Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town, South Africa
Serving it up at Manenberg Primary!

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Meat and Sweet: Welcome to Namibian Food Culture

Hi everyone! I didn't realize that this blogpost never published online (I suppose that's Namibian wifi for ya!), so it is a little outdated/distant from where I am in Bangkok, Thailand. Enjoy!
Good afternoon! I hope you are well, wherever you are in the world. I’m currently working and basking in the delightful Swakopmund sun. Swakopmund is a coastal, highly German-influenced “city” in Namibia. When you read about the population size of Namibia, you’ll see why the term “city” is a bit loose.

In earlier blog posts, I delved into the concept of food culture. If you need a refresher, feel free to take a look.

I spent a lot of time in London before coming to Namibia, and didn’t take much notice to the food culture of the UK; it seemed very similar to that of the United States, in that it has two distinct characteristics: an emerging health food culture that is juxtaposed with a highly processed fast food culture.

Image result for school dinners united kingdom fish n chips

Namibia’s food culture is quite distinct; I picked up on it in the first few days. I’ll explain it below, but first want to point out an interesting point of difference between European food culture and Namibian food culture as it pertains to school lunch programs. European food cultures are clearly prevalent in their school lunch programs. For example, Italian school lunches are pasta-heavy as a reflection of Italy’s food culture, London’s food culture (see picture above) - Europe’s food culture translates into the daily meals served in school feeding programs. What you see citizens eating, you’ll likely see it in the lunchroom.

In contrast, Namibia’s food culture does not translate to the meal program. To maximize the number of children being fed, Namibian school meals consist of a fortified maize blend. While community members can contribute extra food to school meals, the only food being served is this maize blend.  

This brings up the thought: if the Namibian school feeding program could expand to incorporate other foods besides the fortified maize blend (called “mealie meal”), will the meals reflect its food culture? I guess only the future will tell!

Namibian Food Culture

In two simple words, Namibian food culture is meat and sweet.

Meat in Namibia
Meat is the staple of Namibian cuisine. I’ve met many Namibians who say that a meal is incomplete without meat. The most common way to cook meat in Namibia is to braai it - that is, to barbecue it with delicious spices.

Image result for braai
Braai = similar to American BBQ

Not only is meat very important to the Namibian diet, but specific meats are prioritized over others. Lamb and beef are preferred to the extent that I heard a Namibian say that chicken isn’t considered meat.

Of this meat section, I would say 80% of the meat section is beef or lamb.

[This section doesn’t even include the butcher section! I took another photo of the full length meat section, but could't find the photo for some reason. Needless to say, this wasn't the whole meat section. In comparison to American grocery stores, the prevalence of meat in Namibian grocery stores (in my opinion) is much higher than in America.]

No vegetables? Namibians definitely eat vegetables. However, every time I ate with Namibians, we braaied. My only hypothesis for the high prioritization of meat (rather than the typical assumptions, more protein, it tastes better, etc.) is that meat is slightly cheaper and more readily available. Since so much of the country is desert, Namibia imports most of its produce from South Africa. This drives up the cost of produce, making it less appealing than meat. For example, a package of ground beef is similar in price to a large bag of apples. In contrast, farming cattle is quite common in Namibia. You’ll commonly see cows dotted along the highways and nomadic shepherds traveling with their goat herds.

---- A quick tangent: I’ve been pondering the role of “food presence” in food culture recently, due to Namibia’s strong preference to meat. A question for further inquiry: If an individual sees a specific food in society more than another, does that food’s presence influence the individual’s diets? Many Namibian children see cattle daily, and they eat cattle daily. If the Namibian landscape was painted with fields of crops, would that influence the amount of vegetables a Namibian eats? Research shows that if a child grows up in a smoking environment, they are much more likely to smoke as an adult. Does this extend to the presence of food in an individual’s environment, too?

Sweet, sweet Namibia

The amount of candy was overwhelming. I scoured the sweet section for a dark chocolate bar (in which the cocoa content is 50+ percent, meaning that cocoa should be the first ingredient on the ingredient list). I could not find a single bar that had cocoa as the first ingredient - sugar was always first!

[Even savoury snacks contained sugar!]

Food and drink in Namibia are unnecessarily sweet. The peanut butter, yogurts, juices, even chips have sugar in them. Cans of sweet corn are even sweetened with sugar! I have no theories as to why foods are so sweet. There are a few recognizable brands (Doritos, Cadbury, Milka), but definitely more brands I’ve never seen before. So, I don’t think the American sugar industry has a significant stake in Namibia. I’ll keep you updated, I’ll ask around as to why sweet foods are so common!

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