Mozambique’s Unique African Fusion Cuisine Will Spice Up Your Life

Imagine, a tropical beach on an island or the mainland. You get to choose. The sea shimmering a translucent turquoise beneath a sun that rose and will set golden. In between, this same sun engenders sublime vacation lethargy, inviting you to recline in your deck chair, take regular dips in the gentlest ocean swells and when your thirst needs quenching, to sip on something icy.
When your appetite moves you, you wander to a casual beachfront eatery for locally caught prawns, calamari, fresh line fish, flattened chicken or a snack of chicken livers or chicken giblets.

Whatever you choose will typically first be marinated in a specially prepared mix that includes lemon juice, garlic and freshly picked and pounded peri-peri chili peppers (African Bird’s Eye), which can range from mild to wickedly hot, depending (according to personal experimentation) on how ripe (or red) the chilies are when picked.

Once the marinade has infused its magic, what you will eat is grilled (sometimes with olive oil and more garlic) and then served with rice or chips (fries), wedges of fresh lemon and Portuguese rolls.

Speaking of Mozambique and the rolls, “We camped on the beach for a week, living off fresh fish the fellows with us caught,” a friend told me recently. “Then each day, these local guys would arrive on the beach with a tray. Underneath a bit of cloth were these steaming, heavy but extraordinarily tasty Portuguese rolls. I asked one day if I could go and see where they were being made. I was bundled onto the back of a rusty truck and driven to this really primitive hut in the bush where they were baking over a fire. Yeast was fermenting in a bath with chickens running round it.”

Seeing this primitive, informal bakery putting out delicious bread rolls inspired my friend to go home and start making bread.

Peri-peri — The Spice of Life

Beach, vacation, relaxing holidays, local bakers and cooks — and the distinctive flavor of peri-peri — are what my heart, mind and taste buds yearn for when I think of Mozambique. And you will find versions of the foods described, ranging in preparation and presentation from sophisticated to basic, at the legendary Polana Hotel in capital city Maputo (in colonial times Lourenço Marques); in resort restaurants on islands such as Bazaruto and Magaruque; on menus in upscale and down-home city eateries; and at tiny roadside joints and beach shacks up and down the extensive Indian Ocean coastline of this impoverished, independent African country (since 1975), busy rebuilding its tourism industry after years of being in a slump.

Colonized in 1505 by Portugal, Mozambique’s official language is Portuguese. One positive legacy of colonization I reckon few would dispute is the country’s unique and delicious African fusion cuisine, known simply as “local cuisine” in Mozambique and as “colonial Portuguese” in South Africa and other neighboring countries that serve it up.

From their Asian colonies the Portuguese brought oranges, lemons and limes. From Brazil, their colony in South America, they brought peppers, corn, tomatoes, pineapples, bananas and the domesticated pig. They also brought chilies, including a hot little chili that originated in South America that today is known as the African Bird’s Eye or African Red Devil.

Survival and the Perfect Prawn

During a lunch yesterday, while nibbling on Mozambique-style peri-peri prawns, our host commented that anyone who does not have stories to share should get a life. Conversely, anyone who has stories and doesn’t share them is selfish.

OK. So let me share. Just one. I will keep the others for later.

My first Mozambique memory had nothing to do with peri-peri chilies. Or idling time away on pristine beaches. I am about 10 years old, staying at a campsite in the former Lourenço Marques. There’s my mom, my dad, my grandmother and me. At night we sleep on a line of camper beds, squeezed into the family’s small green canvas tent. Camping like this is my father’s idea of an adventure that we get to suffer once a year.

Some of the cooler kids from school who went on holiday to Mozambique would come back with stories of parties. Never of parents. Oh, how I envied them.

Some of the really cool kids — such as Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of Senator John Kerry — were in fact from Mozambique. There were a few of them. Oh so European and sophisticated compared to us. And yes, she preceded me by more than a dozen years and I never met her. But she was a boarder at the same Durban school and in the interests of storytelling, I’m dropping her name.

Looking back, I guess I was lucky. I learned how to cook (or, rather, not overcook) prawns while on two holidays wishing I wasn’t at that campsite in Mozambique.

My dad would go to the market each morning and come back with a huge bag of what in the U.S. people call shrimp; in Africa they are prawns. He would boil water and salt in a large pot on a primus stove, fueled by paraffin (kerosene) lit with a match. He would watch the water come to a boil, drop in the prawns, and after not much more than 30 seconds and I’m sure less than a minute, remove the pot and pour off the water. The prawns would have turned from whitish to pink. We’d let them cool, pull off the skins and the heads, dip them in mayonnaise and have a feast. You overcook by a second or two, you’ll get mush or leather, depending on the size of the prawn.

Why President Mandela Eats Garlic

You probably know that Nelson Mandela is married to a Mozambican woman, politician and humanitarian Graça Machel. When they tied the knot in July 1998, he was divorced from Winnie. She was widowed. Samora Machel, her late husband, led Mozambique from independence in 1975 until his death in 1986, when his presidential aircraft crashed in the mountains where the borders of Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa converge. At the time, apartheid still ruled in South Africa and while pilot error was blamed, many suspected dark forces of apartheid were somehow involved.

In marrying then-President Mandela, Machel — who is fluent in Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian, English and her native Tsonga — became the only woman in the world to have been the “First Lady” of two different countries.

I wonder if she has ever found the time to cook for her famous South African husband. If she does, I wonder if she has cooked him peri-peri. Google, source of all knowledge, was not able to tell me this. I did learn, however, that Machel was responsible for garlic becoming a key ingredient in dishes made for “Papa,” as she often calls her husband according to Xoliswa Ndoyiya, Mandela’s personal chef since 1992.

If I find out more about peri-peri and the Mandela-Machel menu, I will let you know. But meanwhile, try some of the recipes below. And add Mozambique to your travel bucket list.

Click on the links below to see a map of Mozambique and for recipes.

  1. Try wok-fried calamari with mango and toasted almonds as served on Benguerra Island.
  2. Try Chef Emeril Lagasse’s American-style Mozambican fried okra with shrimp if you fancy a taste of local flavor before you set off on your grand tour.
  3. LM Prawns (jumbo shrimp). Click the link for the recipe plus some history and color.
  4. For a good summer dessert try this papaya and egg yolk pudding, or Ovos Moles de Papaia.
  5. See a map and the cities of Mozambique here.

Photo credit:  Wanda Hennig. Main picture shows Simon Ncoshe and peri-peri prawns at Bud’s on The Bay . Other people pictures, from Bud’s and Prawn Shak. . Plus peri-peri prawns, peri-peri chicken and African Bird’s Eye chilies on the branch.

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.