Tanzania has over 100 tribes residing peacefully across the country’s splendid highlands, coastlines, and vast plains. Two of those tribes, the Chagga and the Iraqw, are known for hearty, filling stews that highlight two of Tanzania’s most abundant crops — bananas and maize.
The Chagga hail from the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro and are often associated with growing, selling, and cooking bananas. Tanzania has an array of banana varieties; from red and green bananas to the finger-sized “sukari” (sugar) bananas, which grow in small bunches. There are even enormous bananas nicknamed “the Tusk of the Elephant.” Bananas are a staple ingredient all over Tanzania, but especially for the Chagga tribe. Not only do they eat them plain, but bananas are also brewed into beer and used as the base for hearty stews. One of the most beloved of these stews is ndizi nyama. In Swahili, the name of the dish means bananas (or plantains) with meat.
Meanwhile, the Iraqw tribe live in the northern Ngorongoro Highlands where they farm maize (corn), beans, and sunflowers; herd cattle; and live in close relationship to the natural environment. A common Iraqw dish is the single-pot makande, a simple, but satisfying stew of beans and corn.
These two stews reveal that traditional Tanzanian cooking is hands on and communal. In these dishes, simple but nutritious ingredients take precedence. If you love food that provides warmth and comfort, you’re going to love these Tanzanian stews. Here’s everything you need to know about ndizi nyama and makande.
The main ingredients in traditional ndizi nyama are beef, green bananas, and coconut milk. Tanzania grows a host of sweet bananas best eaten fresh and ripe, but cooked green bananas offer an unexpected eating experience. Unripe bananas are green, firm, and smaller in size than their ripe relatives. Despite the name, meat is optional for this stew. While it commonly features chunks of beef with the bananas, another version (pictured) from northwest Tanzania uses fish. Omitting meat altogether makes this meal completely vegan.
Onions, pureed tomatoes, and minced garlic are the base of ndizi nyama. The savory flavors of potatoes and hearty meat are balanced out by sweet shredded carrots and creamy coconut milk. After an initial boil, the stew simmers in fresh coconut milk for at least 30 minutes, until the bananas and potatoes are easily pierced with a fork.
Ndizi nyama is best eaten with slices of fresh avocado, the bright green fruit adding a nice touch with the light brown stew. The flavor combination of stewed beef with coconut milk is a surprisingly complementary mix of savory and sweet, meaty and creamy. The starchy cooked bananas stand out against the smooth, boiled potatoes and make for a uniquely African stew.
How to make it
When roasted, fried or boiled green bananas have a starchiness that surpasses a potato and are similar to cassava and other root vegetables. When boiled in a stew, green bananas don’t resemble a sweet fruit at all. They are cooked until tender, but not mushy, and soak up the flavors around them.
Ndizi nyama is a meal of contribution: Many hands assist in stripping the stiff peel from green bananas, while others peel potatoes and help crack and shred the flesh of a whole coconut to make the fresh milk.
Peeling the green bananas for ndizi nyama usually takes a group effort, performed outdoors and around several pots or buckets. The thick and firm banana peel is not difficult to cut away in long strips, but removing it exposes a glue-like substance that quickly builds on the hands of anyone touching the bananas. Knives and fingers alike become gummy from this sticky substance. It is frustrating to wash off and makes any other kitchen tasks — such as preparing the coconut or peeling potatoes — a mess. The trick to avoiding this banana peel glue is to coat one’s hands lightly in cooking oil before peeling.
The Iraqw tribe resides in northern Tanzania, not far from the famous Ngorongoro Crater and historic Olduvai Gorge. Most Iraqw families grow their own food in fields around their homes and in backyard gardens. Two of the major crops grown and sold for business by the Iraqw are maize and soybeans. The rural landscape features green fields with tall corn stalks. Short bean plants peek out between each stalk to save space in the fields.
Maize grown in Tanzania differs from its sweet, bright yellow American relative. This East African variety is mostly white, less flavorful and with a harder consistency. While the United States’ corn may be called “juicy,” Tanzanian corn is heartier and drier. Most of the corn grown in Tanzania is milled for flour, and the harder kernels are well suited for grinding.
However, makande is one dish that features boiled corn kernels, rather than the milled flour. This basic stew has simple ingredients — maize and beans — and is slow-cooked in a clay pot over an open fire to create a deep flavor. Makande is a comfort food. It might not be exciting in terms of flavor and ingredients, but it is filling. A steaming bowl of fresh makande provides a friendly warmth on a rainy Tanzanian day.
How to make it
The very best makande is made with freshly harvested maize, kernels removed from the cob and washed with ashes, which helps the casing around the kernel fall away. A second wash ensures no ashes end up in the stew. Once that process is finished, the kernels are ready to be cooked.
The maize is slow-cooked with soybeans for at least four hours until tender. Diced onions, green pepper, and shredded carrots add a bit of color to the dish. The ingredients are combined, sprinkled with salt, and left to simmer.
While this dish can be made in a regular large pot over a gas or electric stove, the traditional method of cooking makande in a clay pot imbues the stew with an earthy flavor. The beauty of this single-pot meal lies in its simplicity. It doesn’t require much time or attention, except an occasional stir to avoid sticking to the bottom of the pot.
If you’re visiting Tanzania, a bowl of this simple stew will work the magic of comfort food. Eating this East African “chili” is sure to make you feel right at home.