Around here, everyone’s favorite food is xima.
Xima is basically ground corn flour that’s turn into a sort of porridge, and variations of it are eaten all over this part of Africa. Here in Mozambique it’s white-colored and mostly bland tasting, and thick enough (but not crumbly) that you can scoop off a piece and eat it with your hands. It’s eaten as the staple carb in most meals, with various sauces on top, and Mozambicans are fond of saying it “da força” ie, it makes you strong. Xima is what fills them up to sleep through the night, and they believe it’s the most important part of a meal (a cultural belief that gives our health workers no end of grief, because the actual nutritional value is next to nothing). Whenever I tell my students that we don’t eat xima in America, I inevitably get the same shocked face of absolute disbelief. And then sometimes they laugh and say it must be because Americans don’t know how to make xima.
It’s true. We don’t.
Making xima is a lot of work. Not the act of cooking it. That only takes about 30 minutes. I’m talking about all the work that goes into producing food in a subsistence agriculture culture.
Corn is the main (and often only) crop in this part of Mozambique, because it’s one of the few crops that can survive the soaring temperatures and infrequent rains. Everyone has a machamba (field) where they plant corn, and they tend to it all throughout the rainy season. Around November, after the first major rain, the field is plowed the old-fashioned way, using a team of cows. Throughout the next few months, women go to the fields most every morning (usually from around 6am-10am) and hoe the fields by hand to keep the weeds in check. And the corn grows.
When it’s time to harvest, the corn is first left on the plant to dry naturally in the strong Mozambican sun, and then brought home to be dried some more and stored still in its husk. During a good harvest year, people hope to be able to take home enough corn to last them several years. Rain is erratic in this part of the world, and although people plant most every year, many harvests fail or produce little. Mozambican farmers think in multi-year cycles, and hopefully the good years balance out the bad, and people can stockpile enough to get them through the tough times.
Mozambicans do eat fresh corn (it’s grilled) but 90% of it is dried for making xima, because it can be stored well this way. Mozambicans store their corn in a loft above their outdoor kitchens, and the smoke from the cooking fire helps to dry and preserve the corn. Below is a typical Mozambican kitchen. All that space below the pyramid thatched roof is used for storing corn.
Even after doing all the hard work of growing the corn, it’s still a process to prepare it to be used for cooking. First the corn is taken out of its husk and put into a giant mortar and pestle, called a pilão. Using a hefty wooden stick about the height of a person, you smash the corn cobs repeatedly until the kernels fall off. Day-to-day housework like this is the reason Mozambican women have great abs and amazing arm muscles. Seriously. My girl students look like normal, shy high schoolers, but if you can get them to flex their arms, they have bigger muscles than most of the guys I knew back in the States.
Once most of the kernels have come loose, that batch is dumped out, and another one added. Over and over and over. Kids and anyone else present (like me) help pull off the remaining kernels. The loose kernels go into a bag that can be kept handy.
Which brings us to the next step: grinding the corn. By hand. The Portuguese word for this is moer, and its an important daily activity. A big ceramic bowl (think two feet wide), is set on the ground, often in the middle of a tire, and the woman sits next to it. A little bit of water is added and they take hold of that same big stick used to break up the corn cobs, and they move it in a circle around the bowl, over and over, slowly grinding the corn into a wet paste. Grinding corn for a good-sized family can easily take two hours, and it’s usually the teenage girls in a household who end up with this awesome chore. And they do it every day, usually in the morning. It’s one of the sounds I wake up to: the rhythmic rasp of wood on stone as women grind their corn.
Then, once the corn has become a ground-up, wet corn paste, it’s left in a bucket to sit in the sun and ferment a little. This step is optional, but the Mozambicans I’ve talked to like the slightly vinegar-y taste. Xima made straight away is just too bland.
Once it’s mid-afternoon and time to start preparing the main meal of the day, the corn is finally cooked. This is by far the easiest part. A large pot of water is brought to a boil. Some of the corn paste is added. A lid is added and it’s left to simmer away. More corn paste is added bit by bit to get the desired consistency, and it’s stirred frequently so the bottom doesn’t burn. After about a half an hour of cooking, it’s ready to eat. It’s usually scooped out and put on a separate serving dish, so the cook pot can be soaked right away for easy washing. The Mozambicans like to smooth the top over with a bit of water, to get a smooth, rounded look.
When Mozambicans cook for large parties, it looks for all the world like a bubbling witch’s cauldron.
And that’s xima. A generous helping is served, and it’s usually eaten with some sort of leaf-sauce-thing, or some sort of meat-sauce-thing if it’s a party.