Food in Botswana

The following is taken from a letter I sent to Mr. Harwood’s 7th grade social studies class in North Carolina; in which I wrote about the food in Botswana.  I thought you would enjoy reading it too…

The most commonly eaten food in Botswana is made from sorghum, a crop that is easily grown here.  Sorghum is a grain that is pounded into a fine powdery substance that looks like flour.  Water is added to it and it is cooked into porridge.  A soft porridge, the consistency of Cream of Wheat is called motogo (pronounced mo-toe-hoe) and eaten for breakfast; a firm version of the porridge is called bogobe (bo-hoe-bee) and is eaten as a side dish with vegetables at other meals.  It is rather bland tasting like Cream of Wheat or oatmeal, but can be jazzed up with cinnamon, sugar, milk, or butter.  The locals add a soured milk to it at breakfast time, which to me, makes it smell and taste icky.  Sorghum has high nutritional value and is a good source of carbohydrate, protein and iron.  It is very inexpensive, and for poorer people, it may be the only food they eat all day.  It is one of the traditional foods of Botswana.

Another plentiful crop grown in Botswana is maize.  Maize looks like corn and has a high starch content.  However, it is not sweet like the corn we have in the US.  It can be eaten roasted, on the cob, and is called mmidi (mee-dee).  It can be dried and partially processed into samp.  You cook samp in water and it looks kind of like creamed corn.  You can add it to a stew with potatoes, beans, carrots and onions for a wonderful vegetarian dish.  Maize, too, can be pounded, into a meal called mealie meal.  It looks like grits.  It is cooked on the stove in water and tastes a lot like grits.  That dish is called phaletshe (pah-lee-chey) or “papa” and is served as a side dish with meat and vegetables.  You can also make bread products with it, similar to corn bread.  I made maize meal pancakes for breakfast this morning and they were delicious.

At lunch or supper, bogobe or phaletshe are served with cooked vegetables like cabbage or spinach mixed with tomatoes, onions and spices.  If you don’t have forks, and many people don’t, you can eat it with your hands, using a glob of “papa” to scoop up some veggies, to shove into your mouth.

Cattle are very plentiful in Botswana, so beef is one of the main sources of meat.  The beef here is nutritionally better than in the US because the cattle roam around and feed on grass, so the beef is less fatty.  A traditional Botswana beef dish is called seswaa.  Seswaa is cooked over a fire in huge three legged black pots.  They put just about the whole cow in there, slow cook the beef, then pound it with long wooden sticks. It comes out the consistency of shredded beef you would find at a barbecue joint in North Carolina, and tastes like pot roast without the gravy.

Chickens are available too, and also run wild and feed on natural grain.  The chickens are smaller here, so a piece of chicken for a meal is about one third of the size of a piece of chicken in the US.

One interesting thing I have found in Botswana is that people eat all parts of the animal.  And I mean all parts.  They eat the cow’s tongue, lungs, heart, liver, stomach and intestines. A friend of mine was excited to be serving rumen (I’ll let you look that one up) at her wedding.  One day I saw a man who had a cow’s head and four hooves in a wheelbarrow.  I asked him what he was going to do with it.  He smiled and proudly said, “Take it home and cook it”, his face beaming about having such wonderful items for his meal.  Sometimes the cow’s head is presented to a person of importance at a gathering.  We saw that happen at our neighbor’s 60th birthday party.  Glad I wasn’t important that day.  When I walk home every day, I pass through the main part of Mochudi, where ladies have stands to sell fruits and vegetables and other items.  One lady sells raw chicken feet out of a cooler.  I haven’t gotten around to trying chicken feet yet, but likely will one day.

Another unusual food eaten in Botswana is mophane worms.  These are worms similar to caterpillars, that are picked off the mophane tree during summer.  They are dried and can be eaten as a snack, like potato chips.  However, most of the Batswana rehydrate them, and cook them in a spicy tomato sauce.  I have tried them both ways.  The dried ones taste kind of like a Frito.  My husband said he thought they tasted like, “dirt and sticks”.  The cooked ones are chewy.  I felt like the legs were getting caught in between my teeth and that thought made them difficult to swallow.  Eeeeuuuhhhh!   I can hear you groaning.  My thoughts exactly.  I will pass them up the next time I’m at a braii (barbeque) and they are on the food table.

A snack food that is everywhere here are cheese puffs, like Cheetos.  Ladies buy them in these huge bags that are about 4 feet long, then repackage them in individual serving sizes to sell at their roadside stands for 1 pula.  (I’ll let you check out the exchange rate to convert that to US money.)  They are made from maize, so that is why they are plentiful.  A funny piece of trivia:  they are called digaugau, which is pronounce dee-how-how with a throaty grating sound on the “how” part, because that is the sound they make when you chomp them.  Try saying digaugau out loud to see if you can make it sound like the noise made when eating a Cheeto.

A few of you asked about common fruits and vegetables in Botswana.  They are not much different than in the US, except for what is most plentiful here.  Ladies sell tomatoes, carrots, green bell peppers, onions, cabbage, spinach, and another green leafy vegetable called rape, at their roadside stands.  Other plentiful vegetables are beet root, or fresh beets, and butternut squash.  Oranges are everywhere.  Many people have orange, lemon or “pawpaw” or papaya trees in their yards.   In the grocery store, you can get apples, pears, and bananas.  I occasionally see strawberries, but they are expensive, so haven’t bought any.

There were a couple of questions about fast food.  No, Mochudi does not have a McDonald’s, or any other chain fast food restaurant.  Thank goodness.   However, there are “take away” restaurants, that serve chicken and French fries (fries are called chips here) and traditional Botswana foods, like bogobe, samp, phaletshe, beetroot salad and butternut squash. Eating a meal out is very much a luxury here.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of the main areas I am interested in is nutrition.  So at Stepping Stones International, I have been teaching the participants about healthy eating, considering the foods plentiful here.  I have been working to be sure the meals we serve are balanced and include fruit everyday.  I am helping with a vegetable garden we have at our center and we just planted rape, beet root, peppers and carrots.  The goal is to help supply our kitchen with plenty of vegetables for the meals we serve, as well as teach the kids about home gardening.

Happy Thanksgiving! a little early.  When you eat that wonderful feast with your family, be sure to think about how fortunate we are as Americans to have a wide variety of plentiful food.

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