Cooking Chigwada Cassava Leaves


Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

Emeritus Professor of Sociology

The traditional Tumbuka cooking of Chigwada vegetable ndiyo, dende, relish or umunani involves many stages. These were followed when I cooked the Chigwada as “The Village Chef” at the Mwizenge Sustainable Model Village with the help of two Research Assistants; Mr. Robert Phiri and Ms. Jusi Nya Banda.

Two of some if the most important utensils in traditional Zambian cooking the; the mthiko cooking stick and the chihengo container.

Stages of Cooking Chigwada

You start with making chidulo, second collect fresh tender Chigwada or cassava leaves, third pound the leaves with a pestle and mortar, fourth pour the chidulo into a cooking pot and put the mashed-up leaves into a cooking pot and place it on the fire. Boil the Chigwada for half an hour and add nthendelo, nthwilo or raw fresh groundnut powder. Add salt and any tomatoes. Boil covered for half an hour.  Stir every few minutes to avoid burning at the bottom. Add some water if the Chigwada seems to be thickening. After half an hour, stir the nthendelo in the chikwada. After cooking for two and half hours, the Chigwada is ready to serve and eat with sima or nshima. I will critique my cooking of the Chigwada and the taste compared to how my grandmother and my mother used to cook it.

Collecting the chigwada or cassave leaves

1.     Chidulo is made from a choice of many dry leaves of a farm field crop. The chidulo can be made from dry maize stalks, from vitondozo vya skaba or stalks of dry groundnut leaves, dry banana leaves, dry groundnut shells, dry bean plant leaves and shells, dry visokoto from maize. In this case I decided to use the dry stalks of the maize which was about to be harvested. We set a pile of the stalks on fire and collected the cool ashes.

Putting the cassava leaves in a mortar.
Pounding the leaves with a pestle

2.     The ashes were put in chichezo container which had holes made at the bottom. The ashes were placed in the container and cold water was poured into the ashes. Soon, a dark  golden brown liquid began to drip out at the bottom which was collecting in a container at the bottom.

3.     We collected about 2 lbs or 1 Kg of fresh soft or tender Chigwada leaves from the trees. Put them in a mortar and pound the leaves until they are a wet moist mash.

The cassava leaves are pounded into a mash.

4.     We pounded raw peanuts with a pestle and mortar and made about 6 cups of fresh peanut or groundnut powder.

5.     We poured 5 cups of the chidulo liquid into the cooking pot and added the mashed Chigwada leaves and began to boil the Chigwada for 30 minutes.

The maize stalks are burnt into ashes.
Kucheza or the making of chidulo

6.     I poured 4 cups of the raw groundnut or peanut powder on top of the Chigwada. DO NOT stir yet. Add one teaspoon of salt. You can add tomatoes but this is optional. Boil covered for 30 minutes.

7.     I stirred the Chigwada vigorously and let it simmer and added water if necessary if the Chigwada is drying up. Stir every few minutes to prevent the Chigwada from burning at the bottom. Lower the heat.

Chidulo liquid

8.     After two and half hours, stir the Chigwada and remove it from the fire as it is ready to be served with nshima.

Critiquing the Cooked Chigwada

I ate and enjoyed the nshima with the cooked Chigwada. But the taste was nowhere close to how my grandmother and mother used to cook it. Fist I need to determine which crop stalk has the strongest chidulo. Is the chidulo from the dry groundnut leaves, banana leaves, bean leaves or maize visokoto or vigamu and any other, the strongest? I could not find a flat stable surface for the sensitive scale I was using. This might sound simple. I could not find a small foldable table in Lusaka after going to so many shops.

Cooking the cassava leaves with raw fresh nthendelo or peanut powder

My grandmother and my mother used a clay pot for cooking. This may make a difference. I think the Chigwada needs very slow deep cooking. Metal pots are not always the best way to cook all foods. Adding more water when cooking the Chigwada dilutes the chidulo which needs to have a sharp acidic taste at its best. Chidulo is not just a flavoring to the Chigwada but it is a central ingredient that tremendously defines the characteristic taste. It is a uniquely Zambian taste embedded in traditional cooking among the Tumbuka.

Nshima served with chigwada and kapenta fish.

What was best about the cooking experiment is that we had all the basic tools. When we repeat or replicate the cooking, my team and I will only improve and get better. This is the central feature of any scientific approach.


Types of Nshima


Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

Emeritus Professor of Sociology

For 19 million Zambians in Southern Africa, nshima and what it stands for is the very basis of life. Nshima is the staple food eaten by not only Zambians but Malawians and many other African neighbors. Almost all 72 tribes and indigenous African languages in Zambia probably call nshima by a different name according to the specific area language and dialect variation. The Chewa, Tumbuka, and Ngoni of Eastern Zambia and Malawi call it sima or nsima, the Bemba of Northern Zambia call it ubwali, the Tonga of Southern Zambia call it insima and Lozi of Western Zambia call it buhobe.

This is the most commom nshima cooked from maize white refined breakfast mealie meal. There are other types of less common nshima from sorghum, cassava flour, and finger millet.

There is a saying that Eskimos who live in the frozen north pole may have many different definitions of snow. This reality of having so many definitions may be true for people who live in the desert and how they define sand or people who live on sea islands and how they may define types of fish, for example. This reality is true for nshima in Zambian culture.

In traditional villages in rural Zambia, nshima has many types and states. There is nshima that is cooked from cassava meal (sima ya chikhau or chinangwa), sorghum meal (sima ya mapila or chidomba), finger millet meal (sima ya kambala), and sima of rice or mpunga. Potentially nshima can be cooked from any grain and tubers that can be ground into meal or flour. There is nshima that has lumps in it (sima ya mambontho). This nshima is often the result of hasty cooking and only young inexperienced girls, men, and novices are expected to make this mistake.

There is nshima yopola. This is nshima that has gotten lukewarm or cold because either it was cooked too early or eaters, guests, or diners delayed getting to the table. This nshima is rather hard and might even crumble as the eater tries to get a lump. There is nshima ya cimbala. This is nshima left over from the previous night. It is usually stone cold and wet from steam condensation overnight. Children are the only ones expected to eat this type of nshima sometimes for breakfast. Adult men are not advised to eat nshima ya cimbala as it is believed to cause weakness in the elbow joints and also likely to usurp a man’s sexual energy.

Nshima yibisi means raw nshima. This is the nshima that was badly and hastily cooked perhaps with a very weak flame due to inadequate firewood or impatience on the part of the woman or the cook. One extreme way of testing if the nshima is yibisi or not well cooked is to push one’s forefinger deep into the just cooked nshima on a plate like one would push a dipstick when determining oil level in an automobile engine. If the nshima is well cooked, the finger will hardly penetrate, as it will be too hot for the tester. But if the nshima is undercooked, the finger will penetrate all the way and the individual tester will hardly feel any discomfort.

There is nshima ya mugayiwa. This is nshima that is cooked from corn or maize that is not hand processed. It is corn meal ground directly from corn using a hammer mill. This type of nshima is darker and very coarse or rough. Many Zambians will only eat this as a sign of hardship, in an emergency, or if they are living in institutions like the boarding school, armed forces, or prison.

In extreme cases it might cause diarrhea because of too much roughage for those not accustomed to eating it.

There is nshima ya kambandila which is cooked from maize or corn meal that is made from corn that has hardly dried in the fields just before harvest. This is also often done in desperation as the family might have run out of corn or maize from the previous season’s harvest or vingoms va chomba.

Nshima cooked from yellow maize mealie meal.

Nshima yosoza refers to eating the nshima without the second dish; the relish. This again is an extremely tremendous sign of suffering if individuals have to resort to eating nshima without relish. This extreme case is rare as in most cases individuals who eat nshima yo soza are said to be careless. There is a learned skill in eating a large plate of nshima matched with often a smaller portion or serving of relish. One has to learn to match the rate of eating the nshima with the specific served portion of the relish. Going to the relish pot for some more is usually unacceptable or impractical. So, in the unfortunate situation of mismatching the rate of eating nshima and the relish, the individual might end up eating nshima yo soza

Nshima features very prominently in many other cultural aspects of the community. For example, a traditional healer or nga’nga will often prescribe that a patient gets the herb soaked from roots of a certain tree and use it for cooking nshima. The patient has to eat this type of nshima for two to three weeks to a month. This is true for a child who is being treated for childhood epilepsy or seizures for example. This type of nshima is known among the Tumbuka people as kasima ka mnkhwala or a tinny nshima cooked for medicinal purposes.

Types of Dende, Ndiyo, Ndiwo, Umunani or Relish


Mwizenge S. Tembo, Ph. D.

Emeritus Professor of Sociology

One of the most significant aspects of the Zambian staple meal by which the sima is ultimately identified with is what in English might be called the “relish”. The relish is an English somewhat poor equivalent or translation, which obviously, does not precisely reflect or capture what Zambians often realize is the very fundamental and transcending essence of the dish. The relish is a second dish that is always and without exception served with the sima. It has many indigenous equivalent names. Among the Tumbuka of Eastern Zambia it is known as dende, among the Ngoni and Chewa of Malawi and Eastern Zambia it is known as ndiyo or dende, and umunani among the Bemba speaking people of Northern Zambia and the Copperbelt Province.

Nshima with multiple ndiwo or dende. This is practiced among the urban middle and upper class.

The dende second dish which is always served with sima is often cooked from domestic and wild meats that include beef, goat, mutton, deer, buffalo, elephant, warthog, wild pig, mice, rabbits or hare, antelope, turtle, alligator or crocodile, monkey, chicken eggs. Green vegetables include domestic or garden grown like collard greens, known as rape in Zambia, cabbage, pumpkin and squash leaves, pea leaves, cassava leaves, bean leaves, kabata, nyazongwe, or bilozongwe leaves. There are numerous wild green vegetables that include katambalala, chekwechekwe, katate, lumanda, and numerous others, which are all, referred to by the very well known generic name of delele or thelele among people of Eastern Zambia and Malawi. There are anywhere from 20 to 30 of this group of thelele vegetables.

Because the delele and other groups of vegetables are always so plentiful and easily available in the natural environment, it is one dende that is frequently held in contempt. In rural Zambia the daily conversation will often focus on how difficult it is to get dende. Someone will invariably complain that they have been eating delele for three straight days. Since any type of meat protein is the most scarce, it is the most valued or desired. Infact there is a special term that is used for that irresistible desire or yearning for meat which is known as nkhuli in Eastern Zambia and Malawi.

Nshima with green vegetables cooked with peanut powder. This serving with one ndiwo is typical of rural people and working class urban people.

The pair of sima and dende is therefore the most significant Zambian meal. One is rarely possible without the other. The two are like Siamese twins, the left and the right hand, student and teacher, husband and wife, male and female or mitt and glove in American baseball parlance. Having one without the other is possible but is always regarded as a serious anomaly or oddity. If the cook induces the condition of eating sima or dende on its own, it would be regarded as lack of proper planning. If the diners induce the condition, they would be regarded as having poor judgement or being immature.

Other types of madende include fish, peanuts, peanut butter (chibwabwa or chimphonde), numerous types of wild mushrooms, and many varieties of beans and peas.

One excellent reason for why sima and dende always go together is that they complement each other. Sima eaten by itself is rather relatively plain and bland. Although if you are an experienced, seasoned, and traditional eater of the meal, the sima has its own subtle differences in taste and flavor depending on the type of mealie-meal and how it was cooked.

The most cherished meal is nshima with chicken.

In fact when Westerners who visit Zambia first eat sima their typical reaction is: “God, why don’t you add butter, sugar or something to give it some taste or flavor?” But that is exactly the beauty and deeply acquired taste and appreciation of sima in that it is the dende, dende or relish second dish that gives it the unique taste or deliciousness. The sima therefore accentuates the dende and the reverse is also true. Eating the sima by itself will fill the eater but without any taste ecstasy. Eating the dende by itself might be gratifying but the individual will not feel full or satiated. Eating sima by itself is known as kusoza among the Tumbuka people of Zambia. Kusinkha refers to eating dende or relish by itself.