Now that I’ve been here a year, and experienced all seasons, I feel I am now in a position to respond to my readers’ most asked-about topic: food. You can only imagine my relief when I arrived and was treated to diverse and fresh meals, covered in chunks of haloumi and blue cheese. Needless to say, it didn’t take long to realise this was not a typical Swazi banquet. So what is?
Swazis, like most British colonised nations, seem to have adopted the bland, boring cuisine brought to them by their white protectorates, using the non-indigenous ingredients also brought to them by their white protectorates.
Maize (“mealies”) forms the basis of everything – boiled, roasted , mixed with beans (“samp and beans”), or milled and mixed with flour before being steamed to make delicious mealie bread. Most frequently, however, mealies are turned into a stodgy, tasteless, nutritionless tummy filler that resembles stiff mash, called “Pap”.
While Pap occupies 70% of your average plate, sugar bean stew (if poor) or meat (if less poor) covers the rest. Meat comes in two ways: lathered in oil and salt then braaied (barbecued), or as a stew. Chicken, beef and broewors (sausage made into a coil) appear to be the meat of choice, but tripe is a frequent entry on special occasions, and warthog and impala can be picked up easily from your local supermarket.
If you’re really lucky, your plate might also come with a small side garnish of something containing traces of nutrients: boiled mashed pumpkin, umbidvo (pumpkin leaves made creamy with ground peanuts), shredded lettuce, or cabbage / potato / beetroot swimming in mayonnaise. All this packaged into the obligatory polystyrene container, for just E15 (~$2). A few local ingredients might also make it to your plate if you’re treated to a meal in a homestead, such as ligusha, a slimy spinach-type vegetable, or liselwa, a unique vegetable resembling cross-breeding between choko and squash.
For a special occasions, Swazis also cherish the opportunity to make a visit to their local KFC, Wimpy burger, Steers burgers, King Pie 2 Go, Debonairs pizza, Spur steakhouse, Nando’s chicken or Nando’s better-tasting ripoff, Calito’s.
Then, of course, there are the snacks:
- Fat cakes are aptly-named warm, deep-fried balls of dough, similar to a doughnut minus the sugar. At E1 each (~10c), they’re hard to resist.
- Alternatively, a standard morning tea at work is four slices of bread piled on top of each other, spread in between with jam or avocado and dipped into your tea. On the plus side, bread brown appears just as popular as white thanks to a huge campaign push a few years ago. When bread isn’t available, cold sweet potato dipped in tea works just as well – yum!
- Sandwiches come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but forget any hope of salad. Instead, choose from bright pink polony, chicken and mayonnaise, tuna and mayonnaise, cheese-egg-bacon-polony-mayonnaise-butter toasted triple decker called a “Dagwood”, or make your own sandwich with greasy, hot chips.
- Unsurprisingly, corn is also used to its full potential in the snack world. Popcorn is common, as are lighter, airier versions of twisties. On the topic of crisps, you get some great flavours like “fruit chutney”, and you can rest assured that everything is covered in MSG for extra flavour.
Of course, not everything in Swaziland is recipe for a coronary. Living in a vague tropical environment means fruit and lots of it: pineapples, papaya, banana, plums, lychees, nectarines, and mangoes for ~25c each. Avocados are literally falling from the trees – unsurprising given the massive size of them! Despite the fact that all of this grows really well in Swaziland, sadly almost everything you buy is imported from South Africa.
In fact, the only real local thing people consume here seems to be marula fruit, and that’s mostly in the form of marula beer – a highly potent and disgusting alcoholic beverage carried around in 2-20L containers. Each year, at the start of the marula season around March, the gogos (grandmothers) join the Queen Mother for the marula festival where they all get wasted and pass out on the grass in a culturally sanctioned event. Ahh, good times. The rest of the year, marula beer is doing its bit to boost the HIV and gender-based violence statistics. Sigh.
One can also find lubrication with the regular assortment of spirits (pick up a bottle for ~$10 per litre) or regular beer – the locally produced version being Sibebe, or imports such as Amstel and Windhoek (which was promoted to me at an event as “good for pregnant women because it boosts milk production”. Sigh again). There are also plenty of South African wines to choose from, as long as you’re happy to drink it warm or with ice.
If foetal alcohol syndrome and horrible hangovers aren’t your thing, your other beverage options include rooibos tea with milk and four sugars, ricoffy (instant coffee + chicory) with milk and four sugars, mahewu (a chunky, sour, milk-like drink made from fermented maize), emasi (a chunky, sour drink made from fermented milk), or “juice”, which is actually more like fluorescent cordial.
I will hazard a guess and say that none of this is tempting you. Nor should it. For all the good soil, tropical rains and temperate climate that Swaziland experiences, its food security situation is depressing. 60% of all food is imported, and 40% rely on food aid. This is despite the fact that agriculture is Swaziland’s number one export. To be more specific, sugar drink concentrate for Coca-Cola is Swaziland’s number one export. It is estimated that between 22% and 40% of Swaziland’s GDP is thanks to Coca-Colonisation. Is it any wonder that some estimates put the prevalence of diabetes higher than HIV, which currently stands at 26%. Can you taste the happiness?