We often get questions about the food in Malawi. Can I taste a traditional meal? Is it spicy? Doesn’t it make you sick? Which products are used? Can I eat vegetarian food in Malawi? In this blog you’ll get all the answers!
By eating locally, you really get to know a country
One of the best things about travelling, is good food. Malawi isn’t known as a culinary holiday destination, but that doesn’t mean the food here is boring. Of course, there are nice restaurants, especially in the cities. And in most lodges you also get good food. But if you only eat in restaurants during your time in Malawi, you miss a lot…
Often the dishes are western, while it’s just so nice to experience local flavors. You also meet nice people that way. It is said that sport unites people, but eating together does that even more!
Once you start making friends in Malawi, you’ll regularly hear the word “Karibu”, also pronounced as “Kalibu”. In Kiswahili this means that you are welcome somewhere. In Chichewa in Malawi, people specifically mean that you are welcome to join in for a meal or a drink. You are then literally invited to take a seat and eat from the plate or bowl of the other person. Here people don’t just say it to be polite, but because they really mean it.
Which non-western meals can you expect in Malawi?
The food in Malawi is not that difficult to prepare, but many dishes are simmering on the fire for a long time. This makes every bite full of flavour!
There are many Asian influences and even some Portuguese, which you mainly see in the spices. Furthermore, people eat quite a lot of fish (obviously fresh from Lake Malawi or the other lakes and rivers).
The most famous fish is Chambo, a native tilapia species. Unfortunately, it is greatly overfished in many places, so we prefer not to eat it ourselves. We are seeing more and more sustainable fish farms to reduce the pressure on wild fish populations. But in Malawi it remains difficult to know exactly where the fish on your plate comes from.
Usipa are popular small sardine-type fish and Kampango is a large fatty fish. You can get beef, pork or chicken almost anywhere. And goat! You love it or you hate it… All this is eaten with rice, chips, fried potatoes, in a chapati (wrap) or of course with the staple food in Malawi; nsima.
Nsima is a type of porridge made from maize flour. It’s filling and affordable. It’s quite dry and tasteless (don’t tell anyone here that we think so!), so you eat it with ndiwo, a side dish. This is generally tomatoes, beans (nyemba) or fresh leafy vegetables (masamba), such as sweet potato leaves, pumpkin leaves or some kind of spinach. Ground peanuts also add extra flavor.
It’s a lot of fun to learn how to make nsima. From mashing the maize to cooking it. During a Homestay you get to experience how families cook in Malawi.
Vegetarian and vegan food in Malawi
In Malawi you can eat vegetarian or even vegan quite well. Keep in mind that you can’t just get meat substitutes here, like in other parts of the world. In Lilongwe and Blantyre you find vegan burgers and soy milk in some supermarkets, but the supply is limited. And as with all import products here, they are not always available and quite pricey.
So instead of replacing meat, it is usually simply left out of the meal. Many people in Malawi mainly eat vegetarian food, because they can’t afford meat every day. In addition, some Hindu and Buddhist groups, as well as the “real” Rastafarians, do not eat meat because of their beliefs.
No one here will look weirdly at you, but you do have to pay attention to what you order. And don’t hesitate to ask! People often think that food is vegetarian when there is no more meat in it. But many sauces are cooked with pieces of meat or fish in them, which can be removed on request. Stock cubes based on meat or fish are also used. So decide for yourself where your limits are.
By the way, occasionally people think that chicken is not meat. They see vegetarian food as food without red meat!
Is the food in Malawi safe?
You eat here just as safely or unsafely as in most places in the world. At many smaller restaurants and roadside stalls, you can see exactly what goes on in the kitchen. Of course it doesn’t say all, but that extra form of “control” gives many people a good feeling. We do recommend that you pay attention to meat or fish on the side of the road. It doesn’t get any better if it’s in the heat for a long time.
In many countries you have to be careful with ice cubes and washed lettuce, because of the local water. In the cities in Malawi, we have never had any issues with that. Many accommodations have their own water filters or boil all the water before use. And in most nature parks, the lodges use clean groundwater.
It’s common in Malawi to cook with a lot of oil. You are probably not used to that in Europe, so it can be heavy on your gut. Are you afraid of that, or have you already experienced it? Just ask if they could use less oil.
Do people eat weird food in Malawi?
That of course depends on what you think is weird…
Although little is wasted from a slaughtered animal, you won’t just get organs everywhere in Malawi. Many people do really like chicken necks. We can tell from experience that the taste itself is fine. Eating is just a lot of work, because you have to chew small pieces of meat from between the vertebrae. We have not yet ventured into the so-called “walkie-talkies”; chicken feet and heads.
Snakes and other reptiles are hardly ever eaten in Malawi. Insects aren’t common either, except for the infamous ‘lake flies’. Once in a while, they come ashore in large clouds from Lake Malawi in certain areas. There they are eagerly caught with nets and then crushed. The powder is used to make burgers or something more like bread. Packed with protein and apparently tasty. But “unfortunately” these flies almost never come ashore in our area, so we have not tasted it ourselves yet.
Another thing that will surprise some people is that you can eat roasted mice in Malawi. You may have seen the photos of someone with a row of mice on a skewer-stick. While some travel agents like sensation, not everyone in Malawi eats mice on a regular basis. It’s a cheap alternative in poor times.
Street food in Malawi
Don’t be put off by the examples above. You can safely try different kinds of street food in Malawi! From freshly roasted maize on the cob along the road, to various fruits from the season. Vendors with bags of peanuts or candy run towards every mini-bus. And in many places people walk with transparent buckets on their heads. This contains, for example, samoosas or a kind of doughnuts.
Then there are the stalls, here and there with a small terrace, where pieces of meat are roasted on the fire. Sometimes there is a baking tray on the flames or coals, to bake chips from regular or sweet potato.