The first time my now-husband told me he loved Ethiopian food as much as I did, I thought he was trying way too hard to impress me. Despite the prevalence of Ethiopian restaurants in New York City, many people who I had previously tried to introduce to injera, the spongy flatbread that forms a staple of Ethiopian food, found its sour aftertaste not to their liking. But Joe and I spent that night eating injera the proper way, scooping the vegetables onto it and licking the sauce off our fingers.
Three years later, when it came time to plan our wedding, which was set to take place in my home country, Zambia, my family asked me if I wanted to host an Ichilanga Mulilo, a traditional food ceremony held in honor of the groom, in which a bride and her family cook a variety of traditional Zambian foods. The event is a way of welcoming a groom to share a meal with a bride’s family. As I learned on 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+. In that time, he has eaten his share of nshima, local beans, and other meals. But although I knew Joe’s fondness and appreciation for Zambian cuisine, I was apprehensive about hosting the event.
I had attended similar events when my friends and cousins were preparing for marriage, but I had always viewed the Ichilanga Mulilo as another way of enforcing old-fashioned gender roles and patriarchy. There is an emphasis with this tradition on the woman “belonging in the kitchen.” The ceremony takes for granted the notion that a wife is solely responsible for the nourishment of her family. These ideas never appealed to me.
From an early age, most girls are taught to cook nshima, one of our other staple foods, which is made from cornmeal or maize that is boiled to form a porridge-like meal and served with stews and vegetables. My mother had taught me to cook nshima when I was a teenager, but my attempts always came out undercooked and lumpy. Eventually, I had given up on cooking Zambian meals all together, choosing instead to embrace American food when my family moved to New York in the early 2000s. Zambian food was something we ate either once a week when my father craved it, or during special events like my country’s independence day.
Despite my misgivings on hosting the Ichilanga Mulilo, Joe’s appreciation of Zambian cuisine made me reconsider. To make the decision on whether or not to move forward 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, which is the ethnic group from Zambia that first began the practice of Ichilanga Mulilo. This also happens to be the ethnic group I belong to on my paternal side.
According to Kapwepwe, the event was a way of breaking food taboos between a groom and his mother-in-law, as prior to being engaged, a man was not allowed to share a meal with his in-laws. “Long ago, a man would be expected to relocate to his wife’s homestead 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 his wife’s family ate.” She further explained that, traditionally, the bride did not cook most of the meals during the food ceremony, and only cooked for her husband about three years into marriage, after he had proven to her family that he could support her.
While many of the traditional reasons for hosting an Ichilanga Mulilo weren’t relevant to our modern relationship — for starters, Joe and I would be living separate from my family in New York — the ceremony was still a way for Joe to experience our foods. Ultimately, I made the decision to host it as a way to share my Bemba heritage with my partner.
The day of the Ichilanga Mulilo, I arrived at my older sister’s house, where the food would be prepared. Weeks before the event, my mother and her sisters created a menu. It included over 40 Zambian dishes, most of which had been cooked the evening before, including the staple food nshima, ifisashi (an African version of kale cooked in a peanut sauce), chikanda (a vegetarian dish made from tubers that looks like baloney), kapenta (sardine-like fish that are fried and served with tomato and onion sauce), munkoyo (a fermented brew made from pounded roots and cornmeal), and more.
As the bride, I was confined to a room in my sister’s house while the cooking was taking place outside on an open flame. My singular role was to cook nshima. I was nervous because of my failed teenage attempts at making it, but when it was my turn to cook, I was guided through the process by a traditional instructor called a cimbusa who was hired by my family. I stood in front of a large pot with boiling water. I was handed a bowl with cornmeal by the instructor, which I had to slowly pour into the boiling water to make a porridge, the first step in making nshima. I was then handed a large wooden cooking stick and had to stir the pot as another woman poured more cornmeal.
After about half an hour, I was handed the cooking stick again. By this time, the porridge had thickened. As the women stirred in more cornmeal, I stirred the pot. This process is called “ukunaya.” As the cornmeal boiled, some of it burbled, which the women used as an opportunity to impart advice: A bride should remain in one place (her home), unlike the cornmeal that had spilled out of the pot. My friends took the cooking stick from me, each one stirring for a few minutes. This mimics the communal way women in villages cooked together long ago, and has the added benefit of relieving some of the bride’s stress. Eventually, my aunts completed the nshima, which is considered done after more cornmeal is added and it reaches a harder and thicker consistency.
After all the food for the Ichilanga Mulilo had been cooked, some of the women placed it in warmers and took it into the house. As drummers sang traditional songs, my instructor had me dish out the nshima from the large pot into smaller warmers. She then opened each warmer, explaining what each dish was. I was given the role of packing the ifipe, a term which in the past referred to special baskets, although nowadays large metal containers are used. These containers are filled with food specifically for the groom, his family, his male instructor (called a shibukombe), and my instructor. They are then wrapped with a white cloth that the bride ties into a knot.
The ifipe always contains several whole roasted chickens, and each part of the chicken has a specific meaning in Bemba culture that is taught to a bride and her groom prior to the event. For example, the neck of the chicken is said to represent the role of a woman as the one who holds the marriage, while the head is said to correspond to the man being head of the household. Since Joe is pescatarian, we broke tradition by substituting chicken for fish. And since I don’t believe in the symbolism the chicken represented, I was happy for the swap.
My friends took the pots and dishes containing the food to the groom’s residence. Typically, the bride remains with her mother and aunts at the house where the food is prepared, but to buck tradition, I chose to follow the procession and watch the first part of the ceremony, which takes place outdoors, from the car.
Once the food reaches the groom’s residence, the groom’s friends and his instructor meet the bride’s friends, her instructor, and her drummers. The bride’s family and friends announce their reason for stopping by through a song loosely translated to mean, “We have brought the food cooked on the fire.” The groom’s side then shows appreciation by placing money on a piece of chitenge. The women enter the house where the groom is sitting, and as the bride’s instructor explains each dish to the groom, her team of women sing and drum.
Only after every meal is explained does the bride’s family take their leave. At this point, the groom and his friends eat the food, and the ceremony is complete. As I was at the venue, I was permitted (by my instructor) to exit the car I had been waiting in and mingle with the guests and my fiance. I was relieved that we had completed the traditional customs expected of us.
Food is an integral part of Zambian culture. We use it to welcome visiting guests and celebrate new members of the family, such as a groom. The Ichilanga Mulilo was a chance for me to share this aspect of my culture with Joe. And as Joe and I continue our married life, I know that, inspired by the foods he was introduced to at his food ceremony — from ifinkubala (deep-fried caterpillars) to chikanda (a vegetarian meal made out of tubers) — we will share many more Zambian meals together.
Mazuba Kapambwe-Mizzi is a freelance travel writer whose work has appeared in Afar, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel and Leisure and more. She lives between Lusaka, Zambia and New York City.