Food & Daily life

Malawians have a saying ‘chimanga ndi moyo’ or 'maize is life'. For around 80% of Malawians, life revolves around growing enough maize to feed the family.

Washing grains of maize

Maize seed is planted when the rains come. Two weeks later, after the first green shoots appear, the crop is weeded and fertilised. The plants grow to seven or eight feet before the cobs are ready to be picked.

An agricultural society

As a nation of growers, Malawians rely on fresh produce. Imported Western-style processed foods (such as cereal and cheese) are rarely found in the villages where the majority of Malawians live.

When you travel around, you see field upon field of maize. Most families grow maize wherever they can, in any spare patch of ground.

All members of the family, including the youngest children, help plant, tend, pick and process the crop. Droughts and floods, a common feature of the country’s climate, can spell disaster for crops and a successful harvest is cause for great celebration and joy!

Some of the cobs are eaten fresh. But most are taken to the local mill for grinding into flour before it is cooked into a paste to create ‘nsima’, a thickly mashed, starchy meal that feeds the family in the weeks ahead.

Potatoes are sometimes used as part of the relish eaten with nsima. But they can also be found in town or city streets as a commercial food at a “chippie” stand.  Here they are fried over a fire and sold in small bags to eat directly. Sound familiar?

Eating by hand

Using a tripod made of three supporting stones, women usually prepare the staple food of nsima.

Preparing nsima on a tripod
Preparing nsima on a tripod
This is a thick maize porridge which is moulded into patties.

It is served with ndiwo, a sauce or relish made with beans, meat or vegetables. The meal is eaten with the hands and families wash in a communal bowl before and after the meal.

Because most Malawians are farmers and need a lot of energy working in the fields, the carbohydrate element of any meal is the most important, with the relish only intended to add flavour. As well as the maize-based nsima, Malawians also eat rice, cassava and potatoes for their energy supply.

Fish on the move

Local delicacies

Local Malawians say ‘you haven’t eaten your fish until you’ve eaten its head!’ They may also smile as they encourage you to try some of the more exotic local recipes based on insects, such as the patties mashed with lake flies which are caught in large quantities.

Around Lake Malawi, unsurprisingly the ndiwo relish is often based on fish.

Because Malawians are skilled in the craft of drying their catches, fish can be found throughout the country’s markets. Locals particularly rely on a small fish similar to whitebait, which is called usipa and utaka. These can be seen drying on racks near many fishing villages.

Larger species of fish are also eaten, such as mpasa (lake salmon), batala (butter fish) and kampango (similar to catfish).

Chambo, a bream-like white fish, is probably the most popular and may be known to some Western diners as ‘tilapia’.