2000s Archive

Hungry For Adventure

Originally Published March 2000
Along deserted beaches, through villages of thatch, and across some pretty shaky ground—one’s writer’s pursuit of the perfect meal in Mozambique.

I will go to the end of the universe in search of a good meal. And sometimes I have found myself at the end of the universe wondering what I’ve gotten myself into. I’ve eaten undercooked goat in a wattle hut in Somalia as mortar rounds landed in the distance; I’ve endured the gruesome guerrilla-combat tales of an ex-Karen rebel as he prepared our dinner on the Thai-Malaysian border; and I’ve been serenaded by an old, battle-scarred Belgian chef as he garnished my fresh-cooked octopus on the coast of East Africa. (“Un missionnaire?” I asked him in disbelief. “You were a missionary?” “Ah non, monsieur,” he said, “un mercenaire.”)

So it was not that unusual for me to go out of my way to track down what I’d been told was one of Africa’s most delicious dishes. But winding up in the middle of a minefield was a little more than I’d bargained for.

I had heard about matapa from Michael Bond, in the Mozambican capital of Maputo, where he is the British chef at the city’s Hotel Cardoso. Bond, who had described Mozambican cuisine as a blend of Portuguese, African, and Asian influences, had told me that finding a really good matapa—a combination of seafood, peanuts, coconut milk, cassava leaf, and garlic—prepared a day in advance, was worth almost any effort. “You can find it in the city,” he said, “but that would be like me going to New York for good hush puppies. If you want the best matapa, you don’t come to Maputo—you have to go into the bush, where they have the time, the ingredients, and the tradition. Find a fisherman. A good matapa, really, is a little taste of heaven.”

Mozambique, on the Indian Ocean side of southern Africa, is still picking itself up from one of the continent’s longest-running civil wars. Regarded today by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as a success story among developing nations, it has yet to qualify as even a pit stop on the tourist superhighway—this despite its deserted beaches, its wildlife, and, as I was to discover, its remarkable food.

I found my way to the crowded fish market on Maputo’s waterfront, just up the embankment from the mangrove-lined beach where fishermen careen their boats. The tangy smells from the mudflats exposed at low tide, the smoke from the cooking fires, and the slabs of fresh fish on the wooden tables created an intoxicating perfume. Tossing about words in guidebook Portuguese, the lingua franca of the country, I asked various people where I could find matapa. A toothless old woman selling buckets of mussels, oysters, and crabs in one of the thatched-roof stalls pointed across the crowd to a powerful-looking fisherman in a red baseball cap, who was dickering enthusiastically with a stall owner about the price of his pickup-load of fish.

The big fisherman reluctantly admitted in broken English that he did know where I could find a good matapa but that the place was about a day’s drive north into the country, near his fishing camp, and no mulungu (“white person”) would want to go there. I was hooked.

The fisherman, Zizi, accepted my offer to pay for the gas, and shortly after dawn the next day the two of us rattled our way out of town aboard his battered Toyota pickup. The woodenstock of a rifle stuck out from under my seat.

We drove past the savanna of scrub, thorn tree, and neatly kept villages of traditional rounded huts built from caniço, local swamp reed.

“Zizi, why can’t you get good matapa in Maputo?”

“Coconuts not sweet,” he said simply.

We were going north, toward the equator—to the tropics, where coconuts the world over are sweeter, meatier. Villagers flagged down traffic with what looked like dirty rags; as we passed, the rags they waved became live chickens and rabbits they gripped by the feet. Anthills six feet high were scattered amid the bush; children flew kites decorated with red-and-white–striped plastic strips as tails; smoke from cooking fires rose from the reed homes; and women walked along the road balancing water jugs and bundles of cane on their heads. It was a tableau of timeless Africa.

I was to discover that Zizi was not a man of convention, African or otherwise. Ten kilometers outside of town, we stopped at a small cane-built kiosk alongside the road for his breakfast—a couple half-liter bottles of Laurentina beer, which he uncapped with his teeth, and a badgia, a sandwich of fried bean patty sprinkled with an accidental dusting of sand. Despite the grit, this Mozambican fast food, with a taste vaguely reminiscent of Turkish hummus but spiced with coriander and wood smoke, was delicious.

On one beer-and-badgia break, a handsome young woman wrapped in a colorful capulana with an infant swaddled to her back hobbled by on crutches made from tree limbs—the first sign of the legacy of the 17-year war. She had only one leg, but she carried herself with dignity.

Once in Inhambane Province, the detritus of the war became more visible. Rusted hulks of trucks and armored personnel carriers lined the road; stubby trees and brush grew through their skeletal remains. Up ahead, a flock of fat guinea fowl pecked away at the dirt by the side of the road. Zizi stopped, jumped out, and pulled the rifle from under my seat as the terrified birds scurried down the embankment.


We stumbled down the verge in hot pursuit. Zizi stopped, took aim at something in the underbrush, and fired. Pufft! His gun wasn’t anything more than an air rifle. In this country where the AK-47 Kalashnikov was once king, this great Mozambican hunter was popping his trophy with a pellet gun.

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