By Gretchen Healey, Epicure & Culture Contributor
To me, the word ‘foodie’ feels a bit stuck-up. And yet, I suppose I’d classify myself as a food nerd, which is probably not much different. I love to cook and love to travel, and the two make a happy marriage.
Discovering a new country is often synonymous with discovering a new cuisine; spices that hit my tongue and leave me wondering about their identity, leading me to the market in search of a way to recreate the sensation. From colorful merchants with exotically-scented wares pushing onto the sidewalks of Quito, to the markets heaving with vegetables and spices from two continents in Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania, there is much to discover as food and travel are inextricably linked.
People don’t typically go on an African safari for the food; but once they are in the National Geographic setting of their memories, the details do come into focus. Between game drives and walks to see everything from bat-eared foxes to zebras there is the camp they’ve chosen, and there is the food. And anyone interested in food might find themselves both delighted and disappointed at the same time.
Culture Through Food
What you will encounter on your plate on an African safari is not unlike what you might get at home. Wonderful ingredients, in some cases farm-fresh from an onsite garden, creative cuisine and great service – all catering to a Western palate.
The chefs are well-trained and can handle your gluten intolerance or peanut allergy; however, for me food is the essence of place. I don’t think most people in East and Southern Africa are eating prosciutto and brie sandwiches, or a medium-rare filet with a mushroom cream sauce. When I travel I want to know what the day-to-day cuisine is so I can truly gain a sense of where I am. Whether it’s a Vienna dog in Chicago (don’t even think about asking for ketchup), mussels I’ve helped to gather and cook in the Pacific Northwest, or a warming bowl of cheesy potato soup in the Andean highlands, eating local cuisine helps me learn about culture and people in a more intimate way.Here's how to eat #likealocal on #safari in #Tanzania Click To Tweet
On a recent visit to Tanzania, my safari was based at a mobile camp called Njozi (meaning ‘dream’ in Swahili) in a protected area on the outskirts of the Serengeti. Set amid a beautiful acacia forest with wildlife casually passing by outside our tents, it was idyllic to say the least. The game drives were fantastic, and despite a total lack of exertion on my part I still found myself looking forward to every meal.
While much of the delicious fare emerging from their kitchen was familiar, they shook things up a bit to keep it interesting. A spicy-sour bean and vegetable salad for breakfast was addictive, as was the ever-present kachumbari, a spicy tomato and onion salad/relish served alongside most meals. It’s akin to salsa and gives a nice freshness to everything it’s served with.
Most notable was ‘Swahili Night,’ an evening of local dishes proudly cooked and served by the camp’s enthusiastic chefs. The chefs used Swahili Night to share and celebrate local dishes, like ugali, a staple throughout much of Africa that goes by many names (including mealies in South Africa, nshima in Zambia, sadza in Zimbabwe and pap in Namibia). Ugali is a cornmeal-based dish that can have a consistency ranging from porridge to dough, and is typically served with a small amount of meat or a savory sauce.
Being on holiday, we were spoiled with nyama choma (grilled meat) to go with our ugali. We also had the option of eating with our hands in the traditional manner or with cutlery. Most opted for the latter, but the former is much more fun. You just take a small ball of ugali, indent a space with your thumb, then scoop up the nyama choma (or sauce) and pop the whole thing into your mouth. I’m not suggesting there isn’t the potential for messiness, but when in Rome…
Recipes From Safari
The chefs were excited to talk about the recipes and preparation. Over the hot fire of the barbecue, they emphasized how Indian spices have influenced and inspired traditional Tanzanian dishes as a result of the long trading relationship between India and East Africa via the ‘spice island’ of Zanzibar. Here are a few of the recipes I got to sample on Swahili Night.
Sukuma wiki means “stretch the week” in Swahili and is a very common dish in East Africa. Easy, nutritious and delicious, it is a way of “stretching” out kitchen resources. Sukuma wiki is typically served with ugali and sometimes also roasted meat or fish. It would also be great served over rice, couscous or whole grains.
Serves 4 to 6
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 lbs kale or collard greens, de-stemmed and finely chopped
- 2 c tomatoes, chopped
- 1 c water or stock (I like veggie stock here)
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil over medium-high in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and sauté until translucent. Add the greens in batches, sautéing each addition until wilted. Add the tomatoes, water or stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and simmer gently until tender (20 to 30 minutes). Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. Serve with a little bit of the broth.Immerse yourself in #delicious #Tanzania culture with these safari #recipes! Click To Tweet
Warning: this tasty condiment might replace salsa as your favorite go-to!
- 5 tomatoes, chopped or diced
- 2 small onions, very thinly sliced or diced
- 1 red chili, diced or thinly sliced into strips
- Handful fresh cilantro, finely chopped
- Juice of 1 lemon (lime will also work)
- 3 tbs olive oil
- Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Soak the onion in warm water with ½ tsp of coarse salt for 20-30 minutes to reduce the heat and raw flavor (optional). Toss tomatoes, onions, chili and cilantro in a large serving bowl. Mix the lemon juice and olive oil together and toss through the salad. Taste and add salt and pepper to your liking. Chill for 30 minutes to 1 hour and serve.
If you’re staying somewhere that you’re also enjoying most of your meals and they’re not serving local cuisine – ask. Most people (myself included) are proud to share and show off their culture’s favorite or famous foods. And when you bite into something they’ve carefully crafted, you will taste not only the food, but your surroundings and their history. That’s not something you can read in a book or see on a tour.
For more travel information, check out this Tanzania travel guide.
What are your favorite Tanzanian recipes? Please share in the comments below!
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