I was drinking beer at an alumni happy hour a few weeks ago, and I kept thinking to myself: “You know, I’ve never even met anybody from Zambia or Zimbabwe. Ever. I mean, I’ll probably find those cuisines in New York City only when pigs fly through the 86th Street subway station…”
As luck would have it, I was chatting with a friendly Canadian named Jaime at that happy hour, and after I finished describing my project, I half-jokingly said, “Yeah, so, um, if you happen to know anybody from Zimbabwe who might want to cook for me, let me know!”
Her response? “My roommate is from Zimbabwe. She’d totally cook!”
At around the same time, I received an email from a Zambian student at the University of Rochester, who will probably be the president of Zambia someday. When he was still in high school, this guy recognized that flies – and the diseases they carry – were harming small-scale chicken farmers in Zambia, and he designed a dirt-cheap flytrap made from recycled soda bottles. He also launched a campaign through the Zambian human rights council to eliminate hazing and beatings at his high school.
This guy is brilliant and ballsy. Start printing the 2030 campaign posters now: Kapambwe Chalwe for President of Zambia.
Anyway, he just finished the first year of his biomedical engineering program in Rochester, and when he contacted me, he hadn’t seen anybody from his country since arriving in the United States a year ago. He had somehow heard about my project, and emailed me to ask if I could help him find some kindred spirits from Zambia – or from neighboring countries.
I answered that I didn’t know any Zambians, but I’d be happy to take him to the Zambian UN Mission – and I’d be thrilled to introduce him to a Zimbabwean I hadn’t met yet.
Next thing I knew, we were all crammed into a kitchen, making Zambian and Zimbabwean food. Actually, it was better than that: a wonderful friend of mine named Irene very kindly allowed us to trash borrow her apartment to host an international potluck. Attendees included folks from Senegal, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Central African Republic, and Nicaragua, as well as an African Studies professor who makes an excellent South African bobotie — a wonderfully spiced South African casserole that vaguely resembles a good Greek moussaka.
But the stars of the evening were our wonderful Southern African chefs-for-a-night. Tendai, our Zimbabwean chef, is every bit as accomplished as Future President Kapambwe: she’s currently working on a PhD in Public Health at Columbia, and just oozes with low-key genius when you meet her. Jaime, the Canadian graduate student who graciously spent hours helping out in the kitchen, is currently working on a public health project in Tanzania.
So there was some serious brainpower in that little kitchen.
There isn’t necessarily a clear difference between Zambian and Zimbabwean cuisine: both countries enjoy white cornmeal as the main staple, called nshima in Zambia and sadza in Zimbabwe (and nsima in Malawi and sishwala in Swaziland and mealie in Namibia…). Pieces of sadza are then used as a utensil to scoop any variety of stews, generally made from some combination of meat and/or vegetables.
On this particular night, Tendai brought the cornmeal for the sadza, procured from a Zimbabwean woman who sells it to her countrymates in New York. There’s an art to making great sadza, which should be smooth, but firm enough to maintain its shape on your plate. Too much or too little water can ruin a batch of sadza, and you need a large, flat wooden spoon to pound out the lumps and ensure a smooth consistency.
And that’s where things got difficult: the only wooden spoon we had was small and round, so poor Kapambwe put in a Herculean effort. He was sweating like crazy as he tried to smooth out one half of the pot at a time, working frantically with the runty spoon.
The guy deserved the excellent meal that followed. Hell, he also deserved an amazing Gambian meal, but that’s another story.
To go along with the sadza, Kapambwe made an excellent stew of collard greens with onions. Apparently, the secret to a great plate of Zambian-style greens is cutting the greens with incredible precision. Seriously, I think he might have spent an hour just shaving the greens to perfection.
But my very favorite dish was the Zimbabwean-style stewed beef that Tendai made. It was an incredibly simple dish: t-bone steak, carrots, onions, garlic, and salt, simmered for hours until the meat fell off the bone. That’s it.
You know how a perfectly cooked steak or an expertly roasted chicken can border on divinity, even if they’re seasoned with nothing but salt? This beef dish was the same way: it was outstanding, and disappeared from the buffet table within a few minutes.
Of course, this was an evening of broader excessive decadence. There was a great South African malva pudding, made by our (American) hostess. And some Indian golab gamun brought by a Saudi, dumplings and couscous brought by our Ugandan and Senegalese pals, and some rather strong drinks made by some American whacko. There were even Nicaraguan rosquillas – savory cookies that my friend Eduardo brought back from a visit to his mom’s house in Nicaragua:
So yeah: I think we crammed food from 10 nations on that table. Life is pretty fantastic.
Thank you to everybody who helped bring this incredible group of people together: Jeff, Nick, Meg, Erick, Andres, Eduardo, Moussa, Brian from We Dream Africa, Brian Feldman, Zainab, and especially Tendai (our Zimbabwean chef for the night), Jaime (for bringing Tendai!), Kaps (our Zambian chef for the day), and Irene, who graciously allowed us to wreck her kitchen for the night. I still owe you a new ceiling fan bowl, Irene!
If you have comments or suggestions — or want to prepare other hard-to-find cuisines for the next potluck — please email me at email@example.com, or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.