African maize porridge, nshima, with meat and sweet potatoes
food

A day of traditional Zambian food

Harriet Comley

Contributing writer

Food is a huge part of traditional and modern Zambian culture. The moment I arrived in Zambia, people asked me: Have you ever eaten nshima? Can you cook nshima? Have you ever tried caterpillars?

Zambians have this fierce pride I have seen in few other countries, and one of the things they take pride over is their food. Zambians love their local dishes and want to showcase them to the world. There’s this saying Zambia kuchalo meaning “Zambia to the world”... In other words, Zambian food is so delicious it’s time to showcase it to the world.

Small bowl of roasted mopane caterpillar at the market in Livingstone, Zambia

There are a ton of things you must try whilst in Zambia, including nshima, ifinkubala (caterpillars), chikanda (polony), ifishashi (peanuts and rapeseed) and fish. Zambia’s staple food is maize, so you might see a trend throughout this traditional menu.

Samp, nshima, and munkoyo are all made from maize. Zambians love their local food and it’s not uncommon for people to eat two meals of nshima a day with different relishes (meat and vegetables).

Here is a typical day of traditional foods that you may expect to eat in Zambia:

Breakfast

  • Samp and tea

Lunch/Dinner

  • Nshima with boiled dried fish & cassava leaves

Snacks

  • Roasted cassava with groundnuts (peanuts)

  • Vitumbuwa

  • Munkoyo

Samp, made from maize, and served with beans

Samp

Samp is a filling and warming breakfast meal. It is made from dried corn kernels that have been pounded, though not as pounded as the maize meal which is used for nshima. Samp is prepared by mixing samp, boiling water, and salt until the samp softens.

Once it’s boiled, finely grounded groundnuts are added and left to boil on a low heat for 20 minutes. Some people choose to add peanut butter instead of groundnuts.

Samp is usually served with a nice cup of tea, or even some local Kasama Coffee.

Nshima

You literally cannot visit Zambia without tucking into some delicious nshima. Nshima is an African staple, you may have heard it called ugali or pap in other African countries.

Nshima is made from corn that’s been finely ground into a powder, which people call mealie meal (maize meal). This carbohydrate forms the basis of most Zambian people’s meals and can be eaten for lunch, dinner, and even breakfast. The maize meal is mixed with water until it resembles porridge before more maize meal is added to form a Play-Doh like consistency.

African maize porridge, nshima, with meat and sweet potatoes

Nothing in the kitchen has left me as mesmerized as a Zambian woman working nshima with a big wooden cooking stick. These women have such good upper body strength and whip up nshima with apparent ease.

Nshima is eaten with your hands! Don’t ever be looking around for cutlery — wash your hands and jump right in. Nshima can be served with a variety of relishes (tomatoes, onions, groundnuts, chicken, eggplant, etc.), but one of the most authentic and popular combinations is dried fish and cassava leaves.

For a landlocked country, Zambia relies on lake and river fish and it’s something Zambian’s cook to perfection. The cassava leaf relish consists of cassava leaves, tomatoes, onions, salt, and oil; a perfect healthy vegetable relish to go with nshima.

Roasted cassava

Nshima is so filling that sometimes all you’ll need to satisfy you in the evening is a snack. Roasted cassava with groundnuts (peanuts) is a popular and yummy snack that many Zambians enjoy.

Cassava is a popular root vegetable which resembles a sweet potato. The cassava is usually soaked prior to eating and then cooked in a pan or on a charcoal fire until both sides are brown and crispy. The groundnuts are boiled until the outer shells come away from the nut; a simple snack, but one that’s satisfying and delicious.

You can pick up this snack at the market or at the side of the road pretty much anywhere in Zambia.

Zambian Vitumbuwa donuts in a bowl

Vitumbuwa

If you’re looking for a sweet snack, why not try vitumbuwa? People also refer to these yummy dough balls as fritters. Made from flour, sugar, yeast, and water, these are a popular street snack. Wander around the market and you’ll find women frying these sweet donut-like balls.

Munkoyo

After all that food, it’s time for an authentic Zambian drink. Munkoyo is a fermented drink that is made from pounded maize and is packed full of health benefits. It’s the perfectly refreshing and healthy way to round off a meal.

These foods are generally found across Zambia, but are also native to the Bemba people of the Northern Province. No matter where you go in Zambia, you’ll be able to find these local dishes and be sure to give them a try.

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Harriet Comley

Author - Harriet Comley

Born and raised in the U.K., Harriet is a travel enthusiast and freelance writer. She has lived in Canada, Vietnam and China, and is currently based in Zambia. Harriet has travelled extensively around the world, including many trips to Paris, and frequently returns home to London.

Last Updated 16 June 2022

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