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Namibian Cuisine: What to expect

Kapana Sellers, Katutura, Windhoek
Kapana sellers at a traditional market in Katutura, Windhoek, Namibia

“Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”

— James Beard.

“People are generally proud of their food. A willingness to eat and drink with people without fear and prejudice… they open up to you in ways that somebody visiting who is driven by a story may not get.”

– Anthony Bourdain

Introduction

Namibia is one of Africa’s most popular tourist populations. The country which derived its name from the world’s oldest desert – the Namib Desert – is known for her natural beauty, prolific wildlife and unspoilt wilderness. It also offers a human story to match its glorious natural beauty.

Namibia contains a number of breathtaking landscapes which includes the iconic dunes of Sossusvlei, the perfectly preserved dead trees in Deadvlei, and the spectacular vastness of the Fish River Canyon. It is often called ‘the land-God-made-in-anger’ and its harshness is visible in the abandoned mining towns of Kolmannskuppe, and Elizabeth Bay, and in the large number of shipwrecks along the coastline.

Epupa Falls, Kunene Region
Epupa Falls, Kunene Region

Namibia is home to desert-adapted elephants and lions, and the world’s largest population of black rhinoceros still left in the wild. Namibia’s national parks and private game reserves and farms provide great opportunities to see elephants, big cats such as lion, leopard and cheetah and large numbers of plains game. Etosha National Park is a wildlife photographer’s dream come true.

Elephants, Etosha National Park
Elephants, Etosha National Park

Namibian Food

Namibia is home to just over 2 million people and is the least densely populated country on the African continent. It offers an intriguing human story and a rich cultural diversity. There are ample opportunities to experience the country’s traditional cultures whilst exploring the best that modern Namibia can offer.

Namibia offers much to the food traveller. The country’s national cuisine is a hybrid of various colonial influences mixed into a variety of traditional, indigenous cuisines. German, South African and to a lesser extent Portuguese influences are strong and are predominant in the country’s modern restaurants.

Authentic, traditional food is found mainly in the urban informal markets, and private homes in the rural areas. Supermarkets carry fresh produce and cooked meals, and fast food franchises are found in the country’s growing number of shopping malls.

Seafood

The country has a most prolific, yet inhospitable coastline, that produces world-class seafood. Kabeljou, galjoen, kolstert (blacktail), catfish and steenbras are local fish varieties that are popular with recreational anglers.

Some 20 species of fish are targeted commercially. Commercial fishing operations are focused largely on deep-water hake, kingklip, pilchard and horse mackerel. Other commercial species include rock lobster, crab, monkfish tuna, anchovy, snoek, sole, John Dory, angelfish, swordfish, squid, octopus and mullet.

The country has a small but growing aquaculture. Namibian oysters are among the best anywhere. Namibia’s marine resources are well controlled to ensure sustainability, and its marine products are regularly tested to ensure that they are safe to consume.

Oyster boat
Oyster boat loaded with oyster bags, Aquamarine Park, Walvis Bay, Namibia

Meat

Namibia is a meat lover’s paradise, where you can taste some of the best venison, lamb and beef; all farm-produced, and in the free-range tradition. Visiting foodies are spoiled for choice: springbok, oryx, kudu, eland, zebra and warthog are popular varieties of venison and are included most restaurant menus. Look a little further and you may find crocodile too.

Namibians are nose-to-tail-eaters so organs such as tongue, liver, heart, kidneys and intestines are considered very special ingredients. Tripe or matangara is another much-loved dish, especially when combined with trotters and head meat and cooked as a stew with tomato and onion, or a mild curry sauce.

Everyone should try a ‘smiley’ or baked sheep’s head at least once during their Namibian holiday. No visit to Namibia is complete with trying ‘biltong’ (a type of dried meat or jerky) and droeë wors (dried sausage). It is real frontier food and makes for great and healthy snacks and ‘padkos’ (food to consumed whilst being on the road).

Namibians love their ‘braais’. These are social get-togethers at which all kinds of meat and meat products are grilled. Grilled meat is known locally as ‘kapana’ or ‘braaivleis’ and it is not uncommon to find a variety of meats – beef, venison, lamb and goat – cut into chops or steaks or strips, cooked simultaneously on the same grill.

Braaivleis, Kapana, Grilled meat
Braaivleis, or Kapana, (Grilled meat) is Namibia’s favourite dish

Also popular at these events are ‘boerewors’ (farmers sausage), ‘braaibroodjies’ (grilled sandwiches), ‘roosterkoek’ (griddle cakes), ‘pap’ (stiff maize porridge) and a variety of salads of which potato salad is arguably the most popular.

Traditional ingredients

Namibia’s traditional cuisines are still vibrant and relatively well-preserved. The harsh climate produces indigenous plants and fungi that are found almost nowhere else: the giant Omajova mushroom, the mysterious !nabba desert truffle, various varieties of wild cucumbers and melons are still sort-after ingredients locally.

Namibians love their insects. Mopani worms and flying termites are seasonal delicacies.

Pearl millet (mahangu) and maize are the two traditional staples, and indigenous fruits such as marula fruit and monkey orange or maguni continuous to play a significant role in diversifying local starch-based diets. Popular local vegetables include various varieties of wild spinach, edible tubers, roots, leaves and seeds. All of these are highly seasonal and availability is highly dependent on the quality of the rainy season.

Maguni, Monkey Orange
Maguni fruit from Namibia’s north-eastern regions. Also known as ‘monkey orange’ or ‘corky monkey orange, it is the fruit from the Strychnos cocculoiddes tree.

German influences

Namibia’s national cuisine include a number of foreign influences brought about by more than 100 years of colonization by foreign entities. It is therefore not surprising that German and South African food influences are prominent.

High-quality German-style charcuterie is available throughout the country and the variety of ‘aufschnitt’ (cold cuts), pâté and sausages are excellent and highly popular in combination with German-style bread and ‘brötchen’.

The food of the annual local Octoberfest stays true to its German roots: ‘bratwurst’, leberkäse, ‘brathendl‘, ‘eisbein‘ and ‘fassbier‘, of course. Namibian supermarkets, bakeries and shops offer some of the best German-style bread and pastries to be found anywhere outside Germany.

South African influences

The South African influence on Namibia’s cuisine is substantial. From biltong and droeëwors, right through to bobotie, sosaties, melktert and koeksisters.

The South African influence on local food dates back to the late 18th century when the Oorlam groups moved out of the Cape Colony and into Greater Namaqualand. The Oorlam, and later on the Basters and Afrikaner settlers, played a key role in the Europeanisation of Namibia.

Given that these were men and women from the Cape Frontier, it is likely that they brought with them European ingredients such as flour, spices and sugar. A number of free-form bread cooked in fat and over hot coals – fat cakes, roosterbrood, askoek, as well as, Namibia’s beloved braaivleis are dishes likely to have been brought into the country by these early South African settlers.

Fat cake vendor
Fat cake vendor, Rundu, Kavango West region

Key Techniques

Cooking over an open fire is a key technique defining Namibian cuisine. It dates back to the times of the original inhabitants, the San people, and stems from the fact that they were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Many, if not most, Namibian still do their daily cooking over an open fire. For some, there is no alternative, it is the only way to cook; for others, it is purely recreational.

The three-legged cast iron pot is an iconic cooking utensil and is used to cook anything and everything, from soups and stews to porridge and bread. Every Namibian loves to make a ‘potjie’.

The ancient technique of fermentation is celebrated all over in both the traditional and modern elements of Namibia’s cuisine. Traditional fermented foods and beverages are produced from milk, wild fruits, and cereals, and are of sociocultural and nutritional value. They are marketed for income generation.

Milk-based fermented products include omashikwa, mashini ghakushika, and mabisi; cereal-based beverages are oshikundu, omalodu, otombo, epwaka, okatokele, oshafuluka, maxau, and /Ho sGoas; and fruit-based beverages such as ombike, omagongo, and omalunga.

Finding a special meal or an exciting ingredient often requires getting off the beaten track and having an open mind. Namibians are friendly people who love to share and talk about their food. For the adventurous traveller, it will be a most rewarding experience; one to match the wildlife and landscapes.

 

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