Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Food TV. Zambia.

Chikanda - raw, just harvested, and missing the love from cooking


It seems that food has become a bit of an obsession these days—it is completely newsworthy, over the top attention grabbing and fully part of the hip urban trends. For example, right next to the series of articles on how the US has decided that the war Iraq so wildly successful they can start withdrawing troops, the NY times talked about how to enjoy grilled figs; Chefs like Jamie Oliver and that other one that swears a lot have somehow skyrocketed into a celebrity class of their own; and even closer to home, in a city like Vancouver, restaurants seem to be popping up left and right and my brother KK is again shooting a series of Vancouver restaurants for WHERE Vancouver's dining guide (by shooting, I am meaning the kind you do with a camera). A whole guide, brimming with information on the where, what and why to eating in Vancouver. Imagine.

I’m not complaining here, but simply making a small observation. Food after all, is more than just nourishment; it can be a social tool, bring people together and narrow differences.

For example, the fair trade phenomenon is largely centered around food - coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, sugar, you name it, they’ve got it (except maybe haagen daas….) The 100 mile diet,, popularity in organic foods and farmers markets is as much about eating good food as it is signal of our growing recognition that our individual actions really do have impact on the environment. (imagine. there is actually a causal linkage). The debate about over consumption of food has almost eclipsed the concerns about the issue of under consumption and scarcity of food. Discussions about food never just about food, but as it is promoted in the slow food movement, discussions about food is really a reflection of where our society is heading these days and the type of values we’re trying to breed.

And of course food, its preparation and enjoyment can be the thing that brings friends, family and people together. I remember when growing up, my family would gather around big Sunday (turkey!) dinners every week. This was our time to connect; sometimes it was over old Chinese fables, sometimes over lectures and always over laughter, jokes, riddles and general silliness. Equally significant is the time my mother and I shared in preparing these meals; her stories about the post WWII, Great Leap Forward, Cultural revolution days of China would simultaneously transport me into her world of reality, and my world of imagination.

Also, growing up in a Chinese family embedded within a rural white community meant that sometimes I felt like an outsider, misunderstood and because of this, at times, ashamed to be Chinese. However, I remember neighbours would come over to learn how to cook Chinese dishes from my mother. While it was difficult for them to understand our cultural values and norms, food was the easy way to connect over our commonalities and forgo the many things that made us so different. I saw this again, when in Ghana, learning to pound fufu with my sisters, drinking palm wine in at 6 am with Mr. Andrews and eating from foodstalls on the street by kerosene lanterns; all of these experiences over food opened doors and windows into the culture that were invaluable.

Here in Zambia, one of my favourite foods here is Chikanda – Zambia’s meatfree version of bologna. (Anyone interested in testing this out in a Vancouver restaurant? It would sell like hotcakes guaranteed!) Chikanda is actually a small tuber that comes from an species of orchids that is found in the Northern region of Zambia. While it is a food common to the Bemba tribe of northern Zambia for generations, with the increasing urban migration, there it's popularity has meant that it can be found in and around Lusaka. Chikanda can often be found on the street, recognisable as a big plastic covered dish sitting atop of women’s heads as they wander through the streets, selling a piece the size of a domino piece for about 15 cents.

Recently, I discovered that my neighbour, Mama Mulenga is actually renowned for her chikanda. Naturally, I convinced her to teach me how to make it.

The makings of African bologna requires:

1) About this much Chikanda – a small tuber, dried and pounded into a powder. It is harvested rvested in the Northern region of Zambia. I am told that it is not farmed, no it is something that ‘god gives us’.

2) that much Groundnuts – most of us know them as peanuts. Groundnutsmakes much more sense. The groundnuts (raw) should also be pounded into a powder.

3) Up to here Water Pure refreshing tap water.

4) Just a bit Baking soda

5) One big Mama Mulenga Found only in Zambia

Salt and chilli pepper to taste

Step 1. Mix 1 and 2 with 3 in a big pot over a hot mbaula ( charcoal stove). Try hard not to think about the deforestation you’re contributing to.

Step 2. Stir until thick.

Step 3. Add 4.

Step 4. Continue to stir. Try not pass out from the heat of the stove.

When finished, place lid back on the pot and place the mulasha on top to cook the top of the Chikanda

Now for the secret to chikanda: Listen to the life stories and advice of 5.

Makes as many servings as you have number of friends around you.

Mama Mulenga is about as wide as she is tall. Which is not very. Her rotund shape gives her as sense of softness and her chuckle of a laugh offers a sense of approachability. She captures so much of what I love about elderly African women; a motherly nature, openness and willingness to share her culture, a work ethic that comes with being an African woman. And of course, a sense of rich history from her 63 years.

Chikanda newbie

She is Bemba and has been cooking chikanda since she was ‘a small girl’. Her husband passed on some years ago as have two of her 6 children. Within the one room she has in our compound, she looks after her teenage grandson Wellington and one daughter. I learned that she’s lived all around the country following her husband who was a police man and that for her Zambia’s independence was significant because so many people had fought so long for freedom and finally they could live free. Mama Mulenga is active in her church and praises god for many things. Also, curiously she teaches young brides to be, how to care for a husband – in all aspects. (as a side note, THIS, I’m VERY curious about. Because you know…someday….against all odds, and to the relief of my dad, maybe…just maybe, this might actually become useful for me….).

As we wrapped up our lesson, mama Mulenga said “You know Ka-Hay, I am surprised but really enjoy that you are so free and want to learn about our tradition.’

It reminded me that having a muzungu living in your midst is just as peculiar for them as it is new to me and it didn’t necessarily matter how much I love it here and appreciated it if they didn’t feel it. As much as I’ve come to adopt to this culture and feel completely at home here, I’m still a bit of an anomaly, and certainly still an outsider to them. But I realised it wasn’t my living with them or the learning of the local language or the chats we would have in passing that demonstrated to her that I really loved it here and saw us as equals. No, it was over the heat of the mbaoula, and over the shared interest for a food embedded in her history that she recognised my appreciation for her culture as being true.

So, some people may love food because it’s the hot thing to do these days, others because it tastes good. For me, I love food for its ability to bring people together in the present moment, to transport you through history, and narrow the gaps between cultures and connect as people.

Bon Appetite.