In every country, there is at least one kind of food that is looked on with horror by people from the outside. In the South, people eat the foreskins of pigs, in the North, there’s head cheese, in Japan there’s the not fit for human consumption breakfast food, Natto and in China, people happily eat rotten, stinking, far past expired gobs of tofu. Not surprisingly, Malawi has no shortage of foods that would make even the most daring American food connoisseur cringe in disgust.
Malawi is a poor country and, as in many parts of the world, that poverty results in an extreme lack of protein rich foods. Animals must be raised and sold to supplement other household needs and subsistence agriculture does not support extensive raising of livestock. Malawians, like other people around the world, have ingeniously looked around them for all that is edible and in great and easy supply.
The most famous snack food in Malawi has to be Mbewa, or roasted field mice. Malawians are largely divided as to the culinary merit of Mbewa. Most love the Mbewa and consider it a delicious snack food. Others decry them as unfit for eating. Mbewa are caught and roasted over a fire, but clearly not roasted long enough to burn off the copious amounts of visible fur. Malawians then garnish them with salt and cayenne pepper and gnaw on them like jerky, consuming them completely, bones and all. To be honest, it’s slightly horrifying. I asked several experts as to the safety of eating the Mbewa and none were able to come up with any diseases that one could get from them, but still, I am unable to bring myself to experience this part of Malawian culture.
There is not just one kind of mbewa. Any type of rodent (of which there are many in Malawi) is fair game for the roasting pot and every Malawian has their own personal favorite. Small rodents called ahora, are known for their oily flesh and ease of eating. Large squirrels are known for being difficult to catch, but lean and flavorful. Regular field mice are common, but each region has their own mbewa delight.
Driving along any Malawian highway, you can see children along the side of the road holding loads of mbewa impaled to sticks, which they sell to passing minibus drivers and passengers. I have been told that there are many ways of catching mbewa, depending on the species. Most often, though, children turn over piles of corn husks and grass refuse to disperse the mice and then kill them with sticks and collect them in bags for roasting and eventual sales. Other methods include setting fires at the entrance to mouse nests and driving them out so that they are killed as they exit. This is apparently the preferred method for the larger species. All Malawians will gleefully tell you their chidhood memories of hunting and killing mbewa. As Malawi’s economy progresses however, mbewa consumption by urban children is quickly fading out.
Mbewa are also sold at the local markets, where you can see the incredible variety of mbewa types. I asked the proprieter of the mbewa stand (who refused to be photographed) which type sold the best. He told me that it depends on the time of day and that different people will buy different types depending on how hungry they are or what particular taste they want at the time. I was intrigued that the mbewa that he was hawking came all the way from Mozambique. He had bought them from an intermediary who supplies Mbewa to all of the southern Malawi region, indicating how complex the food economy and network is here in Malawi, despite transportation and infrastructure challenges.
In addition to mbewa, zitete, or grasshoppers are eaten all over Sub-Saharan Africa. Grasshoppers are caught with a net, boiled and then coated with oil and salt. Grasshopper eating is not unique to this region, my wife has told me stories of her parents eating grasshoppers in Japan during the war years and it’s not uncommon in the Southern US. Walking through Limbe, a market city east of Blantyre, I came across this old woman selling zitete for a mere 20 cents a bag. Not wanting to pass up a great deal on grasshoppers, I bought two. A housemate of mine, bit the bullet (grasshopper?), tried one and stopped there. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, having flashbacks of Mississippi cockroaches, but the guards more than happily consumed the entire plate.
The only Malawian delicacy I could muster was Mbalame, or small roasted birds. At just about every minibus stop in Malawi, guys will aproach the minibuses selling mbalame and people happily buy dozens of them to eat, bones and all. I figure there’s no harm in eating a roasted bird and have (thankfully) yet to feel any ill effects, but I made sure to douse them in salt and cayenne to kill any vile and deadly pathogens that may have been hitching a ride.