This dish is eaten widely across Africa where it has different local names:
- Nshima or ubwali - Zambia
- Nsima - Malawi
- Sadza - Zimbabwe
- Chima - Mozambique
- Ugali - Kenya, Malawi & Mozambique (Yao language), Tanzania (also called ngima in Kenya, and nguna in Tanzania)
- Poshto - Uganda
- Ubugali - Rwanda
- Bugali - DR Congo
- Meliepap/Pap - South Africa
- Tuozafi (or t.z) - Ghana
- Saab - Upper West Region of Ghana
- Sakoro - Northern Ghana
- Sakora - Northern Nigeria
- Couscous de Cameroon - Cameroon
Maize was introduced to Africa from the Americas between 16th and 17th century. Prior to this, sorghum and millet were the principal cereals in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. Maize was readily accepted by African farmers as its cultivation was very similar to that of sorghum but with significantly higher yields. Eventually maize displaced sorghum as the primary cereal in all but the drier regions. In Malawi they have a saying 'chimanga ndi moyo' which translates to 'maize is life'. Nshima/nsima is still sometimes made from sorghum flour though it is quite uncommon to find this. Cassava, which was also introduced from the Americas, can also be used to make nshima/nsima, either exclusively or mixed with maize flour. In Malawi nsima made from cassava (chinangwa) is localised to the lakeshore areas, however when maize harvests are poor cassava nsima can be found all over the country.
The maize flour is first boiled with water into a porridge. It is then 'paddled', to create a thick paste with the addition of more flour. This process requires the maker to pull the thick paste against the side of a pot with a flat wooden spoon (called an ntiko) quickly whilst it continues to sit over the heat. Once cooked the resulting nshima/nsima is portioned using a wooden spoon dipped in water or coated in oil called a chipande, each of these portions is called an ntanda.
Nshima is almost always eaten with two side dishes, known as "relishes": a protein source: meat, poultry, fish, groundnuts (peanuts), beans; and a vegetable, often rape leaves, pumpkin leaves, amaranth leaves, mustard leaves or cabbage. The protein sides are known as Ndiyo or Umunani (Zambia) or Ndiwo (Malawi), and the vegetable sides are known as masambaor "umuto wankondwa" in Zambia. In Malawi, this is often accompanied with hot peppers or condiments like homemade hot pepper sauces from peri-peri or Kambuzi chilli peppers or commercial chilli sauces like Nali Sauce.
Eating customs and etiquette
Traditionally diners sit around a table or on the floor surrounding the meal. The diners have to wash their hands as nshima/nsima is eaten with bare hands. This is done with a bowl of water. Alternatively the host or one of the younger people present pours water from a jug over the hands of the elders or guests into a bowl. Eating is done by taking a small lump into ones right palm, rolling it into ball and dipping it into the relish. An indentation in the ball can be made to help scoop the relish or soup. As with many African traditions, age is very important. Washing before the meal, eating, and washing after the meal generally starts with the oldest person, followed by everyone else in turn by age.