Written by Kgosi Sikelele, Botswana, Southern Africa
The food that you get in Botswana is not that different than what you might expect to find here. However, there are some regional idiosyncrasies. For one thing, the supermarkets are either South African like Spar, or English like Woolworths. There are also local markets, like Pick and Pay.
Prepare for the typical American versus English confusion over names, take crisps versus chips. And squash versus juice. You can buy liters of orange squash which you mix with water to create orange juice, or orange squash. Cookies are biscuits and beef jerky is called biltong. A barbecue is a braii. And the best chocolate is made by Cadbury’s. You can find varieties of juice and candy that you wouldn’t find here like litchi juice and Lion chocolate bars. Although stores like Meijer sometimes stock them in the international section.
Growing up we had mashi, or milk, with palichi, a kind of white corn meal for breakfast. My friends called it concrete because it was so heavy that once you’d had a bowl you would have to lie down to sleep it off. I often got my younger brother to make us a pot during vacation and then we’d watch TV and doze off. But once your body had digested the meal it was as if you were on some higher octane fuel, you had energy to burn. Palichi breakfast fueled our soccer and basketball games over summer break. We would play tirelessly for hours on end.
But in Botswana we weren’t restricted to traditional breakfast, we could request our parents to buy Cornflakes, Raisin Bran, and Captain Crunch, even Lucky Charms from Spar Supermarket. The boxes that the cereal came in were always suspicious to us because they were faded and slightly worn, and we suspected that they were over stock from the U.S. dumped in Africa. This was never confirmed, however, the sun faded boxes of American cereal were never as appetizing to us because we’d seen the newer versions over here.
There are in Botswana simple but delicious dishes that are difficult to explain to an American audience, especially now that I am a vegetarian. One is seswaa, meat boiled for hours, and then pounded in its own juice. It doesn’t sound like much but believe me every special occasion in Botswana has seswaa. It was so popular in my family that it inspired us to take the dish even further and someone came up with seswaa burgers. Seswaa in a glorified bread bun. Again, you have to experience this dish to become a believer.
Another dish that we grew up with is one that is deceptively simple but for me is the taste of my childhood; it has a few simple ingredients: tomato, onion, greens, oil, and salt boiled together. Some alchemy happens in the cooking that turns these ingredients into something incredible. Every mother born in Botswana knows how to make this dish, but its taste is hard to replicate. I’ve tried at home; it never tastes anything like the way my mother makes it.
The last thing I’ll leave you with is mopani worms. In Botswana these seasonal insects are harvested and dried, and, yes, they are worms. Big, fat, green worms. Seeing a pile of mopani worms in a basket for sale by the roadside is still an image I have never accustomed myself to. They are high in protein and people eat them like crackers. Never had one though, probably won’t. I’ve been told, however, that they’re pretty good.
Kgosi Sikelele, the writer’s pen name, is a spin on Nkosi Sikelele Africa which means God Bless Africa. It is now the South African national anthem, but was once a song of resistance.