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Bemba cuisine

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Chef Ankit Mathur Chef Instructor Culinary Academy of India


Zambia has a human history dating back at least 25,000 years. Home to some of the earliest humans, this part of Africa has cradled humanity into today’s species. Ever since humans have been around, sustenance has been vital. Food and cuisine have significantly evolved over the many millennia since, and today’s Zambian food is in striking contrast to the country’s history. People from every culture learn, evolve and adopt different culinary principles and practices, and Zambians are no different. Today, food and culinary heritage are a crucial part of the Zambian identity.

Zambia enjoys a rare luxury for African countries - water. As one of Africa’s most prosperous water nations, Zambia has access to more vegetables, fruits, and fish in addition to grains, game, and meats. Zambians also take great pride in their food, and even small events are celebrated with traditional dishes. There are also several socio-cultural trends, like pre-wedding events, where a groom is treated to a buffet of traditional dishes from the bride’s family, which help preserve Zambia’s culinary heritage.

Before the colonial period, Zambia was home to several free states. Although colonialization harmed the country, its culture, and traditions, modern Zambia has bloomed into one of Africa’s rising nations. Today Zambia’s contemporary culture features more than 70 ethnically diverse societies. The culmination has created a unique blend of values, norms, materials, traditions, and stories.


Zambian Cuisine - In a Nutshell

Zambia is known for having a tradition of seasonal diets. The Bemba, a group of people who lived in what is now Zambia, were known to eat what was available that time of year. Although modernity has brought comfort and consistency to food habits, authentic Zambian cuisine marries seasonality into the meal.

Bemba meals consisted of a thick millet-based porridge called ubwali paired with umunani, a relish. Umunani was most often a stew where the main protein like meat, fish, insect, or vegetables was the highlight. Usually, only one type of relish was consumed with the ubwali, and the stews were cooked with salt and (at times) groundnuts. Beer and other fermented alcohols were an essential part of Bemba culture, and the people brewed their own beer during the harvest season.

Here’s a generalization - the most popular food in Zambia is Nshima. Considered the staple food of the country, Nshima is a thick porridge-like meal made with white maize. The grains are finely ground and served in lumps. Although this may not look like a visual delight, Nshima is a world-famous delicacy. Although Nshima has grown to immense popularity, maize in this recipe is said to have happened during the latter half of the 20th century. Nshima is entrenched in the diet of Zambia and is prepared at home, at stalls, and by restaurants for lunch and dinner. In traditional communities and towards the countryside, making nshima is a long process that includes drying the maize, sorting the kernels, pounding it, and finally cooking it.

The type of relish eaten with nshima is usually hearty and straightforward. Chibwabwa, a popular choice, is a relish made with pumpkin leaves. Other common relishes are katapa, delele kalembula and tente. A niche way to create one such relish relies on cooking with chidulo and kutendela.

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Chidulo is made with green, leafy vegetables and wild mushrooms, dried and burnt banana leaves, beanstalks, and maize stalks. Kutendela is a prepared peanut powder made of pounded raw peanuts.

Ifisahi is another typical food in Zambia. In this recipe, pounded peanuts are mixed with vegetables, sweet potatoes, fish, meat, and kale. Nutritionally rich, Ifishai is considered one of the most satisfying meals in the country. The country also enjoys traditional seasons fruits such as masuku (wild loquats), masau (tastes like sour apples), and mawuyu (baobab seeds).

Other popular recipes include Michopo, roasted meat cooked outdoors on a grill. The meat is usually beef, goat, or game and served with chili, onions, tomatoes, and potatoes. Popularized as drinking food, Michopo is commonly found in bars and pairs exceptionally well with beer. Chikanda, widely called ‘African polony’ is a baked vegetarian item made by combining orchid tubers, ground peanuts, chilies, and baking soda. The result is a product with a meatloaf consistency that can be served either hot or cold. Rounding up the list are Vitumbuwas, or in simple words, Zambian fritters. These fried dough balls are made of flour, yeast, sugar, and water and are usual tea-time snacks.

Preparing Zambian Food

That said, Zambian cuisine is rooted in simple ingredients and simple processes. The approach to food is to make liberal use of locally available agricultural products and meat sources. Typical crops include maize, sorghum, wheat, millet, rice, sugarcane, and bagasse. Cassava and peanuts are also prevalent in the country. Zambia also has a rich tradition of animal husbandry.

All this means diverse ingredients and simple cooking processes. The culinary repertoire of Zambia includes vegetarian and non-vegetarian foods, and this food plays a vital role in the tourism industry as well. The reason I chose this project was due to this diversity. Zambia may not be the most famous culinary nation, but its food belongs up there.

The prop and display are inspired by Zambian culture and its fruitful plains. The trees and grass show how open and widespread the Savana Plains are. The eagle is a prominent national symbol in Zambia; it is on the national flag while also visible on the Zambian court of arms. For this project, I focused on traditional Zambian dishes and derived the recipes from the country’s small villages.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 BrandCai


Rajesh Gupta on August 17, 2021:

Very very interesting and informative article. Indepth knowledge shared about a rare Zambian food.

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