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Traditional foods in Zimbabwe

I have been writing about the beneficial effects of a good diet for more than 3 years now. And I have discussed how we have deviated from the traditional diets. Our diets have deviated changed and we have forgotten the importance of traditional foods in Zimbabwe. This deviation from traditional diets has been working as a magnet, that attracts chronic diseases.

Most people now depend on unhealthy ultra processed foods in their diet. Some have even developed a belief some of the unhealthy are a show of class. For example I have listened to people bragging about how they don’t eat whole maize meal because it’s disgusting. Their answer to that problem is to dehulling the maize. A process which removes all the nutrients living only starch! As a result of this ignorance we have been experiencing a rise in the prevalence of chronic diseases. Whilst modern medicine has been helpful with other diseases, it has been failing to deal with. This is then forcing people to go back to traditional foods. These foods can help prevent and heal these chronic diseases. That’s why I am writing about these healthy traditional foods in Zimbabwe. I hope this article will help you make healthier traditional food choices.

Traditional foods in Zimbabwe are healthier, tastier and satisfying

In Zimbabwe, we have many traditional foods. These foods are healthier, some are tastier and whilst also carrying medicinal benefits. So, as we hail foreign foods and their health properties, let’s also look at our own. I have been recommending zumbani tea to people for several ailments that include pain and respiratory problems. I am happy to say that people are responding positively to the remedy. Some foods like mutsine (blackjack) have peculiar tastes. And the tastes and flavours maybe undesirable. However, they are also very healthy, so I try to also eat them for health reasons. If you care about a healthy diet, its wise to add some traditional foods to the mix. Here are some of the healthiest traditional foods in Zimbabwe.

Traditional foods in Zimbabwe

  • Small grains like sorghum, millet and rapoko.
  • Okra, both wild and pod varieties.
  • Pumpkin fruits, leaves and seeds. Also a traditionql dish called “nhopi”.
  • Cowpeas seeds and dried leaves. A traditional dish called “rupiza”.
  • Wild fruits such as marula, hacha, mauyu, matamba, nzviru, tsubvu and matohwe.
  • Wild mushrooms.
  • Raw honey.
  • Wild vegetables such as mutsine, mowa, munyevhe.
  • Wild herbal teas include Zumbani, muonde, baobab seed tea, baobab pulp tea and mufandichimuka.

These are some of the healthiest traditional foods in Zimbabwe. I have tried almost everything on this list and I am still going.

1. Eat sadza/pap made from millet, sorghum or rapoko

Millet grains
Millet grains.
Source: Pexel Photos

I only knew about the healthiness of small grains from reading. However, one day I decided to buy a mixed grain roller meal. I wanted to experience what it tasted like but I was in for a big shock! The taste was not that bad, it was unlike the bland taste of white maize sadza. In addition I experienced a boost in my bowel movements. I noticed that my bowel movements became more regular. Also, I would stay satiated for longer and hunger pangs became less frequent. The mixed grain was brown in colour which shows the presence of healthful pigments. Which means it was healthier than the plain whole white maize sadza. We can compare yo dehulled maize meal because its the worse. Since then, I have advocated for people to try mixing their grains to get a richer pap.

Also read: 13 Healthy eating habits for your family

Sorghum, millet and rapoko are not only healthier, but they also grow well in our climate. One FAO report highlighted the importance of these small grains to health. FAO described these crops as excellent sources of proteins, energy, vitamins and minerals.

Small grains are healthier carbohydrate  sources than maize. This is because they have a higher satiety than our white maize. This is due to the presence of both soluble and insoluble dietary fibre. The maize meal people it is very rich in starch, especially dehulled maize meal. However, you cannot dehull rapoko, millet or sorghum. That would be pure madness. All this means that the small retain their dietary fibre and have the ability to release sugar slowly to the body. In other words small grains have a better glycemic load than maize.

Benefits of eating sorghum, millet or rapoko pap/sadza

  • These grains are recommended for people with HIV and AIDs due to their health benefits.
  • Millet is rich in healthy nutrients and beneficial phenolic compounds.
  • These phenolic compounds in millet have many health benefits
  • The phenolic compounds give the small grains powerful antioxidant properties.
  • The small grains are heart healthy foods because of their nutritional composition.

Millets also have nutraceutical properties. The millets (finger/ rapoko) are rich in active biochemicals which offer many health benefits.

  • They help improve your digestive system health and well being.
  • They have cholesterol-reducing properties.
  • Millets also help reduce risks of type 2 diabetes.
  • They also have anti-cancer properties.
  • The biochemicals also help in improving your energy levels and muscular system.

Millets and sorghum can be part of a healthy traditional foods diet in Zimbabwe. They are healthy, they grow well and they are easy to store and grow.

2.  Okra

The slimy and mucilaginous okra is a special a delicacy to me. And whenever I pass through the market, I always try to buy some. Then I will go home and have a delicious supper. Okra tastes even better with chilli peppers.

You may not like okra but it’s one of the healthiest vegetables available. I know that a lot of people use a lot of derogatory names for okra. But that does not diminish the nutritional value of this awesome vegetable.

Okra is native to the African continent. Most people are more familiar with okra pods that they grow in the foods and see in supermarkets. However, we also have several wild okras that grow like weeds during the rain season.

Wild okra

We have several wild okra varieties in Zimbabwe. Most of these are more common during the rain season. The most common wild okra is the one we call “derere renyenje” (Corcorus olitorius/ wild jute). This wild okra grows well as a weed in fields with red clay soils. People in these areas always have an abundance of wild jute throughout the rainy season.

We also have “dere nyamwenda” which looks like derere nyenje but they are different. Derere nyamwenda is less shiny and has thinner, darker leaves and it produces yellow flowers. Some people don’t like this mucilaginous wild okra because the taste is not as good. However, to me okra is okra, and when I see eat, I will drink and eat! This wild okra can grow in the rainy season but it  also grows near rivers during the dry season. It’s also more woody than “derere nyenje”.

The last wild okra is “derere kauyu”. I don’t know how this okra is made but it is produced from new baobab leaves/shoots. It is commonly consumed in the Mbire area of Zimbabwe where baobab trees are abundant. So, if you pass by Mbire ask for this wild mucilaginous delight!

Medicinal uses of wild okra (wild jute)/“derere nyenje”
  • It is used for the treatment of gonorrhoea, tumours, aches and pain.
  • Also used in the treatment of chronic cystitis.
  • Wild jute has high iron levels that may help prevent anaemia.

Okra pods (Abelmoschis esculentis)

This is the most common type of okra because it can be grown in a field. This okra is also native to Africa and the pods are eaten as okra when they are still soft. When the seeds are mature the pods become tough and inedible. The pods can also be sliced and dried. The dried pods can be crushed into a powder that can be utilised later as dried okra. This powdered okra is very delicious. The leaves of the podded okra can also be used as a vegetable.

The health benefits of podded okra

It is a vegetable and also a source of dietary medicine.

  • The okra pods make a mucilaginous food that helps in combating gastritis.
  • It has cholesterol-lowering effects.
  • It also has antidiabetic, anticancer, antioxidant, antifatigue and neuroprotective effects.
  • Okra also helps in reducing excessive lipids accumulation in the body.

Okra is rich in bioactive compounds with therapeutic and health uses.

These include:

  • Liver detoxication
  • Alleviation of digestive diseases
  • Blood sugar lowering activity
  • The flowers of the okra are used to produce a Chinese drug that treats diabetes nephropathy

Okra is one of the best traditional foods in Zimbabwe. I wouldn’t hesitate to add it my diet. I just love okra and you should try it too!

3. Pumpkin leaves, pumpkin seeds and pumpkin paste (nhopi)

If you have been reading my work for some time,  you would know that I am fond of pumpkins. Whilst pumpkins are not native to Africa, we utilise them like traditional foods. We have even developed pumpkin based traditional dishes.

Pumpkin leaves

Fluted pumpkin leaves are one of my favourite delicacies. This green vegetable is healthy, nutritious and yet delicious. You can cook them without adding any oil. I have also seen several people cooking fluted pumpkin leaved in peanut butter. I usually cook them together with their flowers and tiny pumpkin fruits. The flowers and tiny pumpkins help add flavour to the pumpkin leaves. I always make sure to grow some pumpkin plants in my garden in the dry season. Here are some of the health benefits of fluted pumpkin leaves.

  • Offers liver protection
  • Antidiabetic properties
  • Antioxidant properties
  • Nutrient-rich properties
  • Anti-cancer properties
  • Antiinflammatory

Also read: Pumpkin leaves: One of the healthiest vegetables

Pumpkin flesh

Mature pumpkins after harvest. Pumpkins are healthy and I had to include them in the traditional foods in Zimbabwe list.
Harvested pumpkins.
Source: Pexel Photos

The pumpkin itself is used to make different foods. Some just boil pumpkins with a little bit of salt and eat them. You can also make pumpkin pie or fritters but that’s not traditional. My grandma used to make a pumpkin paste called “nhopi”. It is a very good dish which you can make from pumpkin paste. Adding peanut butter to “nhopi” makes it more tasty. This is one of the traditional dishes that we are losing to modernisation.

Health benefits of pumpkins include:
  • They are rich in healthy phytochemicals that offer many health benefits.
  • Eating pumpkins regularly help you strengthen your immune system.
  • They have antioxidant properties which help counteract the effects of free radicals in the body.
  • Eating pumpkins can help you prevent the development metabolic syndrome.
  • Pumpkins also have anticancer and heart protective properties.

Also read: Organic Pumpkin Patch: How to setup

Pumpkin seeds

As I have said before, almost everything is edible in pumpkins. Some people eat roasted pumpkin seeds like a snack. Traditionally pumpkin seeds to make “mabumbe”. Mabumbe is made from roasted pumpkin seeds and it that a meat-like texture. You can mix mabumbe with vegetables to make a hearty and delicious meal. Pumpkin seed oils are also healthy.

Health benefits of pumpkin seeds include:
  • Pumpkin seeds can help reduce the progression of hypertension.
  • They help reduce higher blood cholesterol concentrations.
  • They have protective effects against arthritis.
  • Pumpkin seeds have blood sugar-lowering properties.
  • They have heart-protective effects.
  • Pumpkin seeds are rich in protein and polyunsaturated fatty acids.
  • The seed may help reduce inflammation of the heart and kidney.
  • Pumpkin seeds have anti-cancer properties.

Also read: Pumpkin fritters: An old recipe, A rant and Health tips

Whilst pumpkins are not native to Zimbabwe, I wouldn’t exclude them from the traditional foods in Zimbabwe. This is because they have been around for a very long time. As a result, we have developed several dishes from pumpkins.

5. Cowpeas (nyemba): An underutilised healthy food

Cowpeas are one of the most underutilised crops. Whilst they are not indigenous to Zimbabwe, they are a very affordable protein and nutrient source. You can cook cowpeas by boiling them and eating them when they are soft and tender. Salt is added to make the cowpeas taste better. I have also eaten a mixture of preboiled dried green mealies and cowpeas in a dish called “mutakura”. Some mix cowpeas with dehulled maize to make a delicious dish. Some people boil the cowpeas and add culinary condiments and spices to make a relish for sadza. However, I have never liked this recipe as cowpeas are too starchy for me.

One of the best ways to eat cowpeas the traditional way is through “rupiza”. Rupiza is a paste-like food substance made from roasted cowpea powder. This is one of the best ways to eat cowpeas.

Cowpea leaves can be boiled and rolled between hands as they cool. After this they are dried to make delicious dried vegetables.

Health benefits of cowpeas

  • Cowpeas are legumes with a high protein and carbohydrate content.
  • They also have a low-fat content.
  • Cowpeas have antidiabetic and anticancer properties.
  • They also have protective effects against high blood pressure.
  • Cowpeas have anti-inflammatory properties.
  • And they are also rich in soluble and insoluble dietary fibre.

Cowpeas also have protective effects against several diseases.They have protective effects against:

  • Stroke
  • Osteomalacia
  • Osteoporosis
  • Rickets
  • Anencephaly
  • Cardiac risks

Eating cowpeas regularly may also help improve your metabolic health.

Health benefits of cowpea leaves

  • They have a high protein content than most other vegetables.
  • They have a low carbohydrate content
  • The leaves are rich in iron, calcium and potassium.
  • They also have good potassium to sodium ratio which is good for kidney health.

6. Wild fruits: Are they the healthiest traditional foods in Zimbabwe

Mushuma tree with both ripe and unripe fruits.
Mushuma tree.
Source: @terrymap- Twitter

We have a lot of healthy wild fruits in Zimbabwe. Most of them are seasonal and some are perennial or biennial. However, if you walk in the Zimbabwean veld you will come across many different fruits. I always try to eat any wild fruits that I find. I have eaten many different wild fruits even dried ones like “nyii” and “masawu”. However, I have realised that no wild fruits taste better than any fruit partially eaten by birds. Disgusting right? Yeah, I dont think I care about the disgusting part.

Some fruits may be as small as grains of sand, while others are as big as my fist, it doesn’t matter. Fruits are healthy so the more you eat the better. When you eat wild fruits, just make sure that whatever you eat is not poisonous. In some cases, wild fruits can cause serious discomforts when eaten, and some will cause you to egest funny looking stools. Some wild fruits may have very bad taste you will regret every single bite.

These are some of the most delicious wild fruits:

  • Nhunguru
  • Nzviru
  • Tsubvu
  • Shuma
  • Matamba
  • Musokosiyana
  • Mbarembare
  • Tsambatsi
  • Maroro
  • Matohwe
  • Mbare mbare
  • Sycamore figs (makuyu)
  • Matufu
  • Matunduru

You can add anything I left out in the comments section. However, I can proudly tell you that wild fruits are some of the healthiest traditional foods in Zimbabwe. And I would urge you to eat them whenever you get a chance.

7. Herbal teas

The issue of herbal teas as healthy remedies has taken the world by storm. After several failures by modern medicine to deal with chronic diseases, people are resorting to more traditional methods. Whilst we easily glorify Western and Chinese herbal teas, we are hesitant to glorify our own. Most religions deem traditional herbal remedies as evil “mutis” and their believers must not eat them. Some of the most common local herbal teas are:

  • Makoni or mbudzimbidzi tea
  • Zumbani/umsuzwane tea (fever tree/lemon bush)
  • Mufandichimuka (resurrection bush) tea
  • Muonde (sycamore fig leaves) tea
  • Mutsine/black jack tea
  • Baobab fruit tea
  • Baobab seed tea

Health benefits of the herbal teas

Makoni tea has immune-boosting and bone-strengthening properties. It also has beneficial effects on diabetes, backache and abdominal pains. It also helps in treating chest pains.

Mufandichimuka tea has beneficial effects on coughs, colds and menstrual pain. It also has beneficial effects on epilepsy, schizophrenia and asthma.

Muonde tea is good for lowering blood pressure, coughs and colds.

For zumbani uses and benefits also read: Zumbani medicinal uses: Traditional medicinal uses of Zumbani

Most herbal teas are very rich in phytochemicals that provide health benefits. I have people who took zumbani for chest pains and swellings they became better. This may be due to various phytochemicals that help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress in your body. These teas must be drunk without sugar and I recommend a cup every evening before you sleep. This will help your body detox when you sleep.

The truth is that we cannot exclude these herbal teas from the traditional foods in Zimbabwe. These teas and concoctions are playing an important part in our health every day.

8. Wild mushrooms are at the top of traditional foods in Zimbabwe

Harvested mushrooms in a basket.
Mushrooms in a basket.
Source: Pexel Photos

If you have been to the countryside, you will be familiar with the rainy season mushroom rush. I am blessed to come from a village where we have a lot of mountains and castle kopjes. These are favourite spots for wild mushrooms to grow. They love the rocky terrain with a lot of rotting vegetation. If you don’t come from these areas you may only be familiar with the “huve kuvhe” or “huzukwe” that grows in the fields. These types of mushrooms love to grow on anthills and clay red soils.

Every rainy season spells a mushroom feast!

At the start of the rainy season we wait patiently for days. There will be days when enough rainfall has fallen for the mushrooms to grow. We would wait until there has been a little bit of sunlight that day. Then we would descend on the mountain to hunt for the delicious “nhedzi” mushrooms. My parents taught me to eat only a few varieties. However, there are many edible mushroom varieties some of which I don’t even know the names. The only challenge is that of mushroom poisoning.

The most dangerous poisoning comes from perfectly edible mushrooms that grow near gumtrees. These will poison you or even kill you. Any edible mushroom growing near gum trees becomes poisonous. It is believed that gum tree roots can poison  mushroom mycelium. 

If you know what types of mushrooms to eat like me, then you should be happy to know the health benefits.

Mushrooms are rich in proteins and other healthy chemicals. Most mushrooms have been linked with health benefits. Several mushrooms like reishi have strong medicinal properties. It is therefore reasonable for you to include mushrooms in your diet. You can eat mushrooms fresh or you can dry them. Dried mushrooms are so delicious.

9. Wild nuts (hacha nuts, mapfura nuts)

We have two main wild nuts in Zimbabwe and they are very tasty. We may talk all we want about the walnuts and macadamias. But we must not forget the delicious tree nuts of the wild. I have eaten pecans, groundnuts and several other nuts. Believe me, nothing tastes as good as muhacha or marula nuts.

Marula nuts

Marula nuts come from the mapfura/umganu tree ( Sclerocarya birreal). The tree produces the taste marula fruits which can also be fermented to make a tasty aromatic beer. After eating the fruit flesh you are left with a hard inner shell that you can dry. This inner shell contains tasty marula nuts. If you pound the shell hard enough it will break and release the nuts.

Marula nuts can be pounded and used to flavour relish including greens as well as meat dishes. The nuts have a higher protein and healthy fat content. They can give you higher magnesium, phosphorus and potassium. They are also rich in unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins and antioxidants.

Hacha nuts

Hacha nuts are produced by the muhacha/muchakata/umnkuna tree (Parinar curatellifolia). The fruit has a sweet taste and you can use the pulp to flavour your porridge. The juice can also be fermented to produce alcoholic drinks. After removing the flesh you will come across a hardened inner shell which contains the nuts.

You can eat the nuts raw, roasted or crushed. Whichever way you choose, it doesn’t change the savoury taste of hacha nuts. The nuts can be crushed and cooked with vegetables.

They are also rich in essential minerals including calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron and phosphorus.

For more on several healthy seeds eaten in Zimbabwe read:
Kernels of Goodness, Local Seeds and Nuts of Zimbabwe by The Zimbabwe Traditional and Organic Foods Forum.

We cannot talk about any traditional foods in Zimbabwe and leave out the wild nuts. We just can’t!

10. Raw honey is a common traditional food in Zimbabwe

A raw honey comb in a wire. Honey is an important traditional food in Zimbabwe
Honey Comb. Source:
Unsplash Photos

Raw honey can be obtained from natural beehives. Or you can make hives that you can set up for bees to enter. Every rainy season we find natural hives on the ground, on rotten hollow tree stumps or anthills. Some of the honey is so sweet that you won’t stand eating too much of it. I however condemn how some people damage the hives and bees as they collect the honey.

Honey is believed to contain several bioactive compounds which result in several medicinal uses. Here are some of the medicinal uses of raw honey.

Traditionally raw honey is used to treat:

  • Eye diseases
  • Bronchial asthma
  • Throat infections
  • Throat infections
  • Tuberculosis
  • Thirst hiccups
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Hepatitis
  • Constipation
  • Piles
  • Ulcers
  • Wounds

Honey also has some pharmacological uses:

  • It has been shown to exhibit antioxidant, antimicrobial, anti-cancer cell proliferation, antimetastatic, anticancer and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Honey is also used in the treatment of wounds, diabetes mellitus, asthma.
  • Raw honey also has protective effects against heart, neurological and gastrointestinal diseases.

11. Wild vegetables

Traditional wild vegetables are some of the healthiest foods you can eat in Zimbabwe. We have several traditional vegetables in Zimbabwe. These include blackjack (mutsine), amaranth /pigweed (mowa) and cleome gynandra (munyevhe). Dried pumpkin and cowpeas leaves are also classified as traditional vegetables.

We have been praising the kales and the rapes but these wild vegetables are also very healthy. I really love the amaranth (mowa), the taste is just awesome. I am not a big fan of mutsine because of an underlying flavour it produces but I eat it for health reasons. You can also make a healthy tea from mutsine. Munyevhe is especially good with beef or any red meat. You can take it together with chicken or fish too. It just tastes good with meat juices and soups. You can also dry the leaves and keep them to eat when they are out of season. Only newer and softer leaves of these vegetables produce the best savoury experience.

I always try to eat wild vegetables when I can. I love the fact that my mom has also taken to cooking them frequently. So, yeah, my traditional food diet would be incomplete without these wild vegetables.

Conclusion

I have eaten my fair share of traditional foods in Zimbabwe and believe me, I am not stopping any time soon. If the food can give me vitality and a thriving boost, then it’s good enough. Since some of these foods are seasonal, I try to consume as much as I can during the season while preserving what I can. Do you know more traditional foods that I can try in Zimbabwe? Please inform me in the comment section.

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