Traditional Foods of Namibia

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Making Fat Cakes at our Traditional Food Day during PST (Pre-Service Training). This took some serious arm muscle! I’m wearing a traditional Kavango shitenge (skirt).

Namibia is so diverse in landscapes as well as people with many tribes and cultures represented. Some countries in Africa have one major language or “mother tongue” (native language) and a few tribes, but Namibia has 13 languages. Namibians are very proud of their cultures.

It’s hard to really sum up the food here, because what you’ll eat largely depends on what part of the country you are in and what tribe you are with. In this post, I’m going to describe some of the food we’ve encountered and enjoyed while serving in Peace Corps Namibia.

During our first two months of training we lived with a Namibian host family who helped us learn about Namibian customs, traditions and the local food of the Kavango region, which would be our home for two years. Our host parents were originally from Kavango. Our host mom is a teacher and speaks more than 10 languages.

“Pap,” or maize meal porridge, is a staple for almost all Namibians. It is eaten anytime of the day, but especially with dinner. Many Namibians only eat one meal a day so it tends to be a big dinner with lots of pap. It has the consistency of cream of wheat, and by itself it doesn’t really have a taste. It’s a simple carb that fills you up.

fish and pap dinner

A big dinner of fish and mahangu pap (millet porridge).

Here in Kavango pap is paired with mutete (a spinach dish usually with fish mixed in), meat, another side or eaten plain. Namibians love making Knorr soup packets into a sauce. Pap can be made from maize or from mahangu (millet). There are also drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, that are made from mahangu. We got to sample both during our visit to the village for Christmas 2013.

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Our host mom making “pap” or porridge. You have to stir the pap for long periods of time. Traditionally women are the cooks in the house. I’m quite inept in the kitchen, and this amused our host mom.

A staple of the Kavango diet is the spinach dish mutete which reminds me a little bit of Indian saag, but without the cream or cheese.  Fat cakes or yikuki (pronounced yee-cookie) are also popular. They’re like plain donuts without the hole, but greasier and tastier. Most villages and towns have “Fat cake ladies” who sell fat cakes at the local schools or on the street in town for N$1 which is the equivalent of 10 American cents.

Our host family would often make a cabbage dish served with pap. It was cabbage fried in oil, and it was my favorite side dish.

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A mopane worm, a traditional food sold in the markets here. They are actually caterpillars that are fried in oil and salt.

With our close proximity to Angola, we have also sampled tasty Portuguese-influenced Angolan dishes here in Rundu.

Meat is a very important part of the Namibian diet. On special or important occasions (weddings, visitors, parties or birthdays) goats and cows are often slaughtered for a braai. I can honestly say the meat here in Namibia is the best I’ve ever eaten. Grilling organic, freshly butchered meat (as in you saw it cut about five minutes ago) over an open fire creates an incredible flavor, better than barbecue I’ve had at home. Don’t create a cultural faux pas so make sure you serve meat when you invite guests to a meal in Namibia.

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Braai Masters JT and Lucy at my friend Namakasa’s Grandmom’s birthday

Some of the exotic meats we’ve been able to eat while here in Africa have been zebra, oryx, springbok, warthog, ostrich, crocodile, donkey, goat and kudu. Donkey has been my personal favorite and is a commonly eaten by the Damara tribe.

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Meat preparation before braaing.

Fish is also commonly eaten in the Kavango and Zambezi regions. We live close to the Kavango River and see people fishing all the time.

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On this plate is a wide variety of Namibian foods including a fat cake, game meat and mutete.

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Pap, baster bread and more meat.

There are some different fruits here in Southern Africa as well. Lychee are common (and SO good!) as well as Granadilla. When mangoes are in season they are sold on the street for $N5 (or around 50 American cents). Maguni fruit, also called monkey brains, is very common in Kavango Region. And of course there is marula.

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Maguni fruit. Our language instructor opened this fruit with a rock. The fruit inside consists of small seeds – you take one and suck on it for awhile. It has a refreshing taste but doesn’t give you much nourishment.

baobab fruit

The huge Baobab trees that grow in Southern Africa produce an edible fruit. This one was opened for us to sample during our Zimbabwe village tour. The inner fruit is very dry and looks like mini marshmallows. It doesn’t have much of a taste.

Traditional meals are eaten with your hands. To wash your hands before eating, a small basin filled with clean water is passed around. Napkins are not common so you lick your fingers after a meal – I like that. 🙂 A basin of water is also provided after a meal to rinse off your hands. Our host’s family children did not sit with the adults during meals, they sat separately and the adults ALWAYS ate before the kids. Ample meat portions were given to the adults first, and if it ran out, the kids did not get meat. The kids helped, or did the entire cooking and cleaning process themselves. They never complained or whined. After dinner most nights they swept and mopped the whole house. As a spoiled American kid who didn’t have to do any of the aforementioned chores, I was in awe of our host family’s kids great behavior and how much they helped the house run efficiently.

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Sharing our first meal with our host parents, back in July 2013.

Below is a photo of my least favorite part of Namibian food, mayonnaise. I’m not sure why it’s so popular here, perhaps the German influence, as Germany “owned” Namibia it became a South African protectorate. Personally, I’ve never been a big mayo fan. Potato salad and macaroni salad are popular here. A big difference from home is that Namibians put a lot of sugar in both salads.  There’s more mayo added than I’m used to, and people will often add more mayo on the side. “Russians” (Hot dogs, sometimes not cooked, with thousand island dressing) are also popular.

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It’s not ice cream, it’s mayo!

Ketchup is usually called tomato sauce here and is a frequent condiment on rice or pasta.

Soda, or “cool-drink” as it is called here, is everywhere. The coke here tastes so much better than it does at home. It’s made with real sugar and not corn syrup, and perhaps just the extremely hot temperatures also make it taste better.  Juice, lollipops and hard candy (called “sweets”) are also really popular. Even though I enjoy partaking in these bad treats now and again, it is hard to see little babies here drinking coke and eating sweets. Processed snacks like cheetos and chips are also available here.

At the grocery stores in town, we can find a lot of the commonly-eaten foods that we had at home. I’m still surprised at how much cheese we can get as well as yogurt and even cream! South Africa is the dominant grocery store powerhouse, and their diverse population has made many foods readily available for us.

Being in Namibia we’ve had the best of both worlds: easy access to diverse traditional foods as well as access to ingredients for some of the comfort foods from home such as Indian and Mexican dishes. It is even very easy to make apple pies!

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5 Comments

Filed under Peace Corps Namibia Blog

5 responses to “Traditional Foods of Namibia

  1. Pingback: Namibian cuisine in Namibia | United Nations of Food (NYC)

  2. sylvia

    Good experience. It is very educating. Please do more of this researches of our namibian cultures.

  3. Pingback: CUISINE OF SOUTHERN AFRICA | LadyLebz

  4. tracy

    I really liked this article but a few things bothered me, we actually eat three times a day, like normal people, not one meal a day. There is always enough meat for everyone, including kids. What u experienced was life at the village, that’s more or less how it is there. but thats a small part of Namibia. We are not backwards. Come to Windhoek,swakopmund, walvisbay, all the towns, not just the rural areas, we are civilised u know.. this article discribes the rural areas, particularly where u were, we very different people, the way the kavangos live or eat, is very different everywhere u go in the country.. I’m not bagging on the article. But i just feel some type of way about the way Namibia as a whole is presented here.

    • Esta

      I felt exactly the same way. I also have never seen anyone in Namibia eat “raw” hot dogs – cold, yes but not RAW. Indeed this was a very small part of Namibian life that she experienced and does not represent Namibia as a whole. Also whats the big deal about junk food?? I mean its available everywhere in the world. I felt some kind of way…

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