The universal language of food spoken in Southern Africa

There is no doubt about it. Food is often the central focus of travelers’ itineraries when they go on holiday. And why wouldn’t it be?

The universal language of food spoken in Southern Africa

There is no doubt about it. Food is often the central focus of travelers’ itineraries when they go on holiday. And why wouldn’t it be? Food is like music – everyone around the world can appreciate it, no matter where they come from, or in this case, where they are headed to. And so today, we journey to some of Southern Africa’s countries to explore their delightful and delectable dishes. For now, we will have to imagine the awakening of our senses in our mind’s eye, but soon, we should begin planning an actual journey to catalog our own food experience in the Southern Africa region.


Everything from high-end restaurants to street-side diners can be found in the capital of Lesotho, Maseru, along with a great choice of hotel restaurants and independent eateries.

Lesotho’s cuisine draws heavily on British influence with a good dose of strong African tradition, and also includes French, Italian, continental, and Chinese influences as well. Food specialties of the country include Braai (a southern African barbecue), as well as free-range chicken.

Potato-based dishes and desserts reflect the lasting British influence on the Basotho diet, while mealie pap (maize porridge) and spinach link the country with the rest of its neighbors. Lesotho’s cuisine is tasty and full of flavor.

Most meals consist of meat, rice and vegetables. Beetroot salad is a popular side dish. Other specialties include oxtail stew and spinach.

With meat forming the basis of many dishes, dried meat (biltong) are common, with staples such as maize, rice, and millet often served with tomato sauces, or spinach sauces. Beans soup is very famous during winter months.

Maloti beer is the alcoholic beverage of Lesotho, but there are many local brews to choose from. Good beer is widely available and better establishments will have a good choice of beers, spirits and wines, with a fermented porridge (motogo) being another common drink.


It may be thanks to the Asian origins of many Malagasy that rice forms the key part of the diet in Madagascar. Some Malagasy claim they don’t sleep properly if they haven’t had rice in their day. In some areas of Madagascar, rice will be eaten at every meal. It may be used to make breads or sweets, but mostly it’s served in bowls with an accompanying stew or soup. Soups and stews may be made simply from vegetables such as cabbage or other boiled greens. More substantial stews will include meat, fish, or beans.

Noodles are the natural option other than rice. Noodles will come steaming in a bowl either fried with vegetables or meat, or in the shape of a Chinese broth with vegetables, fish, or meat. In a more rustic setting, root vegetables, such as manioc, and corn will complement the diet.

Malagasy cuisine blends the influences of the Arabic, Chinese, French, African, and Indian cultures present in Madagascar. The country’s restaurants serve excellent French cuisine – sometimes with more colorful ingredients from the Western world point of view, such as zebu steak and fries – and there is a good assortment of informal restaurants and market stalls to experience some of the local food magic.

As it happens in most of the African territory, meals in Madagascar consist of less meat, more whole grain cereals and beans, and lots more fresh fruits and vegetables than Western meals. Zebu cattle are the main source for the meat consumed. A zebu beef stew or zebu steak is as delicious as traditional beef when cooked well. Zebu is sometimes known as humped cattle or Brahman. They are characterized by a fatty hump on their shoulders, drooping ears, and a large dewlap. The lower quality beef is usually cut into small cubes, boiled in salted water with onion and garlic until really tender – so tender that it can be shredded with a fork – then cut into thin strips and roasted until brown.

Chicken or goat is also standard fare and you will find chicken curry readily available. Pork meat is available, but eating pork is taboo in many parts of Madagascar. If traveling to Madagascar, be careful where you ask for pork.

French cooking techniques and influences are used in most of the meals prepared in Madagascar. For example, there is a popular Madagascar vegetable soup called lasopy, made from veal or beef broth, carrots, turnips, white potatoes, scallions, string beans, tomatoes, and salt. All the ingredients are cooked until they are tender, then put through a sieve or pureed in a blender or food processor. The mixture becomes a thick soup that is eaten with crackers or freshly-baked bread. There is a similar thick soup eaten throughout France called potage crecy (carrot soup) made of beef broth, butter, carrots, onions, white potatoes, marjoram, salt, and pepper.

Another Madagascar dish is called akoho misy sakamalao (chicken with garlic and ginger) and is made from chicken, ginger, garlic, shallots or onions, cloves, salt, pepper, and peanut or vegetable oil. The chicken is seasoned with ginger, garlic, shallots, cloves, salt, and pepper, and sautéed in oil. It is then served with boiled okra or artichoke hearts. Its French counterpart is called poulet saute à la Bordelaise (sautéed chicken with shallots and artichoke hearts), and contains similar ingredients and is cooked the same way. Akoho misy sakamalao usually is served with some type of spicy condiment on the side such as sakay, made of crushed red peppers, ground ginger, crushed garlic, and vegetable oil. This is mixed together and served in a small bowl or butter dish.

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Romazava is considered the national dish of Madagascar, and each family makes their own version. It is a one-pot dish, usually eaten with rice for lunch or dinner. The basic ingredients are beef, pork, and chicken cut into equal-sized cubes, chopped onions, tomatoes, spinach, and crushed garlic. The beef, pork, and chicken cubes are seasoned with salt and pepper, then sautéed in a small amount of peanut or vegetable oil. The remaining ingredients are added and cooked until the meat and vegetables are tender.

There is even a popular beverage made from burned rice called ranonapango. After a pot of rice has been overcooked, boiling water is added to the burned rice grain to absorb its flavor. Then the water is poured off, chilled, and served as a beverage with a meal. It is known to aid the digestion.

Another popular beverage is ginger beer, made from freshly-grated ginger, sugar, yeast, and water. All ingredients are mixed together, poured into a container, covered and placed in the refrigerator or a cool place for two to three days to allow fermentation to take place. It is then filtered through cheesecloth and served over ice.

Unlike in France, desserts in Madagascar are prepared very simply. Fresh fruits such as lichee nuts, pineapples, cantaloupes, oranges, bananas, or strawberries are sliced and sprinkled with vanilla bean (seeds). Often, some type of sweetened vanilla cream sauce is poured over the fruit slices.

An exception can be mentioned with the national dessert, the “Koba.” A sweet made from ground peanuts, brown sugar, rice flour, mashed bananas, honey, and corn flour, and wrapped in banana leaves.

Madagascar produces about two-thirds of the world’s vanilla. The vanilla bean (or pod) is the only edible fruit-bearing orchid. Each flower opens only one day a year and must be hand-pollinated to produce a pod, which is very labor intensive. Madagascar vanilla has a creamy, sweet, velvety flavor that can be used to make dessert baked goods, ice creams, salad dressings, and barbecue sauces.


Most villages in Malawi have some form of restaurant. The most common commercial food is called the “chipisi” (chips) stand where Irish potatoes are fried over a fire and served in a small bag. Some villages even have a simple mud hut establishment that serves nsima and ndiwo (usually beans or roasted chicken) at very cheap prices. In the major cities (Lilongwe, Blantyre, and Mzuzu) one can find restaurants serving Lebanese, Korean, Italian, and Indian food. Nsima goes with fish from the lake and these include the famous Chambo, Kampango, Usipa, utaka, and a variety of both dried and fresh fish from the Lake and Malawian rivers!

Just as the Americans have mashed potatoes and Indians need rice at each meal, the Malawians have nsima to go along with their dishes. In fact, Malawians have a saying – “chimanga ndi moyo” or “maize is life.” Nsima is a type of porridge made from maize, shredded into kernels, and then rolled into balls or flattened into patties. In meals, nsima is often dipped into a tomato and onion relish before being eaten. Those who can afford more expensive side dishes eat nsima with beef, chicken, or fried fish. Other food items that go well with the maize porridge include beans and pumpkin leaves.

A nutritious beverage known as mahewu is even made from maize meal and is one of Malawi’s best-loved and most popular drinks. Mahewu is produced in factories and comes in plastic bottles, with a variety of flavors, such as banana, chocolate, and orange, mixed into the drink to make it sweeter.

Malawians are skilled in the craft of drying their fish catches, and locals particularly rely on a small fish similar to whitebait, which is called usipa and utaka. These can be seen drying on racks near many fishing villages. Larger species of fish are also eaten, such as mpasa (lake salmon), batala (butter fish), and kampango (similar to catfish). Chambo, a bream-like white fish, is probably the most popular and is known to Western diners as tilapia.

Like banana bread? Then you’ll like Nthochi (banana) cake popularly known as “Mkate.” It is a bread made from mashed bananas, sugar, flour, eggs, milk, and baking powder, and it is baked in a loaf pan. It’s a favorite Malawi dessert. Another treat sure to delight the sweet tooth is mbatata cookies, which are made from sweet potatoes, margarine, milk, sugar, and sometimes cinnamon.

Although not common in Western culture, insects are often eaten as a great source of protein. Fried grasshoppers appear in a dish called dziwala. The grasshoppers’ wings and legs are removed and what’s left is boiled and then dried in the sun. After that, the grasshoppers are fried in a pan with a little salt and fat, and topped with minced onions and tomatoes. This dish goes well with a bottle of Carlsberg beer, sold very cheaply in Malawi.

About Retosa

The Regional Tourism Organization of Southern Africa (RETOSA) is a Southern African Development Community (SADC) institution responsible for tourism growth and development. In part, the aims of RETOSA are to increase tourist arrivals to the region through sustainable development initiatives, improved regional competitiveness, and effective destination marketing. The organization works together with Member States’ tourism ministries, tourism boards, and private sector partners. For more information about RETOSA, go to

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