There is something to be said for the relationship of food and culture. Staple foods are a step above – a part of any person’s day you might come across in a country. What is it here in Zambia?
Those who have been here or have talked about Zambian food surely haven’t missed out. It is a white, starchy past made from maize flour (or “mealie-meal”), eaten with various relishes to give it flavour. It is a cousin of the starches on your typical Canadian plate, such as rice and potatoes. Eaten with your hands, and often hot enough to sear your palm, each plate gives you a new challenge with whatever consistency the relish comes in. I’ve only had a few flavours thus far but the common trend is that they are a stewed meat and/or vegee. I haven’t quite gotten the technique down for getting lots of the relish in the same bite as the nshima, but I’m getting there! Similarly my heat callouses are going to have to build up a little more before I can courageously pull away a piece from the middle of the nshima loaf. Here is a picture to help your imagination:
A delicious dish of nshima (middle) with Chinese cabbage (left) and sausage (right).
But beyond the meal, there were some interesting insights that I gained from the conversation. In the usual trend of sharing the Canadian perspective after learning the Zambian one, I was asked what the staple food was in Canada. After tweaking my eyebrows up in thought for a few seconds I said, “that’s a good question!” I would be interested to hear what came to other people’s minds first? I could have said something culturally Canadian, such as poutine, maple syrup, or a roast beef dinner, but it was clear that there was nothing Canadians all ate as often as two (or even three) meals a day.
So cool, Canada has a diversity of food, but what is it that makes it that way? I came up with a couple conclusions. The first was our multiculturalism. Canada is a country of so many different cultures, painted together in a complex mosaic. In Zambia, there is less diversity. People here are Zambians of many generations and nshima transcends the ages. In a place like Lusaka, which is a little more cosmopolitan than the surroundings, there is a greater mixture of foods. Yet still, the common Zambian culture is so prevalent that nshima can be found in nearly every building (and most of the bellies) in the city limits. By contrast, Canada has communities of great diversity and so our food choices really are more about our personal tastes. It really pointed out to me, in an unsuspecting way, how differences like this can come from not only a difference in culture, but also the uniformity of the cultures. I certainly don’t profess that all of Zambia has the same culture (and so far from it, in a place with 72 nationally recognized languages, how could that be!), but there is a unity in some of the basic things like staple foods that Canada does have.
The second perception was the ability to have choice. Nshima, coincidentally, just made the national news as I was writing this. Prices are set to be increasing, which calls to challenge the affordability of the food. The low cost of nshima is another driving factor in a place where eating exotic foods from the supermarket is beyond the reach of a significant part of the population. It is a strong reminder of the fortune many people have in Canada to choose from the world foods, some imported from the far corners of the globe.
So it is true that the some of the best conversation starts in the kitchen! While I can’t bring everyone to the kitchen here, it would be great to hear your perceptions of this contrast between food and culture in Canada and Zambia. I’ll also be trying to add some more photos since text only can say so much! My plans for a “walk through” type video of the main bus terminal, my commute to work, and some other daily adventures are in the works so stay tuned…