Here are my top three worst dishes that I have eaten whilst overseas: third place goes to a goat’s head (brains and all), second place to a fruit bat, and first place to a mopane worm.
he mopane worm, which is in fact a caterpillar, was offered to me by an old, wizened lady that I met out in the bush. She kindly offered up her bowl of nutritious, boiled mopane worms. The students I was with recoiled in horror and took a step backwards when she offered us the dish. However, it now looked as if I had stepped forward. I didn’t want to offend this lady. Somebody had to accept her kind and generous offering, so I reached into the pot.
I estimated that the worm was too large for me to swallow whole, so I had to bite it. Unfortunately, when I bit into it I did not bite through the whole worm, so when I pulled the half away its innards ended up dangling down my chin, bits of entrails, nervous system, and arteries hanging there attractively. The only way to save face was to slurp up the entrails like spaghetti, swallow quickly, pop the remaining half into my mouth and try not to gag in the process. I did the best I could by smiling at the lady and thanking her for the tasty morsel, while the rest of the group looked at me in horror, hands over their mouths.
Another quite revolting looking (and smelling) food is ‘walkie-talkie’, which is very aptly named – the feet and heads of chickens. These are quite often sold in supermarkets in the fresh meat section along with intestines, lungs, and other sorts of offal. Normally they are neatly presented on a polystyrene tray with the feet and heads squashed together in an ugly mass. I have had the unfortunate misfortune to be stuck in the back of a truck with a woman who had a pot of boiled walkie-talkies. I endured an hour listening to her crunching her way through the gristly chicken feet and slurping the brains out of their heads. It made for revolting listening and the smell was stomach-churning. Luckily, I was not offered any this time.
The great thing about Africa is that there are so many delicious things on the menu. It caters for vegetarians, carnivores (that’s me), people who eat inordinate amounts of fruit, healthy diets, and even junk food – which I do my best to avoid.
I often speak to guests who are concerned about what they’re going to eat, they suspect that it might consist of the dreaded mopane worm or walkie-talkie. Not so. In fact, this is so far from the truth that it makes me laugh. I’ve only ever eaten mopane worms once, and once was enough. I love going to Africa because I know I’m going to eat healthy, tasty food. The food is fresh, (probably picked, dug up or killed that morning), generally untainted by additives and pesticides, and always tastes better when you eat it outside.
Fresh fruit and vegetables are available all year round, and they haven’t been processed, injected, shaped, sprayed, packaged, moulded, battered, or conformed to a certain shape and size and then transported halfway across the world in a freezer container. Instead, they come as they are – malformed, distorted, bobbly, non-conformist, pure, and chemical-free. You can certainly taste the difference between a misshapen African tomato and a perfectly-formed, force-ripened one in the UK. The food is fresh from the ground, bush, or off the hoof. Marvellous.
A typical breakfast consists of fruit salad, yoghurt, freshly baked bread accompanied by the option of a cooked breakfast. And the cooked breakfasts are divine – fresh eggs, boervors (beef sausages packed with nothing but meat and none of the other nasty stuff), bacon, and cooked tomato. What you might expect from a full English, but packed with so much more flavour.
Lunches are often on the move, a picnic spread on the bonnet of your safari vehicle consisting of salads, fresh meats, cold chicken, cheese and bread, maybe washed down with a cool, refreshing beer and ending with fruits like pawpaw, pineapple, bananas, or apples. This may also be accompanied by less healthy options of crisps, peanuts, and a chocolate bar.
The dinners in Africa are something to marvel at, sometimes half the animals you have seen that day are on the menu! Impala is a delicious meat, solid with very little fat and tastes like venison. Kudu, nyala, and any of the other antelope are similar – each with its own distinctive taste. Kudu curry is delicious and whenever it is on the menu I always choose it. Warthog is also a wonderful meat, again very low in fat and exceptionally tasty, especially when cooked over an open fire. I would also suggest trying crocodile tail; it is a mixture between chicken and fish, solid and yet delicate in taste and texture. There are also the more standard meats that we are accustomed to such as beef (the steaks are to die for), chicken, and pork.
Ostrich is also delicious, it is often served as carpaccio and that comes highly recommended. Ostrich meat is considered very healthy as it is low in fat and high in calcium, protein, and iron. Strangely, the meat from an ostrich comes from its legs, thighs, and back, it does not possess any breast meat. Some people say that it tastes a bit like beef, which I suppose it does, although it does have a chicken-like texture to it as well. In the south-east of Zimbabwe, ostrich farming became an additional income to assist farmers when their cattle farming land changed over to the wildlife reserve, as it did in Save Valley Conservancy.
One day I got roped into helping medicate ostriches for ticks, ensuring they stayed healthy in their vast bush enclosure. I don’t know what possessed me, but I stupidly agreed to help, not knowing what I was letting myself in for. Pre-requisites for this job include patience, eye-balling techniques, an ability to show no fear, and a good sense of humour, of which I possess only one attribute – although even my sense of humour temporarily vanished after ten minutes of scrabbling around in the dust.
Have you ever tried to catch an ostrich? Believe me, it’s as hard as you think it is. First you must get within grabbing distance, which in itself isn’t an easy feat, and then you have to manoeuvre yourself into a safe position. This is because an ostrich has two toes on each foot, the first toe being exceptionally long and possessing a large toenail. A single swipe with that can disembowel a human. This little fact was prominent in my mind.
It is advisable to grab the ostrich by its neck and to swiftly force it down to the ground, this prevents it from gutting you as its head and neck are in the way of its vicious feet. Then, with syringe in hand, (that’s if you have not dropped it whilst running around after said ostrich), the beak is prised open and the yellow medication is squirted into the bird’s mouth.
At this point you might be mistaken in thinking that this is the end of your ordeal, but not so. There is now the tricky procedure of safely letting go of the ostrich’s neck whilst performing a swift sidestep to avoid a big, angry, bird. Once released it is likely to swerve backwards and forwards, wings outstretched like battering rams. Then, it’s on to the next one, heart in mouth.
That day I suffered a couple of knocks and one violent peck to my arm. I certainly will not be offering my services to the School of Ostrich Medication again. I’m much happier eating ostrich carpaccio than chasing the live animal around the bush. If you get the opportunity, do try ostrich, whether it is served as an appetiser or the main dish. Don’t ask for a whole leg, as you might be there for a while!
Meat is an important part of the African diet but if you are a vegetarian then you are also in for a treat. Being a vegetarian in Africa can be easily catered for and there are certainly a host of wonderful, exotic, and intriguing things to eat.
Butternut is used a lot and when roasted and accompanied by feta cheese is absolutely delicious. There is also a wide selection of squashes of various shapes, sizes, and forms. Many have not reached UK shops, so try them all out, it is certainly worth it.
Avocados are the size of small rugby balls, oranges are exceptionally juicy, and pineapples are cut from the field that you passed twenty minutes earlier. The list of vegetables and fruits available is practically never-ending; sweet potatoes, squash, cucumber, peppers, spinach, water lilies, salad onions, normal onions, all sorts of herbs, lychees, apricots, grapefruit, star fruit, pomegranates, carrots, oranges, courgettes, aubergine…
The whole experience of eating is helped by the atmosphere; dining on decking overlooking a watering hole with the sound of the bush in chorus around you and the big sky above, you cannot help being sucked into romantic notions as you dine. It is not just the dining experience that is memorable, it is also the knowledge that it will happen all over again tomorrow.
It is healthy eating with a healthy lifestyle. In fact, your whole system has a complete overhaul and, although you don’t realise it, you are having a detox.
My advice would be to try everything – be adventurous, eat something different, you might just love it. Mopane worms are optional.
This story is taken from Jenny Bowen’s new book, Sense Africa Five Ways, with permission. If you’d like to read more of her safari stories, why not buy a copy? Click here to be taken to our shop. Jenny owns and runs Sense Africa, tailor-made safaris and African holidays. Read more of her blog posts here.