Eating and drinking in Namibia
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Eating and drinking in Namibia can be a real pleasure, especially for carnivores, as the country has a reputation for excellent meat, and game meat in particular. On the coast too, the Benguela Current ensures an ample selection of fresh fish. Though locally grown vegetables and fruit are harder to come by, the large supermarkets in the main towns stock plenty of imported fruit and vegetables from South Africa.
Most visitors will never get to taste the sort of food eaten by the vast majority of the population, which varies according to location, ethnic group and season, but whose staple is usually sorghum or pearl millet made into a thick porridge – oshifima, oshimbombo, to give just two names. The Herero and Himba in particular often mix sour milk (omaere) with the porridge, which in turn may be eaten with wild or dried spinach (ombidi or ekaka) or other vegetables, and sometimes meat or chicken. Head for Soweto market in Katutura, though, and you’ll easily come across the popular street food kapana – bite-sized strips of red meat sizzled on the grill then dipped in a chilli, tomato and onion sauce; they go well with the ubiquitous fat cakes – deep-fried balls of dough, which are surprisingly tasty if eaten straight from the pan.
For most tourists, though Namibian cuisine is about venison, or game meat: you’re just as likely to see springbok, kudu and oryx laid out on your plate as you are to spot them springing across the road. At the coast, seafood is abundant: kabeljou, kingclip, hake, sole and lobster are popular, while Namibian oysters are garnering an international reputation. If staying by the Zambezi and Kavango rivers, you can count on some tasty tigerfish, tilapia and bream. Being the most fertile regions of the country, they also produce more vegetables and fruit than elsewhere in Namibia: check out the market and roadside stalls for monkey orange (maguni), Kavango litchi (makwevo), bird plum (eembe) and marula – as used to make the cream liqueur Amarula.
What is most commonly billed as “Namibian cuisine” is usually heavily influenced by German culinary traditions. Expect to spot Wiener schnitzel and spätzle (thick egg noodles) on menus, and rolls (brötchen) and calorific cakes laden with cream in coffee shops in Windhoek, Swakopmund and Lüderitz. Similarly, no camping trip to Namibia is complete without that Afrikaaner institution, the braai (it rhymes with “dry”), or BBQ, on which you need to toss a hefty coil of boerewors (farmer’s sausage), large steaks and sosaties (lamb or mutton kebabs), to be washed down with gallons of beer. Potjies (stews cooked in a three-legged metal pot – traditionally over a few coals) are also popular.
Vegetarians will have a tougher time; although there are almost always a couple of vegetarian options on restaurant menus, they rarely stray much beyond a plateful of roasted vegetables or a mushroom risotto.
Tap water is generally very safe in Namibia, even though the taste varies. It is especially pure when it comes from lodge or farm boreholes. That said, bottled water is widely available, though as an alternative you might consider bringing water purifying tablets with you – these days sold with neutralizing tablets to take away the aftertaste – to help alleviate the huge amount of plastic waste generated by getting through multiple bottles of water each day.
Fresh fruit juice is really only available in the lusher Zambezi and Kavango regions – seek out, for example, the delicious sabdariffa juice, made from wild hibiscus flowers. But cans and cartons of the South African brands of Ceres and Liquifruit, which contain 100 percent fruit juice without additional sugar, are not bad substitutes and are widely stocked in shops, supermarkets and petrol stations. Coke and all the usual fizzy beverages are widespread, though you might try the popular, refreshing, near-enough non-alcoholic rock shandy, consisting of half lemonade, half soda water or sparkling water, a slice of lemon and a dash of Angostura bitters.
Namibia’s Teutonic heritage has ensured that good coffee is widely available in towns and lodges; a cup of tea is equally easy to come by, including the popular herbal rooibos (or redbush) tea. You may need to specify cold milk with your tea, as the default way to drink tea in South Africa is with hot milk.
Probably the most widely appreciated German colonial legacy, however, is Namibia’s beer, made according to Bavarian purity laws, resulting in the excellent Windhoek Lager, Tafel Lager and the premium Windhoek Draught. Namibia Breweries also produces a winter bock beer, Urbock, as well as a number of other beers under licence. Namibia’s desert landscape is not ideal for viticulture, yet amazingly the country possesses a few small wineries, most notably the Neuras Winery, 80km from Sesriem, which produces several reds, and Kristall Kellerei outside Omaruru, which also produces an award-winning Nappa (Namibian grappa), and a tasty gin from its distillery by Naute Dam near Keetmanshoop. Cheaper and more established South African wines are widely available; you can pick up a drinkable bottle of wine for under N$80. Note that alcohol isn’t sold after 1pm on Saturdays in either supermarkets or bottle stores (off licences). Licensing hours are Monday to Friday 9am–7pm, Saturday 8am–1pm. Of course, there are plenty of shebeens selling their own, much cheaper and more potent tipple at any time of day and night: oshikundu (made from fermented millet and drunk the same day) or mataku (watermelon wine), for example.
Namibia has a few standout seasonal delicacies you should take the opportunity to sample. Kalahari truffles – known as ||nabba or mafumpula locally – are dug out of the desert sands of eastern Namibia after the rains in April/May, and used to flavour sauces and soups. Omajava – tasty giant wild mushrooms – are plucked from the bases of termite mounds from late January to March, when they are occasionally available from roadside stalls. Swakopmund asparagus (Sept–May) is another favourite, possessing a distinctive flavour due to being grown in brackish water.
The culinary rite of passage for many tourists, though, is the chance to tuck into a bowl of mopane worms (omagungu in Oshiwambo), something you are only likely to want to do once. Harvested across northern Namibia (and indeed in other parts of Africa) from February to April, they are actually the caterpillars of emperor moths that gain their name from the fact they are found in mopane trees. Highly nutritious, they are dried and sold as crispy snacks, or cooked in a variety of ways. Still, no amount of frying in onion and tomato can disguise their bulging heads and prickly legs; nor does the knowledge that they are packed with protein make them any easier for the unpractised to swallow.