Stone tools found at Ngalue Cave in Mozambique’s north show that people were processing grains there as early as 100 000 years ago. This 2007 discovery is the oldest evidence of human use of pre-farming cereals in the world. There are a many other similar sites in Mozambique. It will be interesting to see what else they can tell us about the cooking habits of early humans.

Several rivers wind their way through the country’s mountains in the north and the lowlands in the south and its sandy beaches are flanked by the warm Indian Ocean. Mozambique is blessed with abundant seafood. Other popular ingredients include cassava, rice, beans, peanuts, cashews, chicken, coconut milk and a wide range of tropical fruit. The cuisine is a rich mix of Bantu, Swahili and Portuguese influences.

Mozambique’s earliest known inhabitants were San hunter-gatherers. Next came waves of Bantu groups early in the first millennium, who migrated via the Zambezi River Valley. Bantu groups still make up most of the population, including the Makwa-Lomwé who are prevalent in the north and the Tsonga who dominate the south.

A signature dish throughout much of Mozambique (particularly popular in the south) is Matapa – a tasty concoction of greens, ground nuts and coconut milk, often served with seafood.

Matapa with prawns

Serves 4

2 cups of cassava leaves, chopped (substitute spinach or kale)

4 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 tbs olive oil, plus extra for the prawns

1 onion, finely chopped

1 cup fish or chicken stock

1 cup water

2 cups of ground peanuts (pulsed in a food processor until they resemble a powder)

1 can (400 g) of unsweetened coconut milk

600 g shelled and cleaned raw prawns

salt, pepper and chilli flakes to taste

Traditionally, the cassava leaves and garlic are ground and pounded using a very large mortar and pestle, but you may not have one of these handy.

You can achieve a similar effect if you pound the leaves and garlic with a meat mallet and then whizz them together in a food processor.

Once you have achieved the desired consistency, put the leaf mixture to one side.

Heat the oil on medium in a large, deep pan and fry the onion until soft.

Add the stock, water and leaf mixture to the pan.

The chopped leaves should be covered; if they aren’t you may need to add extra water.

Bring to the boil.

Reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes, until the pan’s contents start to resemble a paste.

Meanwhile, combine the ground peanuts and coconut milk in a bowl.

When the leaves have cooked for 20 minutes, add the peanut and coconut mixture to the pan.

Stir and simmer for another hour, adding water if necessary.

Your matapa should be thick and rich.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

When the sauce is nearly ready, drizzle the prawns with olive oil and lightly season with salt, pepper and chilli flakes.

Gently saute the prawns in a separate pan or cook them under a grill for five minutes.

Add the cooked prawns to the sauce.

Serve with rice!

Matapa with prawns PDF

Traders from India, Persia and Arabia visited Mozambique as early as the ninth century, dealing in ivory, gold, spices and slaves. Arab merchants soon began to settle along the coast. By the early sixteenth century the Portuguese interrupted the Arab hold on trade. Vasco Da Gama’s expedition to establish a new sea route to India anchored in Mozambique in 1497 and it wasn’t long before they established their own trading posts and forts.

Among the new crops the Portuguese introduced to Africa was a chilli pod from South America that became known as ‘piri-piri’ – Swahili for ‘pepper-pepper’.

Piri-piri marinade

(Makes about 500 ml)

10 small red chillies, deseeded and chopped

8 large garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1½ tbsp sea salt

1½ tbsp sweet smoked paprika

2 torn bay leaves

200 ml lemon juice (about 4 lemons)

200 ml olive oil

Use a mortar and pestle to pound and crush the chillies, garlic and sea salt.

Combine the crushed garlic, chillies and salt with the rest of the ingredients.

Store in a clean, airtight jar or bottle in the fridge.

Use to marinate chicken or prawns.

Piri-piri marinade PDF

Piri-piri is well liked throughout much of Southern Africa (and the world!). During their rule in Mozambique, the Portuguese also imparted their own culinary traditions. Potuguese dishes still enjoyed today include rissois de camarao (shrimp turnovers), galinha assada (roast chicken), bolo polana (a dessert made from cashews and potatoes) and the homemade bread rolls known as pao. Pao also form the base of ‘prego no pao’ – sliced steak sandwiches popular in Portugal and Mozambique.

When the British and other European countries took an interest in Mozambique in the late nineteenth century, the Portuguese increased their control by leasing land to private companies. Resistance to their rule increased and, after a period of guerrilla warfare, the country gained independence in 1975. Most of the Portuguese left. After another long war between the anti-communist resistance and the ruling forces from 1977–92, reforms and constitutional changes were enacted and relative peace was restored.