Ugali and Mchicha (Tanzania)
The national dish of Tanzania, if there is one, is ugali, which is basically a very simple form of polenta. You add cornmeal to hot water, cook until it thickens into a solid dough, and then use it to eat with a vegetable stew. When sharing a meal, people will make one big bowl of ugali that everyone can grab pieces that they then dip into their own bowls.
Since ugali literally tastes like nothing, the key is to be able to eat it with something delicious. For that the Tanzanians give you mchicha, also known as amaranth, a green that’s a lot like spinach and cooked with garlic, onion and tomatoes, or with peanuts in a coconut curry sauce.
This is simple stuff, and totally doable at home, if you’d like a taste before you go. You’ll want to start with the mchicha, because it takes longer. Since you likely can’t get actual mchicha at your fancy western grocery store, use spinach instead.
For the ugali, I would recommend using the finest cornmeal you can find. I used American corn meal, and it was fine, but I bet if you used masa harina, you will be happy.
4 cups finely ground cornmeal
2 lbs spinach (or other green)
1 1⁄2 ounces peanut butter (I used sunflower seed butter for allergy reasons)
1 tomato (It’s winter, so I used half a can)
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 cup coconut milk
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
Chop the onion and sauté it in the butter over medium heat.
Add the tomato and curry powder, stir and let it cook for five minutes or until the onion is soft.
Then add the peanut butter and coconut milk, stirring well to combine. Make sure it’s all integrated.
Bring back up to a boil and let it simmer, reducing until the sauce is on the thick side.
While that reduces, boil 6 cups of water in a large saucepan.
Slowly pour in 4 cups of cornmeal (as finely ground as you can get), while stirring.
Keep stirring - you want it as thick as possible, like thicker than mashed potatoes.
Keep cooking and stirring for about 6 minutes. Set aside.
Add your greens to the onion/tomato mixture - they will cook down quickly.
Season to taste and spoon over the ugali (or rice if you prefer).
Thicker greens will take longer. I used baby spinach, and it was done before you could say Ngorongoro. Next time, I'd try something more robust like chard or kale.
A simple, healthy Tanzanian meal. Just like our great great great great great …. you get the idea… grandfathers might have made. Except that not really, since cornmeal comes from the Americas, but you get the idea.
Photo by Drew Vahrenkamp