We discovered a great little spot one night, just outside Lusaka. The sign on the slightly formidable eight-foot wall read ‘Grill on the Hill’. Behind the tall gates was a grassed plot with beautiful trees, a portable bar and a bbq manned by a chef in a tall, white hat (he definitely had ‘swag’). The yard was dotted with plastic tables, each with its own wobbly tin brazier. Embers popped and sparked around us, keeping the mozzies away. We listened to arroyo and hip hop while we ate nshima, chunky chips and BBQ chicken.
Another traditional way of cooking chicken in Zambia involves boiling or braising it simply with tomatoes and onions, sometimes with the addition of spices or vegetables.
My braised village chicken
‘Village chicken’ is a Zambian expression for birds that aren’t fattened up on chemicals or reared artificially. In Australia, if you purchase a genuinely free-range chicken, you will probably have something close to a village chicken!
1 free range chicken, cut into portions
4 tbsp oil
1 red onion, grated
2 large tomatoes, grated
1 tbs tomato paste
1 level tsp salt
Heat the oil on medium-high in a large, heavy-based pot.
Add the chicken in one layer and sear/brown on all sides for about five minutes.
Turn the heat down, cover and continue to brown the chicken in the oil and its own juices for another six minutes.
During this time, turn the chicken pieces once.
Remove the lid, add the grated onion and simmer for one minute.
Add the grated tomatoes, tomato paste and salt, stirring in gently so the chicken doesn’t break up.
Cover and simmer the contents of the pot on low for about an hour.
The dish is ready when the chicken is soft and the tomato and onion mixture is ‘saucy’.
Serve with nshima.
Zambia was originally inhabited by hunter-gatherer San. They were largely displaced by Bantu groups, the first of which were the Tonga and Nkoya. From the sixteenth century a number of organised kingdoms developed, including the Lunda and Bemba in the north, the Chewa in the east and the Lozi in the west.
The earliest known European visitors were Portuguese merchants and explorers in the late eighteenth century. Over half a century later, the missionary David Livingstone arrived. He was the first European recorded as viewing Victoria Falls (which he had named in his Queen’s honour). The Lozi name is Mosi oa Tunya – The Smoke Which Thunders!
By the late nineteenth century Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company had obtained mining rights from the Lozi chief and the British established control over the region. Britain continued to govern remotely and, in 1953, created the Central African Federation of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland. The latter two voted for independence in 1963.
Northern Rhodesia officially became Zambia on 24 October 1964. I came along 11 years later. I was little when we left, but my upbringing in Australia was punctuated with fragments of the place we’d left behind. My dad still cooked nshima and my mum told me stories of how she’d tried locusts and large flying ants (I’ve since learned these are called mafulufute) grilled on a fire.
Other edible insects in Zambia are termites (inswa), green grasshoppers (shongonono), green caterpillars (chipumi) and mopane worms (known locally as ifishimu/ifinkubala and vinkubala). These are most commonly eaten as a ‘relish’, a word used broadly to refer to any second dish served with nshima. Relish is known as ‘ndiwo’ or ‘ndiyo’ among the Ngoni and Chewa people, the Tumbuka of the northeast call it ‘dende’ and the bemba-speaking people of the copperbelt and the north refer to it as ‘umunani’.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that mopane worms are hard to come by in Australia! So, I have included some vegetarian relishes here.
Three vegetarian relishes
2 cups water
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 cup ground peanuts (if you can’t find ground peanuts, pulse raw peanuts in a food processor until they resemble a powder)
2 cups bondwe or chibwabwa*, finely chopped (substitute kale or swiss chard)
salt and pepper to taste
Bring the water to a boil over medium heat in a pot.
Add the onion, tomatoes and ground peanuts and reduce the heat.
Cover and simmer for five minutes.
Add the greens and stir.
Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the mixture is thick and creamy.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
*bondwe are Zambian wild greens; chibwabwa are pumpkin leaves (if you can find pumpkin leaves, always remember to peel the tough outer fibres from the stems and leaves before use).
Impwa and mushroom relish
Impwa are small, white, slightly bitter eggplants that grow wild in Zambia. They’re known by various names elsewhere, including garden eggs.
If you can’t find the white variety I suggest substituting them with Thai eggplants, which are round and green with white markings.
1 tbs oil
200 g impwa, stems removed
200 g mushrooms, chopped
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 large tomato, grated
Salt and pepper to taste
Bring a pot of water to the boil.
Add the impwa and boil for about five minutes, until their skins have softened.
Drain the impwa, rinse them under cold water, peel and roughly chop.
Heat the oil on medium in a large pan.
Add the onion and fry until soft.
Add the grated tomato and cook for four minutes.
Turn the heat down and add the mushrooms and impwa, stirring gently to combine.
Season with salt and pepper.
Cover and cook for 10 minutes.
Lumanda is the Zambian word for the leaves of the plant known botanically as Hibiscus sabdariffa. It’s called gongura in India, belchanda in Nepal, Jamaican sorrel in the Caribbean and rosella in Australia. You should be able to find rosella leaves if you hunt for them. I’ve seen them here in Asian and Indian grocers. The leaves have a sour taste, so this relish goes well with fish.
1 cup water
1 tsp bicarbonate soda.
1 tsp salt
1 (200 g) bunch of lumanda leaves, removed from stems and chopped
2 large tomatoes, grated
1 cup ground peanuts (if you can’t find ground peanuts, pulse raw peanuts in a food processor until they resemble a powder.)
extra salt and pepper to taste
In a large pot bring the water, salt and bicarbonate of soda to the boil.
Add the lumanda leaves and reduce the heat.
Cook for about five minutes or until tender (the colour should be yellow-green).
Add the tomatoes and cook for another five minutes.
Gradually add the ground peanuts to the pot in a steady stream while stirring.
Cover and simmer for 25 minutes.
The mixture should have a paste-like consistency.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Serve with nshima and fish!
Along Zambia’s Great Eastern Road, before you get to Chipata you stop at Luangwa Bridge. There’s a market selling handicrafts, local beer, sim cards and street food. After a long road trip flying past villages, tiny children walking on their own to school and vast bushland, we got out to stretch our legs. I bought some fruit called ‘masau’ (that’s the Nyanja word but they originate from South-East Asia and are also known as Chinese date, Chinee apple and jujubes). The firm, unripe ones sucked the moisture from my mouth, but the pruny, dried masau were delicious.
We also tried smoky bream, bought from a lady who was grilling all sorts of freshwater fish over hot coals. She served it to me in paper and poured a little mountain of salt in my hands.
Grilled freshwater fish
1 whole, freshwater, white-fleshed fish (here, something like Australian Bass or Perch would do)
¼ cup olive oil
salt to taste
fish spice* to taste
Scale and gut the fish.
Slash the outside of the fish diagonally about four times on each side – this helps it to cook it evenly.
Sprinkle the cavity and the outside with the olive oil, salt and fish spice.
Leave the fish to marinate in the oil and seasoning for half an hour.
Sprinkle the fish with the juice of half a lemon.
Slice the remaining lemon half into four and place these pieces inside the cavity.
Put the fish inside an oiled wire frame.
These gadgets make it much easier to turn the fish without mishap.
If you don’t have a frame, make sure the grill on your barbecue is well oiled and you have metal tongs and a flip handy.
Grill the fish over charcoal embers (grilling over embers or a lower heat rather than a high flame helps retain moisture).
Six minutes each side should be long enough to cook a medium-sized fish.
*Fish spice usually contains ingredients like dried parsley, coriander, pepper, celery powder, onion powder, salt and maize flour). You can find it in African grocers.
Another thing I wished I’d tried on our way back from South Luangwa were the grilled mice on sticks little boys sold on the side of the road. Grilled rodents are a delicacy in Zambia’s east.
Even though I left Zambia long ago I felt so welcomed when I returned. When we next visit I would like to learn more about local cooking techniques. But Zambian cuisine isn’t just about traditional food, even though this is mostly the case in rural areas. There are modern restaurants in Lusaka and cafes have opened in recently-built shopping centres, where we found fine burgers, chicken piri piri and great fish and chips!
The Zambian diet has also been influenced by other cultures. You can see this in the popularity of sugar and tea (from the British) and dishes like the samosa or goulabjamoun (from the Indians who first came Zambia to work in the early twentieth century). This dessert prepared with sweet potato (a popular vegetable in Zambia) has suggestions of British and Indian cooking.
Sweet potato pudding
butter for greasing
500 g sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into pieces
½ cup sugar
3 tbs grated coconut
½ tsp vanilla extract or paste
2 tbsp baking powder
1½ cups milk
2 tbs brown sugar
2 tbs flaked almonds or other crushed nuts
Preheat the oven to 180°C (conventional).
Grease an oven-proof dish with a little butter.
Boil the sweet potatoes until soft.
Mash well in a large bowl and leave to cool slightly.
Add the sugar, coconut, vanilla and baking powder and stir.
Whisk together the egg and milk and pour into the sweet potato mixture.
Beat with a hand held mixer to combine.
Pour the mixture into the prepared baking dish.
Sprinkle the top with brown sugar and nuts.
Bake for 20 minutes.