Tag Archives: Recipe

Getting Your Chambo Right

Lake Malawi’s best-known fish, the chambo, is a cichlid (now there’s a good word for a spelling test) and its numbers are dwindling horribly through over-fishing. It is unlucky enough to be both edible and colourful and is thus popular both for plate and tank. A tough call as to which is the crueller fate.

So, whilst camping on the beach of what I still consider to be the most beautiful of all the Rift Valley lakes, we tended to spare the chambo and to enjoy, instead, the kampango, whose populations are holding up better. A worthy policy, I am sure you will agree.
We spent several colourful days on the lake at Senga Bay. On the Sunday afternoon the place was heaving with people. You couldn’t see the sand. The Lilongwe Indian population seemed to have emptied itself out on the beach en masse and it was an exciting, lively crowd, braaiing fish and chattering loudly to be heard over music of the sort most of us only hear by accident on Radio Lotus or during one of DStv’s Bollywood Seasons.

Occasional church groups of local Christians, dotted amongst the burkas, belted out hymns in a vain attempt to counter the overwhelming Muslimness of the scene. It was all very good-natured and a good few chambo met their end on the coals that day.
By dusk there was nobody left on the beach but us and a German-registered Unimog, impressively kitted out for an Overland trip by its two octogenarian residents from Hamburg. As the sun set, we sipped our Malawi gins and watched as the fishing boats fizzed across the water to take up position, a light hanging down to attract the fish, as yet more nets full of cichlids were hauled out and beetled back to the beach to feed the masses.

The following day at lunchtime, on the deserted beach, there pulled up two Cape Town-registered vehicles, heavily sponsored by all their Indian occupants’ chums and covered with stickers advertising this fact. They got roundly stuck in the sand. They dug themselves out of it. They left.

That evening they returned, fish in hand, set up camp and then sidled over to us and asked us where we had travelled. Swelling our chests slightly, but with the right nonchalant air, we told them that we had driven from Hazyview to Northern Uganda in three months and we were now on our way home. They were polite but it was obvious that they weren’t terribly impressed.

In view of the hour spent digging themselves out of their midday predicament, we had rather assumed them to be amateurs at this overlanding game so, puzzled, we asked where they were hoping to go. They had every reason not to fall over backwards at our paltry achievements.
They passed the ‘totally non-narcotic’ hubbly-bubbly around again and explained that they were driving to India – Mumbai, to be precise – in 6 weeks, up the eastern side of Africa, across to Morocco, over to Spain and through Europe to the Middle East, and on to India. Did they watch the news? Were they worried? Not a bit. They’d already done it, four years ago, and they were Muslims so what did they have to worry about? Everybody had loved them last time.

I sneaked off to my tent, somewhat abashed, listening in as they told stories around their campfire and braaied an innocent chambo. Given their past and future achievements and obvious bravery and derring-do, I wasn’t going to stand up for that fish. Its cichlid existence, like so many before it, had ended on a plate, but it could be proud of the South African stomachs it was feeding.

I could possibly have clawed back some self-esteem by telling them that I caught chambo with my bare hands and smoked it, giving them the recipe, had I known it then, of my friend John Clark, an Englishman born in Malawi, but he only gave it to me a few weeks later. Next time you are humiliated by superior endeavour on the banks of Lake Malawi and if you can bear the shame of further reducing the chambo population try it.

Bwanajoni’s Smoked Chambo

Bring along a smoker. Buy the fish from the fishing boats as they come in. Fillet the fish. Cover them with salt for 1/2 an hour. Wash the salt off. Place the fish fillets in the smoker. Serve the smoked chambo with crispy salad and a fresh crusty loaf. (Author’s note: be sure to ask for chambo, not chamba, which is the Chichewa word for dagga, the smoking of which is not permitted).

Fit for a Queen

As readers are no doubt aware Freddie Mercury would have turned 60 years old in September this year, had he survived to see it. It is a mind-bending exercise to hazard a guess as to what the diva might have chosen from his wardrobe as he headed out to join the party planned for Saturday 2nd September on the beach in Zanzibar, as it is there, surely, that he would have chosen to mark the occasion,
It is the one fascinating fact about Zanzibar that every islander will tell you. Freddie Mercury was born in one house or another in Stone Town. (There appears to be some doubt as to exactly which one). He stayed there, apparently, until he was six years old and his real name was Farrokh Bulsara. One wonders why he changed it.

From the celebrations planned, you would have thought that he had lived there all his curtailed life. A few despotic politicians apart, Freddie remains the Spice Island’s most famous son and the party of the decade was to consist of big screen videos and Queen’s music until dawn on the beach in front of the eponymous Mercury’s pub. This fine establishment is, for now anyway, despite its impending demolition in a land reclamation project, the only monument to Freddie on the island, complete with moving tribute at the front of the menu, naff T-shirts and terrible coffee.

Just down the quay, however, another party takes place every evening of the year, where the beautifully dilapidated Forodhani Gardens are transformed nightly into a huge walk-through seafood restaurant. Ignore the out-of-place Maasai selling bracelets, carry on past the ubiquitous curio dealers and head for the front, stopping only for a chilled glass of maji wa sukari, made from freshly squeezed cane with ginger and lime, on the way.

The lawns and benches are strewn with people and the kanzas and bui-buis of local fashion, interspersed with the odd bemused French tourist, add even more colour to the already exotic scene. The sun sets behind a perfectly-positioned-for-a-photograph beached dhow. The heady, local taarab music plays in the background, interrupted only by the call to prayer and the buzz of Vespas. The scene is lit by dozens of kerosene lamps and the air is thick with the smell of fresh spices, sizzling prawns and frying chapattis.

At first sight the dockside kitchens can be slightly off-putting. Table after table is laden with dead crustaceans and staring fish of every description. Everything is cooked in front of you on a charcoal burner and served up on a paper plate whilst a bored youth uses a spare plate to wave away the flies.

But Ali and Juma are masters of their art. Their newspaper-covered stall is decked with sosaties of calamari, shrimps, white snapper, lobster, shark, clams and mussels or you can choose grilled langoustines, marlin steaks, sea perch, bean fritters, samoosas or crab claws with baked cassava.

Everything is delicious, cooked to a turn, juicy and lightly splashed with their excellent pili-pili sauce. It was the best meal I had on the island, finished off with a thick Swahili coffee, flavoured with cardamom, from a nearby stall. The whole meal set me back only R40.
Ali and Juma will have been in the Forodhani Gardens on 2nd September, selling their octopi and prawns, probably blissfully unaware of that great tribute to a legend going on just up the beach. I know where I would have been – but I am sure there will have been plenty of fat-bottom backpackers to make their rockin’ world go round at the other venue.

Maji wa Sukara
(Cane juice with ginger and lemon) Makes one glass


18 inches raw sugar cane
1/2 lime or lemon
1-inch thick slice of fresh ginger


Peel the sugar cane with a knife or a potato-peeler until the white is exposed. Squeeze the cane with an old mangle, if you can find one, passing it through the squeezer again and again and occasionally passing the lemon and garlic through with it. Catch the juices in a glass, straining carefully two or three times and serve with ice. (If you cannot find a mangle, or if your rollers are too close together to accommodate the ingredients, you could use a food blender instead, in which case chop the cane into manageable pieces and throw it in with the other ingredients and blend on a slow speed, sieving several times before serving).

Going bananas in Tanzania

It seemed that we had arrived in the Usambara Mountains in the middle of the harvest festival. From every hilltop and slope, every shamba and stream of this misty range in NW Tanzania there poured forth fresh produce. A tantalising sight for these dust-choked travellers from the South.

The capital of the region, Lushoto, was chosen by the Kaiser as the putative capital of German East Africa in the early part of the last century. He had a spectacular house built for himself, on a crest looking down to the Maasai Steppe below, and employed a German housekeeper or ten (naturally).

Sadly he only managed to stay in his African Alpine schloss for one or two short visits before the perfidious British, for totally irrelevant European reasons, hoofed him out of his colony and then foolishly established their capital on the sultry disease-ridden coast instead.

That was the problem with the British. No sense of the romantisch or the praktisch. Out there in the midday sun, beavering away building colonies and stealing other peoples’, when even the hard-working native was sheltering in the bananas.

That’s what they do around here. Bananas. A bit of mieliemeal from time to time and a spot of cassava here and there, but basically it’s bananas. Not, though, those sweet, yellow bananas we all eat at home. These are unripe green plantain bananas that form the staple matoke here, boiled and then mashed to a grey pulp. And they taste as awful as they sound. Bland doesn’t begin to cover it.

But luckily this is not all that is coming out of the hills. Tanzania may not have a huge variety of produce but after good late rains such as these, the streets are filled with food.

Beans, red onions, peppers, brinjals, chillis of all shapes and sizes, sweet potatoes, huge shiny tomatoes and avocados the size of rugby balls are overflowing from the stalls in the market and travelling down the hill in bowls on heads. (The occasional truck comes up for the cabbages, which don’t balance too easily, or in great numbers, on a head).

The market also boasts stalls of fresh herbs, spices, seeds, lentils, coconuts, cashews and groundnuts. There is no meat to be seen although there is a rather alarming butchery – not for the faint-hearted – nearby.

The Tanzanians make the best coleslaws (I know nobody really likes coleslaw but these are really good) and ratatouilles and shebas; they make wonderful tomato and avocado salads doused with a tangy onion vinaigrette and a spicy shredded salad with chilli and lemon called kachumbari; they make clever use of groundnuts, chilli, ginger, garlic and herbs. They make so many diverse combinations with so many baffling flavours out of so few ingredients that there is a never-ending line of bowls of spicy, toothsome side-dishes to supplement the matoke, which, let’s face it, is a good thing because matoke needs all the help it can get.

As local celebrity Father Peter Kelly of the Rosminian Mission in Lushoto explained in a philosophical Irish moment “the good Lord has torned a dairsert into an ooaysis, a famine into a feeeast; Oy don’t know whether it was intentionally good work by the Lord but it was good work anyway”.

In other words, as the food flows out of the Usambaras and into the markets of Arusha, Tanga and Dar-es-Salaam, the local Sambaa people know that whilst this is a time of plenty, they must eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we’re dry.

The best recipe was picked up at the Marangu Hotel at the foot of another Tanzanian mountain, Kilimanjaro. Contact details may be found at www.maranguhotel.com.

Jackie Brice-Bennett’s Marangu Groundnut Sauce

(Any number of known and unknown uses, but especially recommended in a roll with avocado and boerewors).

4 medium onions coarsely chopped
10 garlic cloves
6 red chillies
350gms skinned, roasted groundnuts/peanuts
4 tblsps sunflower oil
2 tblsps Soy sauce
1 tblsps tomato puree
2 tblps water (optional)
300-500 ml coconut milk
2 tblps brown sugar
Salt (taste first)
Blend, onion, garlic, chillies to a paste in a food processor. Scrape out as best possible and, without washing the bowl, grind the peanuts in the food processor.

Heat oil in wok or large flat bottomed frying pan. Add onion/garlic paste and fry for one minute.

Add peanuts and stir until combined – you may want to add the water here to loosen the paste. Add all other ingredients, except extra salt. Gently cook until all flavours combine and a thickish sauce is made. (I actually put in as much liquid as it will comfortably absorb). Then taste and see if you need to add the extra salt.