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Food

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African Corn Grits
By Iris Brooks

Published March 20, 2007

Do cornfields bring to mind thoughts of Kansas? Think again. You may picture corn on the cob at an American barbeque or the plentiful cornfields in rural France—all grown for animals since no Frenchman will be caught eating it. But corn now reminds me of Africa, a land where cornfields are punctuated by huge termite mounds. Maize is the lifeblood of much of the continent and, sometimes, it is even used in their pottery.

Somewhere between a stiff porridge and pudding is a popular grits-like staple common in many countries. Whether you call it nshima (Zambia), n’sima (Malawi), tsaza (Zimbabwe), gari (Nigeria), ugali (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania) or pap (South Africa), it’s the same basic mush.

This white maize may come in patties or in a large mound somewhat akin to grainy mashed potatoes. But regardless of its form, the taste is rather bland and a good sauce is an essential pairing to spice it up. Often there is a tomato sauce base for this common lunchtime meal or it might be served with a more exotic oxtail stew. Some people eat it twice a day.

The pounding and cooking of this maize is so common in village life that there are many songs and dances about this food. Women act out the pounding in interlocking rhythmic motifs with a huge mortar and pestle made from wild mango wood. In some dances they throw the masher back and forth in a relay system as they sing.

Visitors may try their hand at pounding the corn and cooking the n’sima on an open fire at Njobvu Village Cultural Lodge during this off-the-beaten-track cultural tourism program in Malawi. The cooking is done in a different building from the rest of their homes. This reminds me of early Americana. When I visited Thomas Jefferson’s childhood home in Virginia, the kitchen was a little cottage near the estate of the main house and cooking was done over the fireplace. In Africa, the kitchen is in a hut and an open fire is the usual method for village cooking.

Cooking corn mush over an open fire is not only limited to rural African villages. You might, as I did, be viewing art by Tanzanian artists—whose colorful paintings about AIDS prevention contain sayings such as “Would you go white-water rafting without head gear and life-jacket? So why jump into bed without a condom? AIDS kills; condomize.”—and then, happen upon a woman cooking ugali in an iron pot over an open fire on the street in Dar es Salaam, the capital city of Tanzania.

At Club Makakolo on Lake Malawi, I am told the maize grits can be made when I go back home. The chef gives me a recipe and suggests I substitute semolina for the white maize. In other parts of Africa it is made from millet or cassava flour.

In Tanzania, the charismatic Rose Mbwambo shares her method for cooking ugali after explaining the difference between the local textiles: Kanga is the thin cotton cloth with a message embedded in it, kikoy has a fringe and is worn at the beach, as opposed to the thicker, ceremonial wrap known as kitenge.

According to Rose, you can boil water and pour in flour, while stirring constantly or you may mix the flour and water first and then boil and stir. She suggests a variety of sauces including beef, oat, red bean, mixed vegetable or fish as we sail together on the Indian Ocean in a dhow called Sanjeeda, built for British musicologist Anderson Bakewell, who sailed around the world collecting music.

My experience sailing in the Indian Ocean is not only a chance to learn about ugali preparation and taste local delicacies, but an opportunity to embrace multiple cultures while listening to Chinese and Tanzanian music on the Indian-built dhow (with a British owner) modeled after a Portuguese explorer’s historic vessel.

Then, on the exotic island of Zanzibar, I consult with Alessandro Tronconi, the Italian head chef at La Gemma Dell’ Est resort. He proud

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