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Different Types of Restaurants
When thinking about small town or village restaurants in Malawi, they break down into 3 categories:
Indoor Sit-down Restaurants. These establishments are usually small, consisting of 3-5 tables. But usually they are very clean and well-run, although you should be ready for some limitations to the menu based on availability of ingredients.
Outdoor Sit-down Restaurants. This is the via media between an indoor restaurant and a food stand. Usually a small stand houses the prepared foods and drinks while most cooking happens outdoors over charcoal. Seating may be under the open sky, but more likely under a grass or cane shelter.
Food Stands. Alongside the roadside at most bus stops or villages, you will see men cooking over charcoal grills or frying chips (homecut fries) or various parts of chickens, goats, or birds. These are the riskiest places to eat but still can offer you some options if you play it smart.
What to Eat
Traditional restaurants build their menus around the three starches: nsima (usually maize flour cooked with water into a paste), rice, or chips.
You will add to this a vegetable, often cooked cabbage, leafy greens, and/or tomatoes.
Finally, you will get a protein: chicken, beef, goat, fish, eggs, or beans.
While some of these options sound more appetizing than others to a foreign palate, they are all solid choices and enjoyable. Usually, nsima and rice are quickly on hand while chips may take some time, but if you are craving something that tastes a little closer to home, you can’t go wrong with chicken and chips.
Malawians wash their hands both before and after eating. One of the strangest things for a foreigner is to encounter a sink in the middle of the restaurant. Even at an outdoor restaurant, they will provide you with a bucket of water to wash.
Most more formal restaurants have silverware, but some won’t. Malawians traditionally eat most things with their hands. You can keep an extra fork in your bag or just do as the Romans do and dig in. Just make sure to use the sink to wash up afterward.
What Not to Eat
There are some things that it is best for foreign tummies to avoid:
Don’t drink the water if it isn’t in a bottle. The water may be fine, but since you can’t verify the source, it is better safe than sorry. Drink a coke or Fanta, or bring your own water.
Often restaurants will serve a raw cabbage salad with chips, like a coleslaw. Sometimes it is with mayonnaise and sometimes not. I’ve found out the hard way that you can’t guarantee the cleanliness of raw vegetables in many of these places. Better to push it to the side than introduce a foreign bacteria to your stomach.
At roadside stands, some people reuse oil for a long time, even when the oil becomes rancid. It is best to avoid these fryers all together. Stick with the grills, and the grilled ears of corn make a great snack.
Will You Get Sick?
Once I found myself at lunch time in the village of Muona on the East Bank of the Shire River (better known as Fatima, after the Catholic mission there). I stopped with my team at a place called Miracle Restaurant. The grounds were dusty. The women were cooking outdoors over charcoal with livestock roaming nearby. I thought, “This is the Miracle Restaurant, because it will be a miracle if we don’t get sick.”
We didn’t get sick. While the place wouldn’t get one of those green “A”s they post on restaurants in America, the owners knew how to cook cleanly and healthily in their own setting. If you know what to expect, then you can make safe decisions and enjoy your meal and the experience of eating somewhere unique.