Tasting cultures – such as smiley, oshifima and ekaka

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As the sunset fades in northern Namibia, a group of tourists sits around the olupale, a traditional fire. Their first traditional Namibian meal, which consists of oshifima and chicken, both in different baskets, is served. They wash their hands as the appetising aroma deepens the hunger. The first tourist, following the example of his hosts, dips the stiff cream-coloured mash into the soup and puts it into his mouth. He chews. He pulls a strange face and swallows it abruptly. As if questioning himself, he takes more oshifima, dips it and eats it. The same thing happens. He looks at his hosts who are eating without any problems. He exchanges uncomfortable looks with his friends.

Otjikaendu Milba with a smiley

The uncomfortable looks are due to little stones in the food. Tourists trying to experience different cultures can find themselves in rather uncomfortable situations. Traditional food is a bridge between cultures, yet it is important to understand a few things about it.

When it comes to traditional food, Namibia offers plenty of choices. Mahangu, which is a type of millet, is the staple food of countless families in the north. The characteristic lines of a mahangu field can be seen close to almost every homestead. Mahangu is sowed from late October to early February. From January the fields are tended. The fact that mahangu is planted in lines, makes it easier to distinguish the mahangu from the weeds.

In preparing the ground on which mahangu is to be placed during harvesting, sand from anthills is used. This is because anthills can become very hard and provide a good top layer. The heads of the mahangu stock have very small grains. During the harvest season, which is from May to July, the harvested heads are put on the ground that has been prepared for it. In a process called threshing, the grains are separated from the heads. Then the grains are either stored in granaries or pounded to make oshifima. Pounding the mahangu is a very difficult task. As the grains are so small, they mix with the sand from the anthill. It is unthinkable to take out the stones.

Due to these stones, chewing oshifima is quite uncomfortable. That is precisely why the people familiar with this dish do not chew the mash. Instead they soften the oshifima with the tongue and swallow it.

Oshifima is rarely served on its own. It sometimes accompanies wild spinach called ekaka. Ekaka is rampant after the rains and can be picked up from mahangu fields. It is easy to prepare and can be eaten straight away. Ekaka is spicy spinach that is vital to any traditional homestead. It carries a cultural significance. It serves as both a welcome and as a farewell meal. It is the first thing a visitor eats, as it is prepared on the first day of a visit. It is also the last thing a visitor eats before departing. Oshifima and ekaka are a sure combination before or after a long journey, because of a belief that the combination brings luck.

Chicken and oshifima are other examples of foods that are usually served together on a plate. In addition to tasting good, chicken also has a traditional importance. On the day that the husband-to-be is introduced to the family, many chickens will be slaughtered.

Homestead chickens are tougher than the chickens sold in shops, which are usually confined and fed as much as possible so that they can grow and fatten fast. Chickens from the village are free to run and play, and are thus more muscular. This difference is clear when eating the village chicken, which tends to be tough.

A delicacy that is usually enjoyed on its own is mopane caterpillars. They are named after the mopane tree from which they are picked. Preparing mopane caterpillars is quite simple. After squeezing out the inside, which contains the green leaves from the mopane tree that the caterpillars have eaten, they are dried in the sun. Then they are fried with tomato and/or onion and/or chillies.

Mopane caterpillars are especially popular as a snack, and are usually sold wrapped in newspaper. They are popular at traditional markets in the north, but can also be found in markets in Windhoek. The Katutura Face to Face tours offers a Katutura township tour, which includes visits to these markets. Mopane caterpillars and other traditional food is served at the Nakambale Museum and rest camp in Olukonda near Ondangwa in the far north of Namibia.

Face to Face Tours can also organise a special Katutura-by-Night tour. During this tour one visits the Otjikaendu Restaurant. Otjikaendu is a Herero word meaning ‘big strong woman’ and describes the owner Milba perfectly. She offers a well-liked delicacy: goat heads cooked on the fire until they are tender and tasty. This dish is attainable on request. After being cooked, the flesh around the teeth is soft and the goat heads seem to be smiling, which led to their nickname ‘smileys’.

At Garies Lodge, near Rietoog in the Hardap Region, one can experience the hospitality of the Baster people. Since there is no better way to experience a country than via the taste buds, homemade food is a major part of the experience. The traditional boerewors that is made at Garies is so unique that it even has its own recipe.

For the real boerewors enthusiast who decides to try the recipes in their own kitchens, the spices are the most important ingredient. In Rehoboth one can buy specially mixed spices for boerewors, as well as for other meat, chicken and fish. One can also request a special mix.

However, the restaurants that serve these and other traditional dishes, are not easy to find. They are few in comparison to the majority of the restaurants that serve ‘international’ dishes, offering meals such as potatoes and schnitzel, game steak, spaghetti, rice, fish etc.

For those who want to experience different food, Namibia is an interesting destination. There are not many places in the world where your food will smile at you.

This article appeared in the July/Aug ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.

Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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