My adopted little city of Chipata in Eastern Zambia has a lot of things going for it. Food is not one of them. The most common dining option here is the traditional restaurant: Plastic tables, plastic chairs and an overzealous welcoming from the local fly community provide the ambience for a typical meal of nshima (ground maize turned into mash-like lumps), a man-size chunk of salty fried or boiled meat, a (surprisingly) reasonably-sized side of vegetable, and some relish or gravy to help everything slide down that little bit easier. This option isn’t so bad, except that it’s your only option.
I must admit, I do love the vegetable sides in Zambian dishes – pumpkin leaves, sweet potato leaves, cassava leaves, bean leaves, cowpea leaves, chinese cabbage, regular cabbage, okra, local leaves mphilu, chimolia, nyazongo, and bondwe. The most common, though, is rape leaves from the rape seed plant, cooked up with some diced tomato or ground peanuts and a generous portion of salt. However, I was taken aback when I first arrived and was continually asked by enthusiastic Zambians: “Do you like rape?” I still stumble on that question.
On the meat front, the typical choices are chicken, beef or tilapia fish. However, if you’re prepared to be adventurous, you might be lucky to try kapenta (Lake Tanganyika sardines), or rehydrated mopane worms cooked up with diced tomato. If you make friends with some people from the villages, you could also try the Eastern Province speciality of salted bush rats. Mmmm. And once the rains stuff, you can tuck into some salty fried giant termites (Inswa, caught at night with nothing more than your hands and a bucket of water). I was lucky enough to try all of these, and will be even luckier if I never have to try them again.
Aside from nshima, the only other dining option for Chipatans is the recently-opened Debonairs fast-food pizza joint, with such heart-attack worthy delights as three pizzas stacked on top of each other covered in macon – whatever that is – and melted cheese). Alternatively, there’s the Steers fast-food burger joint. It seems that despite the massive Indian and Chinese population here, none of them feel the need to cater to desperate and hungry expats. It would come as no surprise, then, that for someone who loves food as much as me, I am forced to get creative in the kitchen. However, just because I like a challenge, I decided to add two caveats to this arrangement:
- The meals need to be vegan. That means no meat, milk, eggs, cheese, honey, yoghurt, or butter. While some of you may think this is easy, please remember that this is Chipata, where vegan substitutes like agave syrup, chia seeds and coconut butter are a mere dream.
- I need to make it as local as possible. This means that, in the first instance, I need to use produce from my own garden, followed by produce from the local markets. Again, you may not think that this is much of a challenge, until you find yourself with the predicament of too much tropical fruit. Yes, there is such a thing.
So, with those rules, I found myself whipping up papaya strawberry banana ice-cream, papaya and orange cake, and curried papaya soup on a regular basis. I have a six-month supply of green mango chutney, and am using my daily harvest of a dozen avocadoes to try raw avocado cocoa mousse, guacamole everything, and even lathering the fruit on my skin for a Vitamin E bath. It seems almost blasphemous. Themed nights have also formed a part of my repertoire – Greek toulou with ladopsomo, Indian dhal with beetroot, eggplant or okra curry; Mexican burritos with chilli beans and mountains of guacamole; Wood-fired pizza with everything home-made, including the tomato sauce; home-made soy milk, tofu, herbal teas, smoothies, sorbets, granola, whole-wheat bread, soups, peanut butter, jam, the list goes on….. And while this diet often makes me feel like I live my life in the kitchen, I am discovering a world of deliciousness and healthiness that I never knew existed. Necessity really is the mother of baking, and the grandmother of satiety.