Food and drink in Zambia
Zambia's native cuisine is based on nshima
, a cooked porridge made from ground maize. (In Zimbabwe this is sadza
, in South Africa mealie-pap
.) This is usually made thin, perhaps with sugar, for breakfast, then eaten thicker – the consistency of mashed potatoes – for lunch and dinner. For these main meals it will normally be accompanied by some tasty relish, perhaps made of meat and tomatoes, or dried fish.
You should taste this at some stage when visiting. Safari camps will often prepare it if requested, and it is always available in small restaurants in the towns. Often these will have only three items on the menu: nshima
and chicken; nshima
and meat; and nshima
and fish – and they can be very good.
Camps, hotels and lodges that cater to overseas visitors will serve a very international fare, and the quality of food prepared in the most remote bushcamps amazes visitors. Coming to Zambia on safari your biggest problem with food is likely to be the temptation to eat too much.
If you are driving yourself around and plan to cook, then get most of your supplies in Lusaka or the larger towns. Shoprite stores have revolutionised what's available, and really have all that you will need. Away from Shoprite, in the smaller towns, availability is limited to products which are popular locally. These include bread, flour, rice, soups and various tinned vegetables, meats, and fish. This is fine for nutrition, but you may get bored with the selection in a week or two.
Like most countries in the region, Zambia has two distinct beer types: clear and opaque. Most visitors and more affluent Zambians drink the clear beers
, which are similar to European lagers and always served chilled. Mosi, Castle and Rhino are the lagers brewed by South African Breweries' Zambian subsidiaries. They are widely available and usually good. There is one craft brewery in Zambia which makes Dr. Livingstone's Lager, Zikomo Copper Ale, Safari Stout and Baobab White, which is brewed with the fruit from the baobab tree.
Note that all beer produced in Zambia has a deposit on its bottles, like those of soft drinks. The contents will cost about US$0.80/Kw4,000 from a shop, or about US$1.30/Kw8,000 in a hotel bar. Imported lagers such as Windhoek, Holsten and Amstel will cost almost double this.
Less affluent Zambians usually opt for some form of the opaque beer
(sometimes called Chibuku, after the market-leading brand). This is a commercial version of traditional beer, usually brewed from maize and/or sorghum. It's a sour, porridge-like brew, an acquired taste. Costing around US$0.40/Kw2,000 for a litre carton, it is much cheaper than lager. Locals will sometimes buy a bucket of it, and then pass this around a circle of drinkers. It would be unusual for a visitor to drink this, so try some and amuse your Zambian companions.
Remember that traditional opaque beer changes flavour as it ferments and you can often ask for 'fresh beer' or 'strong beer'. If you aren't sure about the bar's hygiene standards, stick to the pre-packaged brands of opaque beer like Chibuku, Chinika, Golden, Chipolopolo or Mukango.
About cigarettes and beerWillard Nakutonga and Judi Helmholz
There are several types of beer or Mooba (meaning 'beer' in Nyanja) produced in Zambia. Mosi lager is a bottled beer reflecting the local name for Victoria Falls – 'Mosi Oa Tunya
', meaning the 'Smoke that Thunders'. It is one of the most popular beers in Zambia. Rhino lager is another bottled beer, produced and distributed throughout Zambia. You can ask for it by saying 'Nifuna mooba wa Rhino
' – 'I want Rhino beer'.
Chibuku or Shake-Shake is a much cheaper, opaque beer. Resembling an alcoholic milkshake, it is an acquired taste and a favourite amongst more traditional and less affluent Zambians.
Kachusu is the name for the main illicit beer – akin to 'moonshine'. It is brewed in villages or at shebeens, and it is wise never to agree to drink this. Not only is it illegal, so you may be arrested for just drinking it, but it may also damage your liver and kidneys.
Cigarettes, or fwaka
in Nyanja, can be purchased almost anywhere. In local markets, you can find big bins of raw tobacco, or tobacco shavings, on sale for those who like to roll their own. The most popular brand available in Zambia is Peter Stuyvesant, affectionately referred to as 'Peters'. Don't even think about trying mbanje or dagga (marijuana); if you're arrested there is no bail, and the penalty is five years in prison with hard labour.
Soft drinks are available everywhere, which is fortunate when the temperatures are high. Choices are often limited, though the ubiquitous Coca-Cola is usually there and the price is usually around US$0.30/Kw1,500 – perhaps a little cheaper in a supermarket, and a little more in a decent café. Diet drinks are rarely seen in the rural areas – which is no surprise for a country where malnutrition is a problem.
Try to buy up at least one actual bottle (per person) in a city before you go travelling: it will be invaluable. Because of the cost of bottle production, and the 'deposit' system (typically around US$0.30/Kw1,500 per bottle), you will often be unable to buy full bottles of soft drinks in the rural areas without swapping them for empty ones in return. The alternative is to stand and drink the contents where you buy a drink, and leave the empty behind you. This is fine, but can be inconvenient if you have just dashed in for a drink while your bus stops for a few minutes.
Water in the main towns is usually purified, provided there are no shortages of chlorine, breakdowns, or other mishaps. The locals drink it, and are used to the relatively innocuous bugs that it may harbour. If you are in the country for a long time, then it may be worth acclimatising yourself to it – though be prepared for some days spent near a toilet. However, if you are in Zambia for just a few weeks, then try to drink only bottled, boiled, or treated water in town – otherwise you will get stomach upsets.
Out in the bush, most of the camps and lodges use water from bore-holes. These underground sources vary in quality, but are normally free from bugs so the water is perfectly safe to drink. Sometimes it is sweet, at other times a little alkaline or salty. Ask the locals if it is suitable for an unacclimatised visitor to drink, then take their advice.
Tipping is a difficult and contentious topic – worth thinking about carefully. I'm told that it's illegal in Zambia, but the reality is that it is done widely and often expected, though the amounts are generally moderate.
Ask locally what's appropriate; here I can only give rough guidance. Helpers with baggage might expect US$0.50, whilst sorting out a problem with a reservation would be US$1-3. Restaurants will often add an automatic service charge to the bill, in which case an additional tip is not usually given. If they do not do this, then 10% would certainly be appreciated if the service was good.
At safari camps, tipping is not obligatory – despite the assumption from some visitors that it is. If a guide has given you really good service then a tip of about US$5-8 per day per guest would be a generous reflection of this. If the service hasn't been that good, then don't tip.
Always tip at the end of your stay, not at the end of each day or activity. Do not tip after every game drive. This leads to the guides only trying hard when they know there's a tip at the end of the morning. Such camps aren't pleasant to visit and this isn't the way to encourage top-quality guiding. It's best to wait until the end of your stay, and then give what you feel is appropriate in one lump sum.
However, before you do this find out if tips go into one box for all of the camp staff, or if the guides are treated differently. Ask the managers as you're about to leave. Then ensure that your tip reflects this – with perhaps as much again divided between the rest of the staff.