Malawi Cuisine: The Chef Redefining Traditional Food (+Nsima Recipe)

By Brianne Miers, Epicure & Culture Contributor

In many places in the world, cooking is still considered “women’s work.”

However, Malawi’s Emmanuel Nkhata hasn’t let that stop him from pursuing an exciting culinary career.

It was his father, Morgan, who inspired him to take this still-unconventional path. The senior Nkhata has worked as the head chef of Japan Tobacco International in the capital city of Lilongwe for the past 11 years.  

When Emmanuel finished high school, he knew he wanted to see more of the country – and world.

His curiosity about other cultures and cuisines led him to consider a career in journalism, but he ultimately decided to pursue a degree in tourism and hospitality management.

He was one of only five men in the program. 

Malawian fire bread

Emmanuel’s “fire bread” was one of the best things I ate at Vwaza. They are typically eaten for breakfast with jam.

From Intern To Professional Malawian Chef

During an internship at Lifupa Conservation Lodge in Kasungu National Park, he met staff of Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT).

LWT has been operating a research base with Conservation Research Africa further north at Vwaza Marsh Game Reserve since January 2017, and it was LWT staff who later recommended Emmanuel to a nonprofit organization planning to host “citizen science” volunteers at the Vwaza camp. 

“They were impressed to see a young person doing great things in the kitchen,” he says of LWT.

Have you tried the food of #Malawi? Learn how one chef is redefining #MalawianCuisineClick to Tweet
Emmanuel Nkhata in the kitchen at Vwaza Wildlife Game Reserve in Malawi

Emmanuel in the kitchen at Vwaza 

A Malawi Cuisine Challenge

Although he was excited about the possibility of having so much responsibility, he admits he was a little skeptical at first, since the expeditions were committed to serving only vegetarian meals to volunteers.

Even though Malawians don’t eat a lot of meat – chicken is eaten occasionally and communities who live close to Lake Malawi enjoy fish – Emmanuel knew it would be a challenge to put together an exclusively vegetarian menu, especially one that was appealing to groups of tourists from different countries all over the world. However, he decided, “This is my shot.”

I got to meet Emmanuel when I participated in one of the Vwaza volunteer expeditions in October 2019.

As a vegetarian for more than 20 years, I can attest that he more than rose to the occasion, especially considering he was working in a remote area with limited ingredients, and cooking for about 20 people in a kitchen that’s not much bigger than the size of a walk-in closet.

Even the meat-eaters in our group would rave about the meals.

dinner at Vwaza Wildlife Game Reserve in Malawi

dinner at Vwaza – a bean and vegetable stew served with bread and rice

A Delicious Malawi Menu

For breakfast most days, he made us omelets with green peppers, served along with thick toast and slices of avocado — which we were all surprised to find, and they were even a little creamier than the ones I’m used to eating in the USA. 

The base for lunch and dinner was typically rice or pasta, served with a tomato-based stew that included beans and vegetables like cauliflower.

The side was usually a tomato, cucumber and onion salad, sometimes mixed with cabbage and dressed with a little olive oil.

Corn was often incorporated into the meal somewhere, as it’s a staple of the Malawian diet. I saw grilled corn being sold all over at roadside stands.

There was always sliced fruit for dessert – mostly watermelon and pineapple.

How delicious is this menu in #Malawi? Learn more about how one local chef is redefining #MalawianCuisine!Click to Tweet
nsima with a bean stew and cabbage salad at Vwaza Wildlife Game Reserve in Malawi

Emmanuel’s favorite food, nsima, with a bean and vegetable stew and a side of cabbage salad

Emmanuel says that pumpkin curry has become his favorite meal to cook for the groups that come through Vwaza — the largest so far was a 40-person university group from the United Kingdom.

While he prefers eating typical Malawian foods like nsima with sautéed cabbage and beans – that was one of my favorite meals he made for us – he has grown to like some of the Western dishes he’s created like spaghetti with a soy Bolognese sauce and pasta salad with hard-boiled eggs.

Connections Through Malawian Food

What was the best thing about working at Vwaza?

“Meeting the people,” he says.

Now that the expeditions are finished for 2019, Emmanuel is back home in Lilongwe, where he runs a catering business making pastries for weddings and events.

In his spare time, he enjoys cooking for his friends and family and insists that his mother take at least one day off from the kitchen each week to relax.

Emmanuel and his girlfriend, Felister, at Vwaza. Felister served as his sous-chef during Biosphere’s 2019 season.

“I do this for my family,” he says. “They’re the first people I have to impress.”

Looking Toward The Future

Emmanuel is certain to impress others as well, as he continues to build his reputation and resume. He says he wants to gain experience by working at other tourist destinations in Malawi or even elsewhere on the continent. 

“You can go anywhere,” he says of the myriad opportunities available for chefs in hotels and lodges throughout Africa.

Ultimately, though, he wants to return to Lilongwe and open up a take-away restaurant serving Malawian specialties, perhaps with an international flair.

Have you tried #MalawianCuisine? Here is a #NsimaRecipe so you can bring the food of #Malawi to your kitchen! Click to Tweet
nsima malawi cuisine

Nsima (top right corner) with three relishes. Photo via Creative Commons/Wikimedia.

Traditional Malawian Food: Nsima Recipe

Nsima is a popular dish throughout Malawi and Zambia (where it’s known as nhsima).

It’s a soft and sticky corn-based patty that you eat by tearing into pieces and dipping into soup, sauces or stew.

This recipe was originally published on the blog International Cuisine. Darlene, the blog’s creator, is cooking a meal from every country in the worldIt is being shared with permission from Darlene. 

Ingredients

  • 3 cups water
  • 1 cup cold water
  • 2½ cups cornmeal

Instructions

  1. Boil the 3 cups of water in a saucepan.
  2. In a bowl, make a paste using part of the cornmeal and all the cold water.
  3. Add the paste to the boiling water
  4. Stir with a spoon until the mixture has a thick porridge-like texture.
  5. Cover the saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes
  6. Turn heat to the lowest setting, remove the lid and gradually add the rest of the cornmeal, stirring constantly.
  7. Continue until the mixture thickens to the desired consistency.
  8. Cover and cook on lowest heat for another 5 minutes.
  9. Stir before serving and shape as desired.

Have you tried Malawian cuisine, either traditional food like nsima or dishes with a modern flair?

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Brianne Miers

Brianne Miers is a Boston-based nonprofit communications consultant and freelance writer. Her blog, A Traveling Life, focuses on highlighting local, unique and sustainable attractions in New England and around the globe. She is a member of the Impact Travel Alliance Media Network.

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