As part of our volunteer deal, we were entitled to one meal in the hospital mess a day. Those already there had opted to have dinner as the shared meal, partly because after long days in the wards, it was tiring to back up and cook with limited food availability and variable power supply.
For a town of only 20,000 or so people, with only a couple of shops that would border on what we would consider back home to be general stores, it was surprising what you can whip up with a bit of effort. That is partly because most good food is really just the right combinations of veges, meat and carbs, and a good supply of fresh veges can go a long way. Big piles of tomatoes were only a few kwacha, and eggplant, green beans, carrots, cabbage, peppers, chillis, pumpkin and initially avocados were all readily available and not breaking even the bank of a volunteer stipend.
Yasmin and I had inherited halves in a decent garden, complete with a thriving rocket grove thanks to seeds that Charlotte, our predecessor had brought out from the UK. Nelson, one of the local guys who we had known from my time as a student had progressed from when we gave him his first St Francis related job four years earlier to act as our fire warden when we made a hangi for our leaving party. He was now the established gardener for the foreign doctors. How much to pay him was a balance between not throwing around money out of keeping with the local labour market and risk distorting the economy, not overpaying for a Service we didn’t really need when our own income was very meagre but also supporting him enough so he could provide for his family. He did a solid job of watering the plants every day, so we always had a steady supply of tomatoes, herbs and for a while rocket.
The mess cooks are a lovely bunch but without formal training as chefs, a limited budget and up to 25 people to cook for each night, bland was often a fitting description. The only vegetable that seemed to feature was rape, a sour version of spinach which in New Zealand is normally only found on sheep farms to fatten up the lambs. It soon lost favour for me, and it would be a good day when occasionally rape would be replaced by boiled cabbage on the menu. There was some improvement during our time, in large part thanks to the tireless efforts of Alison, half of a doctor duo who had arrived a month or so before us, and along with her surgeon husband Paul, are at St Francis for two years. Alison is a specialist pathologist, whose ability to be able to report fine needle aspirates (small tissue samples taken with a small needle and then spread onto a glass slide) had revolutionised our diagnosis of many illnesses in a investigation limited environment. Having raised a big brood of their own, in large part living in places like Morocco, Alison was used to whipping up a storm in the kitchen, and coming out with some marvellous creations.
She was also the stimulus for us to get creative as well and the first weekend off included a trip to Chipata to pick up flour, yeast and sugar to make our own bread by hand. She had come to Zambia well prepared, bringing rennet to make her own haloumi or mozzarella, and inventions I hadn’t ever heard of like a sugar thermometer to ensure melting sugar gets to the right thermometer to stop your soft fudge ending up as hard toffee.
With a limited range of condiments and what I’d now consider luxury items like toasted muesli, some middle of the night oven swapping was done and the coming months saw some decent creations appear, some on their first try but many not. A glut in overripe tomatoes ended up as homemade tomato sauce, dirt cheap red peppers were whipped into red pepper chilli chutney, our forest of basil made some lovely pesto, pumpkin from the market became lunch as soup the next day. Yas managed to get down to a fine art making ciabatta which was amazing as a pre dinner snack with some balsamic and oil, or with poached eggs for lunch. Whenever people were off to Chipata, orders would be put in for things to pick up from the supermarket, and I think with some effort, we could eat well and it was not like what the missionaries of old were subject to.
My favourite thing about being a student in Zambia previously was the cheapness of prime fillet steak. For every head of cattle butchered, there is two fillets, regardless of whether there is a market for them. For many of the locals, meat of any type is a luxury, and their preferred method is stewing it, bones and all to act as the ‘relish’ to go with the blander maize based nshima that is the central component of any Zambian dish. So normal stewing steak was 25 kwacha a kg ($6 NZD) and due to minimal demand to pay more money for better meat, fillet was the almost criminally cheap 28 kwacha a kg. I soon had the butcher’s number saved, the days of slaughter established, and a keen student or two who could nip out of the wards and go into town when I was too busy to get away – they benefitted directly from the steak so were very complicit in the master plan.
I had gone to town at the spice stalls of Zanzibar, in preparation for coming, so had a good stock of cumin and coriander seeds, peppercorns and other bits and pieces, ready to make the crust for steak on the grill. The first trip to Chipata included a visit to the one of the many sections of the sprawling market, to buy a circular brassier and an accompanying grill plate to get into the braais that South Africans have spread all over Africa. Several BBQ/braais followed, with some keen students taking up the mantle for organising welcome breaks from the mess.
And when you go a bit overboard on the meat buying front, what better thing to do with an abundance of cheap tender meat than to dry it. Biltong is a South African institution, and for good reason. The boers had been doing it for generations, preserving meat to allow times of excess to supplement times of scarcity. I had stocked up on turmeric, garlic, chilli, salt, pepper and coriander, and after soaking the meat in the brine for a day or so, they were hung up in the oven on low, ready to dry in the coming days. The resulting product was great, although I soon found if my sole lunch item was biltong (which it often was when tired), the salt content soon had me gasping for water mid afternoon.
Given the good quality meat available, I hunted high and low for a meat grinder to give another option to having mince that was 20% meat, 80% fat and bone. After searching high and low through about 20 general traders in Chipata, and picking up a monopoly set and muffin tray I didn’t really need, I finally managed to score myself a grinder. Into it went a big pile of lean rump, and after a slow evening grinding away, I had about 4kg of lean mince. So lean in fact that when some was turned into patties a week later for a BBQ, they tended to burn as there was no fat in them at all.
On our arrival, the incumbent foreign doctors had a regular weekly doctors dinner on the go, taking turns to turn local produce into gourmet creation, with the art of minimising cheese and butter in the recipe, as both were hard to source and expensive ingredients -200g of cheese costing about $5 NZD. The dinners fell by the wayside a bit during late June to late August, as the only foreign doctors around that partook were myself, Yas, Paul and Alison. But when our much needed reinforcements came in late August, things were back humming. The meat grinder’s time in the sun was making some meat for lasagne that was part of an Italian feast, featuring Alison’s deep fried risotto and cheese balls, cheery tomato and eggplant bruschetta, Italian salads, and espresso tart for dessert. Cherry tomatoes has been a source of much consternaton for Nelson the gardener, a few months earlier, when Dr Natalie’s cheery tomatoes were ripening, he turned up with a grave look upon his face. ‘Madam, there is a problem. The tomatoes are not growing. I am not sure what the problem is. I think I will have to pull them all out.’ Despite Natalie’s happiness about her crop maturing so she could enjoy them before she left, and her reassurances to Nelson, there was still the perplexing issue for him of why would someone intentionally grow small and therefore limitedly nutritious tomatoes.
Packaged Muesli is an expensive commodity in Zambia so I was keen to find a cost-effective way of getting something more interesting than the poor attempt at weetbix the locally available South African brand could muster. Ground nuts (peanuts) are cheap and available in the local market, and oranges are grown on the local hills. Roasted nuts, orange zest, cinnamon, some home dried apple, oats, coconut and a heated mix of honey, freshly squeezed orange juice, sugar and oil provided the base to be mixed together than baked into clusters in the oven. Come late October, mangoes started to appear on the trees, so some home dried mango also went in the mix. It wasn’t long till evenings would be booked out making muesli, or preparing fruit for drying.
I don’t think I am keen to eat too much more salty goat stew and soggy pasta with a side of rape, but I will certainly miss having a few kilos of prime fillet sitting in the freezer ready for a BBQ.