The first time my now-husband told me he loved Ethiopian food as much as I did, I thought he was trying too hard to impress me. Despite the prevalence of Ethiopian restaurants in New York City, many people I tried to introduce first Injera, The spongy flatbread that forms a staple of Ethiopian cuisine, its sour taste is not to their liking. But Joe and I spent the night eating injera the right way, scooping vegetables into it and licking the sauce off our fingers.
Three years later, when it was time to plan our wedding, which was scheduled to take place in my home country of Zambia, my family asked me if I would like to host the ichilanga mulilo, a traditional meal held in honor of the groom. In which the bride and her family cook a variety of traditional Zambian food. The event is a way of welcoming the groom to share food with the groom’s family. As I learned at that early date, Joe is no stranger to food from the African continent. For a decade, he has been visiting Zambia with his education-based foundation 14+. By that time he had eaten his share of nshima, local beans and other food. But even though I knew Joe’s passion and appreciation for Zambian food, I was apprehensive about hosting the event.
I attended similar events when my friends and cousins were getting married, but I always saw Ichilanga Mulilo as another way to enforce old-fashioned gender roles and patriarchy. In this tradition, the emphasis is on women “living in the kitchen”. This ceremony recognizes the notion that the wife is solely responsible for the upkeep of her family. These ideas never appealed to me.
From a young age, most girls are taught to cook nshima, one of our other staple foods, made from corn or maize that is boiled to make a porridge-like meal and cooked with stews and vegetables. My mother taught me to cook nshima when I was a teenager, but my attempts always ended up being undercooked and bland. Eventually, I gave up Zambian cooking in the early 2000s, opting instead to embrace American cuisine when my family moved to New York. Zambian food we ate once a week when my father ate, or on special occasions like my country’s independence day.
Despite my hesitation in hosting Ichilanga Mulilo, Joe’s appreciation of Zambian cuisine made me reconsider. To decide whether or not to go ahead with it, I decided to delve deeper into the history of the ceremony. I met with Mulenga Kapwepwe, a writer and expert on Bemba culture, the ethnic group in Zambia that started the practice of Ichilanga Mulilo. This is also the ethnic group I belong to on my paternal side.
According to Kapwepwe, this event is a way of breaking the food taboo between a groom and his mother-in-law, because before the engagement, a man was not allowed to share food with his in-laws. “Long ago, a man was expected to live in his wife’s home for a period of one to three years to prove that he could support his wife and her family,” she says. “The food ceremony was a way for him to experience the foods eaten by his wife’s family.” She further explained that, traditionally, the bride did not cook most of the food during the meal ceremony, and only cooked for her husband for three years of marriage, after she proved that she could support his family.
Many of the traditional reasons for hosting Ichilanga Mulilo were not relevant to our modern relationship—for starters, Joe and I would be living apart from my family in New York—the ceremony was still a way for Joe to experience our meals. Eventually, I decided to host it as a way to share my Bemba heritage with my friend.
Day of Ichilanga Mulilo, I reached my aunt’s house, where food would be ready. A few weeks before the event, my mom and her sisters made a menu. It consisted of over 40 Zambian dishes, most of which had been cooked the evening before, including the main dish nshima, ifisashi. (African version of kale cooked in peanut sauce), Chikanda (vegetarian dish made from tubers that looks like baloney), Kapenta (sardine-like fish fried with tomato and onion sauce), munkoyo (fermented liquor made from pound root and corn), and more.
As a bride, I was locked in a room in my sister’s house while I was cooking outside on an open fire. My sole role was to cook Nshima. I was nervous because of my teenage attempts to make it, but when it was my turn to cook, I was guided through the process by a traditional instructor called Simbusa hired by my family. I stood in front of a large pot with boiling water. The instructor handed me a bowl with cornmeal, which I had to slowly pour into boiling water to make porridge, which is the first step in making nshima. Then I was handed a large wooden cooking stick and had to stir the pot as the other woman poured in the corn kernels.
After about half an hour, I was given the cooking stick again. By this time, the porridge had thickened. After the women stirred more corn kernels, I stirred the pot. This process is called “ukunaya”. After boiling the cobwebs, there was some dirt on them, which the women used as an opportunity to advise: the bride should stay in one place (her house), unlike the cobs that come out of the pot. My friends took the cooking stick from me, each stirring for a few minutes. It mimics the communal way village women cooked together long ago, and has the added benefit of relieving some of the bride’s stress. Finally, my aunts finished the nshima, which is supposed to be done after a lot of corn is added and it reaches a hard and thick consistency.
After all the food was cooked for Ichilanga Mulilo, some of the women kept it warm and took it home. After the drummers sang traditional songs, my instructor asked me to cook nshima from a large pot in a small pan. Then she opened each dish, explaining what each dish was. I was given the role of packing ipip, which in the past referred to special baskets, although nowadays large metal containers are used. These containers are filled with food especially for the groom, his family, his male coach (called shibukombe), and my coach. They are then wrapped in a white cloth and tied in a knot by the bride.
Ifipe always consists of several whole roasted chickens, and each part of the chicken has a special meaning in Bemba culture that is taught to the bride and groom before the event. For example, the neck of a chicken represents the role of a married woman, while the head is said to correspond to a man being the head of the household. Being a pescatarian, we broke tradition by substituting chicken for the fish. And while I don’t believe in the symbolism represented by chickens, I was happy for the swap.
My friends took the pots and pans with food to the groom’s house. Normally, the bride stays at home with her mother and aunts where the food is prepared, but to uphold tradition, I chose to follow the procession and watch the first part of the ceremony from the car.
Once the food reaches the groom’s residence, the groom’s friends and his coach meet the bride’s friends, her coach and her drummers. The bride’s family and friends announce the reason for their halt through a song that loosely translates to, “We have brought food cooked over the fire.” Then the groom’s side shows appreciation by placing money on a piece of chitenge. The women enter the house where the bridegroom is staying, and a troupe of women sings and beats drums as the bridegroom’s instructor explains each dish to the bride.
Only after each meal is explained, the bride’s family takes their leave. At this point, the groom and his friends eat, and the ceremony is complete. While I was at the venue, I (my coach) allowed me to get out of the waiting car and mingle with the guests and my fiance. I was sure that we had fulfilled the expected traditional customs.
Food is an integral part of Zambian culture. We use it to welcome guests and celebrate new family members, such as the groom. Ichilanga Mulilo was an opportunity for me to share this aspect of my culture with Joe. And as Joe and I continue our married life, I know, inspired by the foods introduced to him at his food ceremony — from ifinkubala (deep-fried caterpillar) to chikanda (a vegetarian dish made from tubers) — we will share. Lots of Zambian food together.
Mazuba Kapambwe-Mizzi is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared Afar, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and leisure and more. She lives between Lusaka, Zambia and New York City.