It’s dinnertime and we’re sitting on reed mats, enjoying a meal together in true Zimbabwean style. I hold a basin in one hand and pour water from a hollowed gourd while my cousins scrub their hands. Then they do the same for me. We gather around metal communal platters (no need for silverware or individual plates) and break off chunks of sadza, mold them into small balls between our fingers and drag them through a stew delicately seasoned with salt and a hint of peri-peri peppers. I add a pinch of greens before popping each morsel in my mouth.
These are the sights, sounds and flavors of family meals shared at kumusha — my rural homestead in Zimbabwe, a country with a population of more than 16 million. Aptly nicknamed “Roots,” kumusha is the place I call home. It is where my kin originated and the place where my forefathers rest with fertile land passed on from generation to generation.
As a child, my visits to this cultural hub were not just about spending time with relatives, but also learning rituals, customs and food traditions that define who we are as a people.
We weren’t treated as visiting guests, either; we awoke at dawn and everyone had a job. Adults, mostly women, converged in the fields tilling soil, planting seeds and manually weeding each row of crops. They grew colorful vegetables, gourds and melons and boasted about the indigenous grains such as millet (mhunga) and sorghum (zviyo), which flourish alongside corn (maize), a grain that was introduced to the continent in the 15th century and today is Zimbabwe’s favored staple. Maize is consumed on the cob and by the kernel popped or broken into samp (also known as manhuchu or umngqusho), a small version of hominy.
While milking cows and herding cattle, the boys snacked on wild fruit that haphazardly grows on the land. Girls skipped to the well with buckets in hand and giggled on the return walk as townsfolk (like myself) staggered and spilled while trying to balance gallons of water for household use on our heads. Much like cooking, mastering this skill is an indication of maturity — and girls yearn for that recognition.
Recipes were rarely documented, so we learned to prepare food by working alongside the older girls and aunties. We cooked by touch, feel and taste — a true mark of soulful cooking. On any given day, women would dehull, grind, pulverize or pound ingredients using heavy grinding stones and take turns lifting tall pestles above their heads, keeping pace by singing a traditional rhyme that mimics the “du-du” sound of the pestle hitting the wooden mortar.
“Du du muduri. Du du muduri.”
While starches such as sweet potatoes, taro and red rice are sometimes available, meals in Zimbabwe are centered around sadza, a millet-, sorghum- or maize-based thick porridge that resembles stiff mashed potatoes. When cooked from maize meal (cornmeal), sadza tastes like unflavored grits. It is a versatile staple that demonstrates the diversity of Zimbabwean dishes, but much like rice or noodles, it is rarely eaten alone. Sadza is served alongside a variety of boiled or pan-fried vegetables including okra, wild mushrooms or local and indigenous greens such as mustards, blackjack (mutsine) and pumpkin leaves (muboora). It is dipped into hearty legume or meat stews which are boiled before being pan-fried in oil and seasoned with salt, onions, tomatoes and leafy greens or peanut butter — a must-have ingredient in many homes.
Curry powder and seasoning powders brought from neighboring cities are sometimes used to thicken and season dishes. When in season, insects such as hwiza (locusts), ishwa (flying ants) and madora (mopane worms) are grilled or pan-fried, making for sustainable, affordable and healthy sadza accompaniments.
At kumusha, nothing is wasted. Entire animal carcasses are utilized. In the absence of electricity, vegetables, legumes, fish and meats are sun-dried or smoked for later use while milk is fermented in clay pots to form a probiotic-rich, kefir-like product. Surpluses are sold to traders or packaged to give to loved ones in the city.
As with many immigrants, the flavors of my home country are an integral part of my diet. In the absence of some of the quintessential ingredients, I have learned to seek new staples and re-create the tastes, textures and aromas that bring kumusha into my kitchen. I have leaned on international stores and local farmers markets as reliable sources of groceries and in-season yet hard to find produce. I have embraced backyard gardening and give produce to friends.
What excites me most is the rise of African cuisine and new eateries in the U.S. that provide an opportunity for others to experience the foods that have shaped not only Zimbabwe, but an entire continent.