The writer goes to Zimbabwe and tastes marinated crocodile, warthog steaks and mopane worms.
In a world where what we consume is getting increasingly full of polite, socially-approved and rather safe flavours, Zimbabwe’s home to both the complex and the unusual. If you’re on the tourist trail, around a national park especially, the first thing you learn is to be adventurous with your taste buds. Most buffets feature an assortment of acquired tastes. Think marinated crocodile, impala, kudu, wildebeest, buffalo and warthog fillet steaks, offered with baguette-seed rolls and garnished with lettuce and chips. On several occasions, I encounter a head chef haloed by wood-smoke and the sweet fragrance of roasting, beaming over his succulent preparations with as much pride as a child showing off his latest toys.
Every meat has its endemic seasoning. Impala, I’m told, goes best with gravy or pepper sauce. Warthog, with barbeque sauce. As vital a presence as the range of meats to the meal, is the ubiquitous Mopane worm. These insects brimming with protein — referred to lovingly as “worm”, are in fact caterpillars and grace the salad bar at just about every restaurant buffet I visit. They taste of muscly liver and can be eaten dry and crunchy like crisps or dunked in sauce. But while they linger in my memory for their many merits as a sumptuous exotic treat, just like the game meat, they are not for everyone. The conventional gormandizer needn’t worry however; the culinary possibilities are as diverse as the landscape, and every buffet is also as adequately stocked with rotisserie, stir-fries, salads and curried vegetables.
Traditional Zimbabwean fare, although still strong on meat dishes, tends to be holistic. Sadza — a thickened porridge made from maize — is the staple. My chef tells me, ladling a huge portion onto my plate, “In my village, sadza, like all the other food, was served on a communal plate. We’d roll a clump of it between our fingers and eat it with stew or vegetables. As soon as it was dipped into the accompanying gravy, it morphed from tasteless nothingness, into the food of the gods. Most of all because, no matter how poor the family you were sharing this meal with was, once you’d partaken of the food lying in the large bowl at the centre of the table, you’d be a stranger no more. You’d be family.”
She breaks off and looks towards me in a demanding manner, “You know why I look so young?” The question is clearly rhetorical, because without waiting for my response she launches into speech. “In the rural areas you eat healthy, walk a lot, and heart and liver problems are unheard of.” She shakes her head in despair, expressing displeasure at fast-food options that have cropped up in the cities. “Who wants plastic flowers when you can have the real thing? In my day, you ate the vegetables that surrounded you. Pumpkin. Sweet potatoes boiled with salt. Butternut soup. You partook of the freshwater fish. Bream from the Zambezi river. Kapenta from Lake Kariba. Trout from the rivers in the eastern highlands. You made mousse from the sweet-sour baobab fruit as dessert.”
Identity ingredients that link modern Zimbabwe with its ancient past are peanuts and peanut butter. This edible heritage makes its way with astonishing versatility into everything — the rice, the stew, the sauces, the spinach. My heart warms even now at the memory of the taste of biltong — the heavily-spiced and salted, sun-dried meat cooked with peanut butter and eaten with sadza. If you like it, you’ve sure as Zimbabwe’s Zimbabwe, waltzed your way into the heart of every local.
On a slightly divergent thread, what unites passengers on a boat cruise down the Zambezi — where dainty starters of crocodile mousse are being served and a local gathering in the market place at Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city — is the beer. I am told in numerous taverns over countless glasses of Zambezi and non-branded local brews, that during ancestral worship ceremonies, beer is served from special pots to appease ancestral spirits. During these offerings, people request protection for their family, an overwhelming harvest and good fortune. “The problem is not having an abundance of food and drink, it’s in failing to recognise what we now have,” my driver tells me. “Growing up, my diet was very simple. We learned to never take food for granted, a sentiment reinforced in times of drought and political catastrophe. Even now, when I have food leftover, my instinct is to pack it up and offer it to one of the many poor children who don’t have any.” He takes a discarded apple out of the lunch case that I’ve rejected and offers it to a little girl wandering by. More than everything I’ve eaten here, I remember his words and the impulse driving his gesture. And even now, after I’ve returned to a crowded, always-on-the-move city, I chew more mindfully and remember gratitude with every bite.