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February 2004
Our Man in Zambia : Nshima
A chef makes some nshima

A chef makes some nshima.

Forget money, forget healthcare, forget a functioning education system, if there is one thing Zambians really cannot live without out, it's nshima.

Jamie Baldwin.
Our Man in Zambia

Our Man in Zambia : Part Two

Our Man in Zambia : Part Three

Our Man in Zambia : Part Four

Our Man in Zambia : Part Five

Our Man in Zambia : Part Six

Our Man in Zambia : Part Seven

Jamie Baldwin
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.

Population: 10.8 million (UN, 2003)
Capital: Lusaka
Major language: English (official), Bemba, Lozi, Nyanja, Tonga
Major religions: Christianity, indigenous beliefs, Hinduism, Islam
Life expectancy: 33 years (men), 32 years (women) (UN)
Leader: Levy Mwanawasa
Monetary unit: 1 Kwacha = 100 ngwee
Main exports: Copper, minerals, tobacco Average annual income: US $320 (World Bank, 2001) Internet domain: .zm
International dialling code: +260

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Every Zambian inhabitant eats the stuff, morning, lunch and dinner - without exception. And they love it, absolutely love it. Starve a Zambian of nshima for more than 12 hours and they break out into cold sweats and delusions.

The lengths to which most of the Southern African population will go for a bowl of this maize staple, known as mealie meal in its pounded form, are staggering.

Maize growing
Maize growing.

Take the Zimbabwean High Commissioner who once famously picked someone up in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes from Heathrow airport on the basis that they had brought mealie meal with them.

Or the diplomat who had a bag of mealie meal shipped over from Zambia. I have a bizarre image of tussling with a bag of mealie meal as to who has the window seat on the plane.

Nshima is made from ground maize flour, which in turn is made from corn maize or, to us Brits, corn on the cob. The maize flour is boiled with water and then 'paddled', not stirred, to create a thick dough, which can be shaped into patties.

It's very filling and cheap, explaining why maize is so important to Zambia. Every spare piece of land, from the roadside verges to overgrown football pitches, is used to grow this staple.

Mealie meal comes in bags of 25kg and feeds a family of six for a month. It costs about four pounds a bag. That's about 15 pence a kilogram, or about £14 for my entire body weight.

Maize bags
Maize bags.

The dish is usually eaten with some sort of relish - beans, fried cabbage or meat.

Before eating, a bowl of water is passed round to wash hands and it is particularly bad etiquette not to do so, even if, heaven forbid, you're not eating nshima. You then eat it with your hands and make small patties out of it before dipping in the relish.

Personally, I really like the stuff but, following a four-day camp with some Zambian children and with only several bags of nshima as food, Alice seems to have developed an allergy to it. She still has difficulty speaking openly about the whole experience.

The dish made from maize varies in name and in thickness depending on where you go. In Malawi for instance, the nshima tends to be quite soft, especially if prepared from refined mealie meal. Malawians say that sadza - from Zimbabwe - tastes like concrete. From the Zimbabwean viewpoint, the Malawian nshima is like porridge. Zambians are happy with something in between.

Coming from a country that does not really have a truly national dish, it is difficult to fathom just how important this resource really is. Wars have been started over nshima and Zambians have named their children after the stuff. If someone were to ask a Zambian what it was that had built Zambia to what it is today, then I would wage my own weight in mealie meal that the answer would be nshima.

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