Text and photographs Ron Swilling
Mopane worms, grittyy mahangu porridge, thick sour milk and hard-shelled makalani fruit may not be everyone’s choice of cuisine but, if cooked well – as Urs Gamma, owner and chef of the well-known Gathemann Restaurant in Windhoek demonstrates – mopane-worm stews, omakunde bean salad, the efukwa (a type of ground nut)with its wonderful flavour, homemade ice-cream made with oondunga palm-tree fruit and a fresh marula juice sorbet can be totally delicious. So, leave your squeamish side at home, be daring and treat yourself to the new and different tastes of the north.
The staple food of the north-central regions is mahangu (a kind of pearl millet that is cultivated in the northern regions). People are busy in the fields at different times of the year, either planting or harvesting their mahangu crops, which form a central part of their lives. Just before the harvest, men can be seen at the roadside and in villages busily weaving the large attractive eshisha granary baskets in which they store the mahangu. The grain is pounded in mortars with long wooden pestles and cooked into a stiff porridge, oshimbombo, to be eaten with a variety of accompaniments – from chicken, ondjuhwa; wild spinach, ekaka; and bean sauce, oshigali, to mopane worms, omagungu, when available. The meal can be complemented with ontaku, a fermented mahangu drink.
Bright and colourful mopane worms are collected after the summer rains, dried and distributed around the country where they are sold at local markets. They are first cooked with water and salt to rehydrate them, and often fried with tomatoes and onions to create a hearty and healthy dish. The taste has been likened to that of chicken and dried fish.
Fish also forms a large part of the Oshiwambo cuisine. The floodplains fill with water in the rainy summer season, providing a variety of fish, such as barbel (catfish) and tilapia, which are caught using traditional woven funnel-shaped traps and then dried and stored for the leaner months of the year. Frogs are also collected in the season of bounty. Continuing the age-old tradition of storing food until the next rains when the cycle hopefully begins anew, wild spinach is collected and dried into patties – a wholesome accompaniment to meals.
A delicious nutty marula oil ondjove or omagadhi enhances dishes such as chicken and wild spinach, giving them a rich and full taste. The kernels of the dried marula fruit are painstakingly removed, and pounded with pestle and mortar to produce this fine product. But, marula fruit plays a more exciting role and tradition in the Oshiwambo culture. Fresh marula juice omagongo is enjoyed, as is the stronger variety, ombike, an alcoholic drink made from the fermented fruit, at an annual festival to celebrate the marula harvest, hosted by one of the eight Oshiwambo-speaking groups. It is said that the traditional court ceases to operate for the three months of the harvest.
To round off the meal, desserts include the small sweet bird-plum fruit eembe and makalani palm fruit.
So put aside your inhibitions and usual culinary habits to try the different dishes of Africa. You may just be pleasantly surprised.
Travel News Namibia - Winter, 2012 edition