My friend Rachel (who blogs through biographies of First Ladies; so interesting!) asked me what sorts of things we’re eating in Malawi. The boring answer is that we eat a lot of the same sorts of things we eat at home, sans cheese. (There’s no cheese to speak of here.) The better answer is that we sometimes get to enjoy nsima and ndiwo.
Nsima is the staple food of Malawi. People here will tell you that any meal that does not include nsima is merely a snack. Nsima is what satisfies hunger; what lets you know that you’ve had a meal. But like many starchy staples (bread, rice, potatoes, etc.), nsima needs company. And they call that company ndiwo, or relish, which is basically the sauce or stew you eat alongside your nsima.
If you’re not a big fan of chewy textures, you might not like nsima. Cooked well, it has the texture of Play-Dough and something like polenta, or perhaps grits.
Here’s how to make nsima. Don’t feel bad if yours doesn’t come out smooth. Mine doesn’t. But it’s still edible, even tasty.
Use 1/2 cup white, finely ground cornmeal for each person you serve.
Pour 1 and 1/4 cup water for each 1/2 cup cornmeal into a pot.
Whisk in roughly half the total amount of cornmeal until smooth
Over high heat, begin to bring to boil; reduce heat to medium for a few minutes, stir.
Stir, stir, stir as you gradually sprinkle on the rest of the cornmeal until it is very thick, and difficult to stir.
Turn off the heat, cover the pot, and allow to sit for 5 minutes.
You use it as a sort of spoon to scoop up ndiwo. Here’s one of our family’s favorite simple ndiwo:
cut one large yellow onion into small dice
heat a saucepan over medium heat until a drop of water sizzles, then add 1 tablespoon oil, then onion
brown onion in the oil, stirring frequently
add 1 cup of carrots cut into small dice and 1 cup of green beans, cut into 1/2 inch pieces, stir and brown slightly; add 1 cup of diced tomatoes(canned or fresh; remove seeds if fresh)
add salt and 1/2 tsp. paprika and your choice of pepper (white, black, or chili) to taste
The thing about chicken soup is that it it can make you think about being sick, which is not so appetizing. And since the curative powers of chicken soup have been written up in medical journals and such, it’s a dish that can have an unfortunate medicinal aura about it, as if you are slurping cough syrup or something.
But this chicken soup is not like that. It cooks so long and slow and fragrantly that by the time it all comes together, you feel energized just smelling it, and almost virtuous when you start eating it.
It’s soothing for people with colds, and also to those with intestinal woes–though it’s a good idea to stick to broth alone at first. But with all the vegetables, chicken, and noodles (and some fresh bread and butter), it’s a meal that everyone–sick or healthy–can enjoy.
I prefer to make a raw-bones stock, but if you have a chicken carcass, by all means, use that. Some people buy chicken wings and backs specifically to make stock, but I prefer to use a whole small bird–sometimes a Cornish game hen, because free-range ones are more readily available where I live.
For the stock:
bony pieces from ~3 lbs chicken
2 bay leaves
1 large yellow onion, chopped, most of peel left on
celery tops, cleaned (about 2 cups)
2 carrots, cleaned
1 head garlic, cloves separated but left unpeeled
For the soup:
schmaltz (I’ll explain!) or olive oil
leftover OR raw chicken, cut into very small pieces
2 pounds each celery and carrots, cut into very small pieces
1 large yellow onion, chopped very finely
3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
Begin by stripping all skin and fat off the raw chicken; de-bone the meaty pieces and set the meat aside. Place all the skin and fat in a large skillet with 1 cup water and cover; place over low heat. You are going to simmer this slowly until the fat dissolves, the skin releases its fat and becomes slightly crispy. Then, you will skim off the skin pieces and use the fat to cook the soup veggies and chicken. Or, you can skip this and just use olive oil, but don’t come crying to me when your soup doesn’t have the authentic Jewish-grandma taste. (Plus, chicken fat has antibacterial properties. Really.)
CAREFULLY hack all the bony pieces into 2″ chunks. Please be careful–use a good chef’s knife or cleaver and pay great attention when you do this; we don’t want fingerbone soup. Place your stockpot over medium high heat and add 1 Tablespoon olive oil, then chicken bone pieces. Turn them after 2 minutes, browning on all sides. Add chopped onion and stir frequently until the onion is very soft. Add garlic cloves, celery tops, carrot, and bay leaves. Continue to cook and stir until the celery tops are very wilted and dark green and vegetables have reduced in size–maybe 20 minutes, or longer if you want a more developed flavor. Add 2 teaspoons salt and water to cover. Bring close to the boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and simmer at least 2 hours, adding water as needed to maintain the same level.
Now prepare soup vegetables/chicken:
After the fat and skin have released lots of yummy fat into the water, turn heat to medium high and allow excess water to evaporate, stirring constantly and watching so that it does not burn. Add chopped onionand cook until they are translucent. Add minced garlic, stir 2 minutes more. Add small chicken pieces; stir until close to browning; add chopped carrots and celery. Reduce heat and stir frequently until carrots and celery are softened; cover and allow vegetables to simmer in their own juices for at least 1 hour, checking occasionally that they don’t burn.
After stock has simmered, strain it through a colander lined with a cheesecloth (or just a colander if you’re not fussy about little bits). Add stock to vegetable/chicken mixture; simmer 30 minutes and add salt boldly to taste.
Cook extra-wide egg noodles (Pennsylvania Dutch brand is highly recommended, yes I know, white flour blah blah–but they are the best) separately in heavily salted water; drain and toss with butter to keep them separate. Add noodles and soup separately to each bowl.
I swear this soup has helped my kids recover from illnesses quickly. Sometimes I throw the steaming strained stock vegetables in a bowl so my kids can inhale the curative steam.