In 2016, the Malawian president told his people they should eat grasshoppers as a way of dealing with food shortages. Understandably, this was met with some anger, as the situation is obviously far more complicated than that. It’s true, though, that the traditional diet in Malawi (and other African countries) has included bugs. Some scientists and the UN have also suggested that we could all do with incorporating insects into our diet. They are high in protein and environmentally sustainable.
My mum was born in Malawi, or Nyasaland as it was then, and has recounted stories of how she tried char-grilled insects when she was younger. If you’re game enough to liven up your dinner with creepy crawlies, like mealworms, ants and crickets, in Australia you might find them here.
In Malawi, sand crickets are called nkuluhluh and are often served as a relish with nsima. A traditional recipe would probably require you to pull off their wings, remove their guts and fry or roast them. But, if you’re using an Australian supplier, chances are this will have already been done. Crickets can now be bought pre-roasted and even dusted with chillies and garlic.
Malawi’s ethnic groups today include the Chewa, Nyanja, Tumbuko, Yao, Lomwe, Sena, Tonga, Ngoni, Ngonde, Asians and Europeans. The country gets its present-day name from the Maravi, a Bantu group who migrated from the Congo in the fifteenth century. When they reached what is today Lake Malawi they split into two groups – the Chewa and the Nyanja.
Lake Malawi takes up a third of the country and is home to more species of fish than any other lake on earth, including chambo, usiba, mpasa, batalala and kamapango, many of which are the basis of popular local dishes.
Chambo is a tilapia fish that is similar to bream. You could substitute any soft-fleshed white fish.
2 tbsp oil
1 onion, sliced
4 tomatoes, chopped
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 small green capsicum, finely sliced
1 cup water
salt (to taste)
royco (to taste)
(Royco is a processed stock powder popular in Africa that includes coriander, garlic, ginger, cumin, tumeric and pepper flavourings – you could substitute chicken stock cubes.)
4 chambo fillets (skin on), sliced into 10 cm portions
Heat the oil on medium in a large pot.
Fry the onion until soft.
Add the tomatoes, tomato paste and cup of water and stir.
Turn down the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes until slightly reduced and saucy.
Add the green capsicum, stir and cook for three minutes.
Season with salt and royco to taste.
Add the fish pieces to the pan and simmer for five minutes or until the fish is cooked through.
In Malawi, fish is often served with nsima or kondowole (similar to nsima, but made with cassava flour) and various relishes. A popular local relish is Mkwhani, or pumpkin leaves.
Mkwhani (pumpkin leaf relish)
(If you can’t find pumpkin leaves, you can substitute spinach or a similar leafy green.)
1 tsp salt
1 cup water
4 cups chopped pumpkin leaves (remove the outer fibres before chopping)
3 tomatoes, deseeded and chopped
½ cup ground peanuts (pulse raw peanuts in a food processor until they resemble a powder)
Hold each pumpkin leaf by the stem.
Remove the stringy outer fibres by pulling them from the stem to the tip of the leaf.
Chop the prepared leaves.
Bring the water and salt to the boil in a pot over medium-high heat.
Add the chopped pumpkin leaves and cover.
Reduce heat and simmer for five minutes.
Add tomatoes and ground nuts and stir gently to combine.
Cover and simmer for another five minutes or until the water has been absorbed and the consistency is thick.
The Portuguese traded with local tribes in Malawi as early as the seventeenth century and initially attempted to lay claim to the area. This was disputed by the British, who responded in 1889 by establishing the British Central Africa Protectorate (renamed Nyasaland in 1907). David Livingstone had also reached Lake Malawi earlier in the nineteenth century, paving the way for the development of missions.
In 1953, Nyasaland became part of the Central African Federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The Federation ended in 1963 and the following year, the country gained independence and a new name.
There remain food shortages in Malawi and it’s still a poor nation. But the government, with the support of the World Bank, is developing a new agricultural policy. Agriculture is central to the country’s economy. Key products include tobacco, sugarcane, cotton, corn, potatoes, sorghum, cattle and goats. Tea is also one of Malawi’s main crops and is among the best in the world. And nothing goes better with a cup of tea than a something cakey!
Chigumu cha nthochi (chigumu with bananas)
Chigumu is a lightly sweetened cake. The traditional way of preparing it is in a pot over charcoal. But, that can be quite an unpredictable way of baking if you’re not used to it, so I’d suggest an oven. Ingredients vary widely according to whatever is available (a really traditional version would probably consist only of bananas, maize, bicarb and water). Here’s my take – you can call it banana bread if you like!
¾ cup plain flour
¾ cup maize flour
¾ tsp bicarbonate of (baking) soda
½ tsp baking powder
a pinch of salt
¼ cup sugar
3 large (or 4 medium), very ripe bananas
½ cup buttermilk
¼ cup cooking oil or melted butter, plus extra for greasing the cake tin
Preheat the oven to 180°C (conventional).
Lightly grease a 20 cm cake tin with butter and line with baking paper.
Sift and combine the dry ingredients (flours, bicarb, baking powder, salt and sugar) into a bowl.
In a separate bowl, mash the banana, then add the egg, buttermilk and oil (or butter) and beat together.
Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir to combine.
Pour into the prepared tin.
Bake at 180°C for about 50 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
Leave the cake to sit in the tin for 10 minutes.
Turn out onto a cake rack and allow to cool.