Ironically, most visitors to Botswana eat food very similar to what they enjoy in their own country. No doubt this is due to the high standard of international cuisine available in the hotels and restaurants of Gaborone and to the wholesome quality of food served at even the most isolated bush camp.
Yet Botswana does have a cooking style of its own. Admittedly, there are stark regional variations depending on the area of the country in which people live and on the amount of rainfall. To Western palates, some local meals may seem bland and unappetising at first. With its heavy reliance on beans and maize, the local cuisine can be something of an acquired taste.
Aside from beans and maize, however, it should be remembered that Botswana is justly famous for the high quality of its locally reared beef, on which its wealth was based long before the discovery of diamonds. Other popular ingredients in local cooking are chicken, goat and lamb or mutton. And, despite Botswana’s somewhat parched landscape, freshwater fish is a feature of many dishes.
The main crops of Botswana are sorghum and maize, so naturally they form part of the traditional diet. However, growing affluence has led to imports of both rice and wheat.
Pulses are also grown. They include cowpea, ditloo (bambara groundnut) and letlhodi (China beans) as well as peanuts. Nowadays, too, cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, spinach, sweet potatoes and tomatoes are produced locally. For many urban Batswana, they have all but replaced local wild vegetables in the preparation of dishes. As a matter of fact, in days gone by, vegetables would have been dried and salted. Nevertheless, dried bean leaves remain popular.
When it comes to fruit, the marula – about the size of a small plum – is aromatic and juicy. It may be eaten fresh and the flesh has a high content of Vitamin C. It may also be cooked to produce jam, juices, sweets and alcoholic beverages.
Water melons are plentiful in season. So is lerotse, a wild melon for cooking, which can be served with traditional madila or rare Tswana relish such as morogo, nama ya podi, serobe and tlhako ya podi.
Seswaa, or chotlho, is a popular traditional meat dish that is served on most special occasions. It is cooked with just salt and water in a three-legged iron pot. Serobe is worth trying but perhaps is not for the squeamish as it consists of intestines and other odd animal parts such as trotters. Another favourite meat dish is oxtail.
East of the Kalahari, sorghum is the main crop and forms the staple of main dishes. Sorghum is ground into meal and mixed with either boiling water or sour milk to make a kind of breakfast porridge known as bogobe. Thicker versions of the same mixture are then eaten at dinner accompanied by relish, the base of which may be meat, tomato, or dried fish. Another way of making bogobe is to add sour milk and lerotse. However, imported maize meal is now often used instead of bogobe.
The most common way to eat flour is to make dumplings (matlebekwane), flat cakes (diphaphatha) and fat cakes (magwinya). For these, the flour is made into dough which is cooked in various ways such as boiling with meat or cooking in hot oil or on hot coals.
In more rural areas, and where water is scarce, the resourcefulness of local tribes has led to morama, a huge underground tuber, being eaten as an edible fungus. In a similar way to Australian aborigines, they also eat the mopane worm, a grub that looks like a caterpillar and is an important source of protein. The grub is cooked in hot ash, or boiled, or dried and fried. The traditional method of preparing the grub is by degutting, cooking, salting and drying for long-term storage.