETTING AND ENVIRONMENT
A landlocked country of south-central Africa, Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia) lies between the Zambezi River on the north and the Limpopo River on the south. It has an area of 390,580 square kilometers (150,804 square miles), slightly larger than the state of Montana. Most of Zimbabwe is rolling plateau, called veld. The highveld (or high plateau) stretches from southwest to northeast, ending in the Inyanga mountains.
On either side of the highveld is the middleveld. The lowveld is made up of wide, grassy plains in the basins of the Zambezi and the Limpopo rivers. Among the most serious of Zimbabwe’s environmental problems is erosion of its agricultural lands and expansion of the desert. Air and water pollution result from the combined effects of transportation vehicles, mining, fertilizers, and the cement industry.
2. HISTORY AND FOOD
Zimbabwe (zihm-BAHB-way) literally means “House of Stone.” This name comes from the 800-year-old stone ruins left by the Shona people. The descendents of the Shona people make up 77 percent of the Zimbabwean population in the twenty-first century; the other 18 percent are Ndebele (eng-duh-BEH-leh).
By 1300, gold was discovered in the Zimbabwe area and the value of the land for farming was discovered. The Shona and Ndebele peoples alternately held power over the area until the Europeans arrived in the 1850s. The British gained control of the Zimbabwe area (then called Rhodesia) until 1923. As a result, food unadorned with spices, commonly associated with British cooking, infiltrated Zimbabwean cuisine with sugar, bread, and tea.
The Lipopo and Zambesi rivers outline the border of Zimbabwe and supply the soil with moisture and nutrients needed to grow crops. These crops, such as squash, corn, yams, pumpkins, peanuts, and mapopo (papaya), flourish during the summer and autumn months, but can be destroyed in the dry winter months. To preserve food for consumption during the winter months, Zimbabweans dry various produce and meats after the rainy season. Tiny dried fish called kapenta are a common snack.
Another dried specialty is biltong , which is sun-dried, salted meat cut into strips similar to beef jerky. Beef or game, such as kudo and springbok (both members of the antelope family), may be used.
2.1 Mapopo (Papaya) Candy
- 1 papaya (approximately 1 pound)
- 2 cups sugar
- Lemon peel, grated
- ½ teaspoon mint, dried or fresh
- Peel the papaya and wash well. Slice into little strips.
- Place the papaya, mint, grated lemon and sugar over low heat until the sugar dissolves.
- Cook for 10 minutes, then set aside for half an hour.
- Reheat over medium heat until the mixture crystallizes.
- Remove from heat and, using a spoon and fork, mold into ball or stick shapes.
2.2 Roasted Butternut Squash
- 1 large butternut squash
- 3 Tablespoons butter
- Cinnamon, to taste
- Preheat oven to 425°F.
- Remove the skin of the squash with a vegetable peeler, and cut into large chunks, discarding the seeds.
- Place the chunks onto a large piece of foil and place the butter on top.
- Bring up the edges of the foil around the squash and seal tightly.
- Place on cookie sheet and roast for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the squash is tender and lightly browned.
- Sprinkle cinnamon on top to taste.
Serves 4 to 6.
3. FOODS OF THE ZIMBABWEANS
The cornmeal-based dietary staple of Zimbabwe is also the national dish, called sadza. Sadza to the Zimbabweans is like rice to the Chinese, or pasta to Italians. In fact,sadza re masikati, or “sadza of the afternoon” simply means lunch.
Sadza re manheru, or “sadza of the evening” means dinner. Sadza is made from cornmeal or maize, and eaten with relish. Relish can be any kind of vegetable stew, but nyama, (meat), such as beef or chicken, is common among families who can afford it. Sadza is cooked slowly until thick, like porridge.
Other traditional foods are peanuts, beans, butternut squash, gem squash, green maize (or corn on the cob), and cucumbers. Avocados are plentiful and cheap.
Bowara, or pumpkin leaves, can be eaten fresh and are commonly mixed into stews, like dovi (peanut butter stew).
Meat and game such as beef, springbok (African gazelle), kudu (large antelope), and goat are eaten, the larger game reserved for special occasions. At more expensive restaurants, crocodile tail, shoulder of impala (a type of antelope), and warthog may be on the menu.
During the summer, open-air markets sell dried mopane worms (spiny caterpillars) and flying ants by the pound. Both can be eaten fried and are said to taste chewy and salty. Flying ants fly in dense clouds around any source of light during the summer, and can be eaten live. The wings are torn off, then the bodies are eaten. The taste is considered slightly buttery.
- 4 cups water
- 2½ cups white cornmeal (regular cornmeal may be used)
- Bring 3 cups of the water to a boil in a large pot.
- Combine 1½ cups of the cornmeal with the remaining 1 cup water.
- Reduce heat to medium to low and add the cornmeal mixture to the boiling water, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Cook for about 5 minutes.
- Slowly adding the remaining 1 cup of cornmeal. When the mixture is very thick and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, transfer to a serving bowl or plate.
- Use a wooden spoon to shape the mixture into a round shape.
- You may use wet hands to help shape the sadza.
Serves 4 to 6.
3.2 Dovi (Peanut Butter Stew)
- 2 medium onions, finely chopped
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- ½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 2 green bell peppers, chopped
- 1 chicken, cut into pieces (may use skinless, boneless chicken if preferred)
- 3 to 4 tomatoes
- 6 Tablespoons creamy peanut butter
- ½ pound fresh spinach, or 1 package frozen spinach
- Cook onions with butter in a big stew pot until browned.
- Add garlic, salt, and seasonings.
- Stir, adding green peppers and chicken.
- Once the chicken is browned, add the tomatoes and mash them with a fork.
- Add 2 cups water and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes. Add half the peanut butter to the pot, lower heat, and continue to simmer.
- In a separate pan, cook the spinach. If using fresh spinach, wash the leaves, add about 2 Tablespoons of water to a saucepan with the spinach and heat over medium low until spinach leaves are limp and tender. If using frozen spinach, cook according to package directions.
- Add the rest of the peanut butter to the spinach and heat for 5 minutes.
- Serve the stew and the greens together.
Serves 6 to 8.
3.3 Cornmeal Cake
- 1 cup cornmeal
- 4 cups milk
- 2 eggs, beaten ¾ cup butter or margarine
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup sour cream
- Measure milk into a saucepan and bring just to a boil. Remove from heat and allow to cool for about 10 minutes.
- Add eggs, ½ cup butter or margarine, and sugar to the in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and remove from heat.
- Add cornmeal, stirring constantly to prevent lumps.
- Return to low heat and continue cooking for 20 minutes, or until thickened, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Add vanilla extract and stir well.
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Melt remaining ¼ cup butter and pour into 8-inch cake pan. Swirl pan to coat bottom and sides.
- Pour cornmeal mixture into pan and bake for 30 minutes, or until cake is golden brown. Cake is done when a toothpick is inserted into the middle of the cake and it comes out clean.
- Remove cake from oven and cover top with sour cream.
- Return to oven for 15 minutes, or until top is bubbly and lightly browned.
- Serve cake while still warm.
Serve 12 to 16.
4. FOOD FOR RELIGIOUS AND HOLIDAY CELEBRATIONS
Meat or game is generally eaten on special occasions. The kind of meat provided by the host signifies the importance of the celebration. The bigger the occasion, the bigger the roast that is served. Christmas is an example of such an occasion.
Seventy-five percent of Zimbabweans are Christians, so Christmas is widely celebrated. Because Zimbabwe is in the southern hemisphere, Christmas overlaps with the festivities associated with the summer harvest, so many fresh vegetables such as leafy greens and young corn are eaten as well as the sadza staple.
Starting weeks in advance, everyone begins to gather loaves of bread, jam, tea, and sugar for the Christmas dinner. Fresh fruit is also plentiful and accompanies the roast, which may be ox, goat, ostrich, kudu, or even warthog. The roast is sometimes prepared whole on a spit over an open fire when the feast is a village affair.
4.1 Zimbabwe Greens
Collard greens are not native to Zimbabwe, but are the most comparable to Zimbabwean greens.
- 1 bunch collard greens, washed
- 1 cup water
- 1 large tomato, chopped
- 5 green onions, sliced
- 3 Tablespoons creamy peanut butter
- Salt, to taste
- Remove the tough stems, then shred the greens. Place in a saucepan with the water.
- Bring to a boil and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the greens are crunchy-tender, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Place a strainer or colander over a large bowl and drain the greens, reserving the cooking liquid in the bowl.
- Return the greens to the saucepan and add the tomato and onions.
- Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, about 4 to 5 minutes.
- Combine the peanut butter with ¾ cup of the cooking liquid reserved from the greens, then add to vegetables.
- Heat, stirring constantly, until greens have a creamy consistency, adding more reserved liquid or water if mixture seems too thick. Add salt to taste.
Serves 6 to 8.
5. MEALTIME CUSTOMS
Before eating a meal, a dish of water is placed on the dining table for diners to clean their hands.
Rudyi is the Shona word for right hand, which means the “one used for eating.” Even if a person is left-handed, it is considered impolite to eat with the left hand. Zimbabweans typically sit in a circle on the floor and eat food from one dish or bowl. The practice of sharing is the communal way of eating, so diners have to pace themselves accordingly while eating with others.
Older children, learn to pace themselves at the same rate as their younger siblings so that they will not eat too much or too fast and everyone will have a fair share. Guests, however, are served instead of helping themselves. It is considered polite to leave a small amount of food on your plate to show that you have been more than sufficiently provided for.
In general, wooden plates and spoons are used along with Western utensils. In some rural areas, Zimbabweans eat with their fingers. When eating sadza , Zimbabweans clean their hands, then using their right hand, pinch off a chunk from the bowl and roll it into a ball in their palm. They dip the ball into relish and bite off a piece, then roll it again and continue the process.
Three meals are typically eaten a day. Breakfast is simple and may consist of sadza, porridge made from cornmeal or oatmeal, cereal or bread, and tea. Sometimes leftovers from the dinner before are eaten. Lunch and dinner are simple as well.
Sadza with relish is common, served with vegetables and meat, if available. Sour milk and sugar sometimes replace meat or vegetables with sadza . Rock shandy, a refreshing beverage, is a mix of lemonade, soda water, and bitters (made from herbs and other plant extracts and used to flavor drinks). Foreign food such as macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes are now part of Zimbabwean staples.
Certain taboos are associated with Zimbabwean food. For instance, the Ndebele people discourage eating corn out of season. Many ethnic groups do not eat an animal, plant, or other forms of food that bears their family name. For example, if a family name is Nkomo (cattle: cow or oxen), they should not eat beef.
5.1 Rock Shandy
- 2 Tablespoons lemon or lime juice
- 3 dashes Angostura bitters (can be found in any supermarket)
- Cold soda (sparkling) water
- Half fill a tall glass with ice.
- Add the lemon or lime juice and Angostura bitters.
- Fill the glass with sparkling water and serve.
Makes one serving.
6. POLITICS, ECONOMICS, AND NUTRITION
About 39 percent of the population of Zimbabwe are classified as undernourished by the World Bank. This means they do not receive adequate nutrition in their diet. Of children under the age of five, about 16 percent are underweight, and more than one-fifth are stunted (short for their age).
In the early 1990s, drought severely affected the output of almost every crop, including wheat, cotton, oilseed, coffee, and sugar. In years with adequate rainfall, Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s largest corn exporters; however, corn production only produced 1,418,000 tons in 1998, down from 2,609,000 tons in 1996.
Despite the drop in production, Zimbabwe continues to grow a wide variety of crops to help feed its people. Nearly three-quarters of the population have access to safe drinking water, but only about half have adequate sanitation.
7. FURTHER STUDY
A Taste of Africa.
Hong Kong: Simon & Schuster, 1993.
The Africa News Cookbook
. New York: Hamilton Printing Company, 1986.
Zimbabwe, Botswana &
London: Cadogan Books, PLC, 1998.
The Rough Guide to Zimbabwe and Botswana.
London: Viking Penguin, 1996.
7.2 Web Sites
The Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs (CNFA). [Online]. Available
(accessed March 19, 2001).
Diane’s Gourmet Corner. [Online]. Available
(accessed March 19, 2001).
Just Think. [Online] Available
(accessed March 19, 2001)
Lonely Planet. [Online] Available
(accessed March 19, 2001).
New Africa. [Online] Available
(accessed March 19, 2001)
Plan International. [Online]. Available
(accessed March 19, 2001).