Rated PG: In which Amy tries the local brew

I’m not sure that I have emphasized enough how much of Malawian life revolves around corn.  Corn is the staple food of the Malawian diet, not in the abstract way that corn is at the center of the American diet (in your beef, in your soda, in your Doritos), but in a corn-for-every-meal way.  Corn is consumed in various forms here, but the most common is nsima, a thick dough made of ground corn flour and water.  A big block of nsima comes with most meals in Malawian restaurants.  (Thankfully, they also usually offer rice as an alternative.)  You eat it with your hands: break off a piece, roll it into a ball, and use it to sop up whatever else is on your plate – some vegetable relishes, and meat if you’re lucky.  The taste and texture is a little like plain grits, or maybe corn meal mush (as far as I can recollect from the one time my mom made corn meal mush), though the corn is ground more finely and they only grow white corn here.  I’ve tried nsima and am not a huge fan, though I imagine it’s an acquired taste.  (I also prefer eating with silverware, since most bathrooms here have neither soap nor any way to dry your hands.)

Corn is the major crop that people grow here, and they grow it on every little bit of land they have.  (As my mom pointed out about the village photo I posted last week, you can see how the furrows go right up to the houses.)  And, as I discovered yesterday, they also drink it.

The local brew here is called Chibuku.  I always laugh when I see it because it comes not in bottles, but in cardboard milk cartons.  (Or, cardboard cartons that I associate with milk cartons; milk here comes in plastic bags if it’s fresh, and those vacumn-packed cartons if it’s long-life.)  The Chibuku trucks are full of milk crates of milk cartons of beer, and it’s hard to twist my associations from milk time in 3rd grade to beer.  Anyway, having received from advance warning, I had been avoiding Chibuku thus far,  but on Sunday, a friend decided that I needed to try it to have a real Malawian experience.  Most people here drink it warm (well, at room temperature, but when it’s 90 degrees out, that’s warm), but he suggested that I try putting it in the refrigerator first.  I brought it home and put it in the fridge.  I showed it to my housemate, and she had never tried it, either, so we had a little drinking adventure together last night.

The carton says “shake, shake,” so we did.  The main ingredient is corn, though it also (according to the carton) contains soybeans, sorghum, yeast, and water.  As far as I can tell, it’s all sort of ground up and thrown in there together.  There’s no alcohol content listed on the carton, because it continues to ferment as you let it sit.  I opened the milk carton cautiously, not sure what I should expect to find.  I didn’t expect to find something that LOOKS LIKE MILK – but Chibuku does.  It’s white, and sort of creamy, but with little brown specks in it (who knows what those are).  It’s not smooth, but like very thin Cream of Wheat, or baby cereal.

Having inspected it visually, we moved on to the taste test.  I optimistically poured myself a quarter glass, took a drink, and…made a terrible face.  My housemate almost fell over laughing at me.  She tried it and wasn’t as put off – but she’s Zambian and loves her nsima, too.  She didn’t drink much, either, but thought that maybe she would try it over the weekend.  If you like to get drunk off of thin, bitter porridge, I guess Chibuku is for you.  My housemate explained that it’s actually very healthy, and that pregnant women drink it, mixed with milk, to have big, strong babies.  I remain skeptical.

To be fair, the second drink was a little better than the first – the bitterness wasn’t so abrasive – and I guess if you keep drinking, after a while you don’t realize what it tastes like anyway.  (I didn’t reach this point, having stopped after two tastes.)  The main appeal, though – especially for the college students – is the price; a liter of Chibuku costs K65 (~ 50 cents).  I would think that you might get full before you would get drunk, but maybe that’s part of the appeal for poor Malawians: it’s eating and drinking at the same time.  And now, I’ll leave you with a (slightly blurry) illustration:

Looks like milk from here!

Looks like milk from here!


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2 Responses to “Rated PG: In which Amy tries the local brew”

  1. Rachel Says:

    You are rather brave. I think it would have taken a literal twist of the arm to get it down my throat.

  2. Linda Says:

    That reminds me of some milk I once had that was bought from a military commissary in Italy. It had a big eagle on the side and said something about being American milk of milky patriotism – maybe Chibuku is a distant cousin.

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