A food post for Thanksgiving

Since there are no Thanksgiving foods to be found in this country, I thought it appropriate to write today about Malawi’s culinary delights – and frights.

Malawian food is, for the most part, sort of bland.  For a place that has a similar climate to Mexico, it’s amazing that one place got tacos, burritos, and guacamole and the other got nsima, chicken, relish, and chili sauce on the side.  A traditional Malawian meal involves a huge pile of nsima and little pile of whatever is available to dip it in, usually a stew made of vegetables (rape leaves, tomatoes, onions), groundnut flour, and sometimes meat or fish.  Most Malawian restaurants serve variations on this theme, though most include meat (chicken or beef) as a larger portion of the plate and also have rice or chips (fried potatoes, not really french fries) as an alternative option to nsima.  Much like the midwest, common seasonings in Malawi include massive amounts of sugar, salt, and/or mayonaise, though sometimes chile sauce is thrown in for good measure.  Orders of chips usually come with tomato sauce, which is much sweeter than American ketchup.

Though I’ve sampled some of Lilongwe’s restaurants, for financial and gastrointestinal reasons, I do most of my own cooking at home.  Therefore, my most interesting food adventures usually involve grocery stores, not anything pre-prepared.  Here’s a brief-run down of some of the more interesting foods (and drinks) I’ve experienced here:

Coke Light – Apparently Africa’s version of Diet Coke, it actually tastes more like Coke than the American version.  Having found a sugar free soda, I have little room to complain.

Fanta Yellow –  Actually, it may be called Fanta Pineapple, I’m not sure.  (Its counterpart is referred to as Fanta Orange, but I’m never sure if orange refers to the color or the flavor.)  Fanta Yellow is about as appealing as one might imagine super sugary fake pineapple to taste.  I had one for novelty, but one was enough.  Oddly, the soda cans are much heavier here than in the US, falsely leading one to believe there is more of the syrupy mixture hiding in the bottom when that is, in fact, quite untrue.

Dairy products – USAID apparently has some sort of program here to improve the dairy industry, so I would hate to know what it was like before.  I’ve already had my cheese rant (though, since said rant, I have found cheese intermittently at my neighborhood grocery).  Dairy products here have, in general, done little but disappoint me.  The yogurt is strange (and very sweet), and Malawians have a penchant for adding milk to fruit juice, pouring in the sugar (you may be sensing a theme here), and selling it as “dairy juice”.  I’ve tried both supermarket and soft serve ice cream, but neither were creamy in the same way they are in the US.  The ingredients label on the supermarket ice cream says it contains milk and vegetable oil (apparently to make the texture more viscous) rather than cream.  Needless to say, I am unimpressed.  I had high hopes for the soft serve, actually, but found it to be similarly weird.  I finally tried the long-life milk I purchased a while ago, which doesn’t really taste like milk at all.  (It does taste vaguely like non-dairy creamer.)  If not consuming dairy products makes those lactase production go dormant, I may be lactose intolerant upon my return to the US.

Meat – Yes, I have been eating meat.  A little.  Sort of.  There are not many other protein options available, as I lack the patience to deal with dry beans and can only eat so may eggs.  Anyway, meat here ranges from quite tasty to quite dubious.  The market nearest my house sells “economy mince” (hamburger) for about $2 a pound.  I got some for The Dude and sampled a little; it seemed sort of rancid to me.  (He gobbled it up.)  Though there is far more beef available than pork, most of what I’ve experienced has not been an entirely pleasant experience.  I did have some tasty beef curry at a restaurant, but ordering “beef stew” results in a dicey pile of mostly bones.  Chicken is usually a pretty safe bet, and I’ve had decent chicken from both restaurants and grocery stores, though the restaurant at Bunda tended to butcher it into unrecognizable pieces (with embedded shards of bone).  The best meat I’ve had is from one of the expat grocery stores and comes frozen, which makes me suspect it is imported from some distance and probably industrially raised.  Feel free to comment on the irony that the exact type of meat I don’t wish to eat in the US is what I feel safest about eating here.

On the upside, the small grocery store near my house carries fresh, ready-made pesto, and a variety of tropical fruits are coming into season.  I got limes, lychees, and avocados at the market on Saturday.  (Then I made some guacamole, but apparently – for all the maize in this country – no one believes in corn chips.)  Mangoes and sapote (the green fruits I got on the way back from Dedza) are abundant.  There are still lots of tomatoes and green beans, carrots, and eggplants are easy to come by.  Winter squash are beginning to appear, too, though I’m holding out for the price to go down.  As it is, I often find myself with more vegetables than I can eat before they spoil:  one of the perils of cooking for one, I guess.  Though I occasionally had this problem last year, it is more acute here because most everything I buy is fresh, rather than canned or frozen.

Other grocery adventures have included:  learning that milo is not only grain sorghum, it’s also a type of chocolate drink mix; paying $1.75 for a Kit-Kat bar that would have cost somewhere around $.60 in the US; trying and failing to appreciate Malawian peanut butter (for the same reasons I do not appreciate “natural” peanut butter); and cringing every time I see something called “drinking yogurt.”

For those of you wondering about the results of the pie adventure, it turned out…okay.  The recipe definitely needs some tweaking; the crust got soggy really quickly, and the apples didn’t bake down much.  Still, most of it got eaten at the potluck and my housemate rather speedily cleaned up what was left over.  I consider indiscriminate love of baked goods an asset in a housemate.

And if you’re not already in a food coma, here’s some food for thought:  a response from some Salina, KS farmers to the Michael Pollan piece I wrote about last month.  Their criticisms are of a sharper and more practical nature than mine own, but interesting nonetheless.  By way of preview, I will merely mention that the President of the Kansas Farm Bureau compares the Pollan essay to the Communist Manifesto.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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