The white container with jaunty red and blue stripes reminds me of a barber pole. The motto “It’s hygienic!” jumps off the cardboard but isn’t quite the reassurance I need to take a gulp of the murky grey sludge within. I’m 23 years old and living in Malawi for the first time, a place where clean water is precious and pricey, while sorghum beer, like that found in the colorful container, is cheap and plentiful. It’s called Chibuku and it is indeed hygienic thanks to the industrial processing plants that distribute it across sub-Saharan Africa. It’s the undisputed regional favorite and I want to try it but I’m just too scared.
It doesn’t help that I’m not exactly an adventurous drinker--nor that my colleagues joke that Chibuku "tastes the same going down as it does coming back up." Instead, I buy myself soft drinks. They too are hygienic, but they’re also safe and something like shame gnaws in my stomach, telling me that I don’t have the real spirit of adventure running through my veins. When I return to Canada, a bit of regret follows me, certain that the opportunity to have a real travel exploit has passed me by and I have only my fretful self to blame.
It takes 14 years, but Chibuku and I find each other once more--and this time it takes me by surprise. I’m in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, all grown up and with nothing to prove--nothing, that is, until I hear about a legendary local restaurant that offers a scrumptious buffet, complete with black, glistening, crunchy, fried mopane worms. Falling somewhere between an economical protein source in rural areas and a fun, salty snack in posh city bars, mopane worms are one of Zimbabwe’s most famous foods. The worm in question is actually a caterpillar, a deconstructed emperor moth, if you will. And its favorite food is the tender leaves of the mopane tree.
Once again, I find myself both greatly intrigued and rather terrified all at the same time. Researching mopane worms doesn’t help my indecision. When they’re plucked from the trees, mopane worms are thick, plump, and nearly as long as a human hand. Those in the mopane harvesting game know the exact knack to kill the worms by squeezing out their slimy green innards (I beg of you, do not google this), before laying them out to dry, which causes them to shrink dramatically in size. They are beloved both as a potato-chip style snack, a light dusting of salt putting them into the category of "bet you can’t eat just one," and as a more sophisticated delicacy in a sizzling dish with peri peri chilies and lush peanut sauce. Everyone has an opinion about the best region for mopane worms and to follow the discussions, the passionate opinions of honey connoisseurs come to mind.
At Victoria Falls’ Boma Dinner and Drum Show, a night of song, drumming, dance, local cuisine, and crispy seasoned mopane worms beckons--and upon request the staff will even issue you a certificate to mark the occasion of your culinary boldness. But before you can tackle the mopane or any of the other dishes, a smiling waiter is eager to escort you to your table--and to serve you a welcoming glass of Chibuku.
My husband looked at me with his eyebrow ever so slightly raised, the hint of a smile playing around his mouth as he turned his attention to the staff’s explanation of how Chibuku is a traditional drink of welcome, a beverage served among friends. It was now or never. The glass looked small enough, no more than a shot, really. And if the curmudgeonly table of retired English doctors behind me could hold their Chibuku, than so could I. Down the hatch!
To my immense relief, it wasn’t bad. In fact, it wasn’t bad at all. It tasted like a cross between beer and a milkshake made of corn and rum. As a written description, I realize this is hardly an enticement! But it was boozy and sweet and earthy, with a thick texture that didn't linger too long. It was nothing close to the hygienic, horrible beverage I dreamed it to be all those years ago and, while I felt no need for a refill and could scarcely picture myself sipping on it to refresh myself after a hot day, it wasn’t bad. Manageable. Perhaps an acquired taste. The kind of drink you likely stay loyal to when you first try it at a young age. And just the thing to wash down the dainty plate of amuse-bouche appetizers the waiter brought over, including bites of smoked crocodile, seared impala with an apricot compote, and pumpkin fritters. A wine list specializing in South African grapes was reasonably priced--and felt a bit more my speed compared to another round of Chibuku!
Happy to linger over a second glass of wine while waiting for the long line at the buffet to let up a bit, we happily enjoyed a fantastic presentation of traditional dance, drumming, and singing. Craft vendors were set up in unobtrusive corners with wooden carvings (a plump hippo was soon added to our collection) and we were draped in colorful, patterned sarongs for the duration of our visit. The energy in the room was light and lively, humming with collective excitement. It wasn’t only the Chibuku or the thrill of trying mopane that had everyone in such a good mood. The warm staff, the joyous music, and the light, refreshing breeze made for a perfectly relaxing evening.
The large buffet housed a salad bar that included a good variety of cold side dishes like seasoned green beans, lightly dressed fingerling potatoes, and roasted beets. The popular meat station offered up Zimbabwean cuisine, including guinea fowl stew, barbecued warthog, and wild boar sausages, along with North American-style favorites like chicken kebabs and stir-fried vegetables. Butternut squash soup was ladled out into adorable miniature cast iron cauldrons so guests could keep their soup warm until precisely the right time--and at the center of it all, a platter of mopane worms awaited.
I very much appreciate Boma's tone: It's one that encourages everyone to come, eat, and explore as much as they want, however they want. The buffet style affords guests maximum flexibility. No one will say anything if you’re more into the drumming and dancing and decide to stick to steak with mushroom sauce. But if you’re keen to experience the flavors of local meats and produce--or the worms!--they’re happy to serve up as much or as little as you like. The staff strike a welcome balance between acknowledging that mopane worms aren’t exactly an everyday snack for their overseas guests while not marketing them as “weird” or “exotic.” A night at Boma is an invitation to step outside your comfort zone as you try the sustainable, nutritious food that’s wildly popular across the country--or, at the very least, to ponder it while you enjoy a night of music, dance, fun, and food.
As for our verdict on mopane worms? My husband described his worm as a crunchy, slightly burnt potato chip. There was no particularly strong taste and nothing that would prevent him from trying them again should circumstances call for it. However, there wasn’t anything about the taste or experience that he liked enough to go back for more. For him, it fell squarely in the category of: "Glad I tried it; there are definitely worse things in the world to eat; there’s no burning need for me to track them down again."
As for me? C’mon! I used up all my moxie getting acquainted at long last with Chibuku. I had no gumption left for mopane worms! But I thoroughly look forward to trying them sometime in the next 10 to 15 years while on a return visit. Boma is worth the trip!