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What Is Nshima?

By Eugene P.
Updated May 16, 2024
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Nshima is the Zambian name given to a basic cornmeal that has been cooked into a pliable, paste-like porridge. The dish is made from flour that is the result of husking and grinding dried maize. It is considered a staple food in the region and is eaten with nearly every meal. Although the cornmeal itself does not have a great amount of flavor and is, in fact, intentionally not flavored, it is often served with a side dish known as a ndiwo that has a strong taste. The process of eating a meal that involves the cornmeal is wrapped in social customs that help to dictate how it should be served and prepared.

Even though the most common type of nshima that can be found is made from maize, it is not the only thing from which it can be made. The dish also can be made from millet, sorghum or cassava root, although this is rare. In Zambia, the process of making nshima begins with taking dried maize and crushing the kernels so the husks are removed.

The maize kernels, now broken and husked, are then placed in water and allowed to soak for several days. Over the course of softening in the water, the maize ferments slightly. When soft, the maize is drained, washed and spread out flat to dry in the sun.

Once dry, the final step in making nshima is to grind the kernels into meal. This can be done by hand, although making a large amount can be very laborious. It also can be done with a machine or mill, although few Zambians have one of these readily available, meaning they have to carry the maize to another location and possibly pay to have it ground.

Nshima is cooked much like any cornmeal is. Water and cornmeal are combined and then heated until it begins to pull together and the water is fully incorporated. The texture of the cornmeal is very important, because it is often used as a vehicle for food and is eaten with the hands. More meal is added to the cooking mixture until it has reached a dough-like consistency so that a ball of it retains it shape and has a little strength.

Nshima is never served by itself, especially to guests, since it is considered a social mistake to do so. Instead, it is served with a side dish called ndiwo, which can be a type of meat such as chicken or goat, or a spiced vegetable mix commonly made of tomatoes, leafy greens and onions. There are no set rules for what ndiwo should or should not be, although many Zambians expect that it will enhance the subtle flavor of the nshima. Meats are the most appreciated accompaniment, however, because they are the most expensive and sometimes hardest to acquire.

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