Food for thought: Dried fish

Fried fish is a staple food in Malawi, East Africa. Zeshalyn Capindo / Unsplash

By: Nercya Kalino, editor

Growing up in Malawi, East Africa, dried fish was not my favourite. Now, as an adult, I’ve developed a nostalgic longing for it – I even miss the smell of it. There’s something about dried, fried, roasted and baked fish that brings me back to my childhood days. I remember sitting by the burning charcoal with my mother constantly calling from the kitchen if I was watching the pot. This took time for me to distinguish between different types of fish, cooking methods, and the variety of flavors profiles. Whether these are small, long curly fish or sun blackened fish, they all have a traditional way of cooking them to amplify the taste preserved from the drying process.

I love small dried fish of usipa, which look like sardines. Its spiciness reminds me of my childhood when I squirmed in front of the lifeless creature on the plate. The fish would be piled on one side of the plate with other traditional foods such as nsima and bean stew. Looking back on the dishes of my childhood, it’s oddly not the finest meals my mother cooked, but rather the food I neglected to eat as a child that I miss the most.

I trust my mother’s hands when it comes to preparing dried fish because handling it requires a higher level of experience. Historically, we used tanks to lay the fish in the sun with the number of days according to the type of fish. These methods have since evolved towards fish farmers using solar energy in greenhouses to make the drying process healthier and more efficient. I also like dried fish because of the fish farmers which depend on the fish drying process and marketing for profit. In Malawi, fish farmers dry the fish to extend the selling period.

Dried fish varies in the price due to its size and seasonal rarity, but for the most part dried fish is affordable. Dried fish is more of a traditional dish than a snack, depending on the type. The smell of these fishkampango, kapenta and usipa) is distinct for fish lovers and is central to Malawi’s food culture. In Malawi, cambo Iis very popular with tourists because it species of fish is tender, tastes great fried, simmered and roasted – it never disappoints.

Dried fish is also present in other cultures of African descent. The simultaneous intersection and diversity of ingredients and preparation methods across cultures is something I have come to appreciate. In Malawian culture and among other southeastern countries, they or they normally cook dried fish like kapenta by soaking and gutting the small fish you fry with little oil. In West African cultures, they use dried fish as part of a larger stew of meat and vegetables such as banga.

Dried fish is now a distant memory, as I only eat it when I visit home. Back home, buying fish is also a culturally immersive experience. Some of the fish used are also accessible here, but for prepare and cook it in the same way is a challenge. Anyway, I would really like to learn how to cook it from my mother one day.

Dried fish falls on the side of culinary experiences which I believe tourists are not very keen on exploring, but I think there is so much to enjoy in taste, cultural significance and the work behind the dried fish. If you had the chance, would you try?

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