Spinach helps me feel accepted

In Paris, it was learning how baguettes should be eaten; here, it’s liking ‘leaves.’


“Will you be eating those?”

The man behind me in line at the grocery store here in Mutare, a city in eastern Zimbabwe, points to my red plastic shopping basket.

In it, the normal stuff for an average family: cans of sardines, laundry detergent, cooking oil, a loaf of bread – and a bunch of fresh green spinach, the stems neatly tied. This last item is what has sparked my fellow shopper’s interest.

I know what he’s thinking: “Foreigners don’t eat that.”

Green leafy vegetables – tsunga (mustard greens), muboora (pumpkin leaves), and spinach – are to Zimbab­weans what baguettes are to the French: something that defines them.

Walk along the streets of any major town in this Southern African country at 5 or 6 o’clock in the afternoon and you’ll see women – and often men – swinging a bunch of “leaves” for sale.

Zimbabwe’s staple food is actually sadza, a stiff cornmeal porridge. Sometimes it’s eaten with sour milk, known locally by its brand name, Lacto.

More commonly, sadza is served with nyama (meat) or a vegetable “relish.” In the simplest recipes, the leaves are fried gently with a little onion, salt, and a few tablespoons of water to make an easily digestible mush.

It took me a while to find spinach when first I got here. “Leaves” – and yes, that’s what green leafy vegetables are called informally here – are sold in supermarkets, but often separately from the more expensive (and less popular) broccoli or leeks.

In my local supermarket, the leaves are placed at the end of the fresh produce stand nearest the cashiers so that a shopper pressed for time can grab some and go.

I like buying my leaves from the street vendors who sit (often under umbrellas) with their potatoes and tomatoes arranged in neat pyramids on plastic bags on the ground before them. Their leaves, picked early that morning, stand in buckets of water.

As the late-afternoon light turns golden along Mutare’s Herbert Chitepo Street, I wait my turn with other customers on the pavement in front of Mai Tony’s (Tony’s mom’s) stand. One by one we select a glistening bunch of leaves, hand over 50 cents, and walk briskly past shuttered stores toward home.

In Paris, where I lived before I moved to Zimbabwe, I enjoyed a similar ritual. Emerging from the metro at Anvers after an editing shift at a French news agency, I’d dash into the Franprix store to pick up something for supper.

Then, as now, I liked to shop just a little each day, savoring the human contact, the smells and sights that told me I was somewhere different from where I grew up. Along with mozzarella cheese, some pasta or tomatoes, I’d select a baguette.

Walking out of the store with the long breadstick in its paper sleeve seemed like a statement, a way of staking a tiny claim on Paris, my borrowed and much-loved home.

I am a foreigner in Zimbabwe now, just as I was in France. In both countries, I’ve found that adopting local foods can open doors of friendship and mutual respect.

Baguettes, for example, are almost never cut, but torn. And when eating en famille, you can use a ragged chunk to mop up leftover gravy on your plate.

Sitting in her seventh-floor flat in the French Riviera resort of Nice, Marie, the mother of a friend, taught me that you can dip a bit of butter-slathered baguette into your bowl of milky coffee. “But only at petit déjeuner,” she stressed – only at breakfast.

Here in Zimbabwe, my friend Shantelle taught me how to fry eggs with turmeric for a delicious late-morning snack. Sometimes we eat them on the weekend, trays balanced on the coffee table in her suburban home while the children watch cartoons.

Thanks to friends like her, I’ve learned that spinach and tsunga taste particularly good with dovi, a typical Zimbabwean sauce made from peanut butter. (See recipe below.)

Now when passersby point to the leaves I’m brandishing and ask if I’m truly the one who’s going to eat them, I’m proud to be able to say, “Yes, I am.”

Fried spinach leaves with peanut butter

3 tbsp. cooking oil (in Zimbabwe, it’s often sunflower oil) 

1 small onion, diced 

3 tomatoes, finely chopped

10-12 large fresh spinach leaves, stemmed and cut into thin strips, or chopped, stems and all

3 tbsp. all-natural (no sugar added) smooth peanut butter

1 cup water

Salt to taste 

PREPARATION: Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and fry gently for 2 to 3 minutes. Add tomatoes and spinach, and cook for another three minutes. Stir in peanut butter and a little of the water. Keep stirring, and add water as needed to create a thin sauce. Cover the skillet and lower heat to simmer. Check after five minutes. The mixture should be cooked down to a thick creamy mush. If needed, add two more tablespoons of water and continue to simmer a while longer. Add salt to taste. (You might try a little pepper, too.)

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