Who can’t get enough soya in southern Africa?

Handpainted mural on a building in Malawi advertising soya pieces
A mural advertising soya pieces in northern Malawi.

A story about our experiences with soya in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and why we love this food in a different way than the people we met there (1,800 words).

“My wife mixes that with minced beef and I get confused,” says Robert, shortly after introducing himself as “Robert…like Mugabe,” chuckling. In 2018’s Zimbabwe, no longer with Mugabe at its helm, I take this to mean Robert has a sense of humour.

He’s laughing at us as we tell him how much soya we’ve been cooking in Malawi, Zambia and now in Zimbabwe. We’re excited, and Robert is not.

“Are you a Seventh-Day Adventist? They use that because they are strict vegetarians.” Robert’s wife is a Seventh-Day, and I suspect she sometimes sneaks soya into their meals. Though Robert’s a Rastafarian, he hasn’t adopted vegetarianism like more orthodox followers. He’s conflicted about the choice—kind of aspires to it, doubts it would be enjoyable.

I don’t know if we’re selling it that well. He says vegetarianism is expensive, and we exclaim “No! Just eat more rape (chard), beans and soya chunks.” But Robert is having none of this. He assures us he’d never mistake pure soya mince for meat, almost grimacing as he thinks about eating it regularly. I’m so excited that I rummage through our food pannier and pull out a half-full bag to show him, and am met with “yeah, yeah, I know what it looks like.”

Besides the taste there’s stigma too. “That stuff is what people ate during the war when there was nothing else.” Robert is trendy, he’s got a moisture-wicking shirt on, long dreadlocks. He’s an urbanite, has a decent job. Why would he eat something lowlier than peasant food?

I’ve met a few Southern Africans vegetarian by choice—Messi, for religious reasons and Tendai, who used to be Rastafarian and vegan, and is now vegetarian and spiritual. Tendai seemed to be okay with soya chunks, but maybe that was because she lived in the UK where soya is edamame, tofu, tempeh and veggie burgers, and not that cheap. The only people who seem to get excited about eating southern Africa’s soya are like me: foreign, vegetarian by choice, in the region for a while, cooking, and trying to keep costs down.

But keeping our vegetarianism pleasant requires diverse ingredients and flavours. East Africa made this easy, southern Africa less-so, and soya made our transition from one to the other a softer landing.

At first we mourned the loss of piles of stewed beans and green gram reliably served in Kenyan and Tanzanian restaurants, and the wide variety of colourful cooked plants and tubers in Uganda, not to mention their vegetarian street food. We still miss all this. But soya helped us go from “what the hell will we cook or order now that we’ve left?” to “amazingly, we aren’t sick of soya chunk dinners yet!” Soya chunks are that harder-to-find merger of carbohydrate and protein, an ingredient that can bring together whatever spices and vegetables are on hand.

I recently sent my friend Christine a photo of one of these dinners we made in Zimbabwe. I was admiring its colourful squash and sweet potato, its satisfying stew consistency. “Isn’t it hard to find soya there?” she replied, which would have been my question, too!

a pot of colourful, vegan soya chunk stew made in Bvumba, Zimbabwe
Excited to eat a stew of potatoes, carrots, chard and soya chunks in Bvumba, Zimbabwe.

This isn’t tofu. Tofu is made by pressing soybeans to expel liquid, and solidifying the protein component of this liquid by adding a coagulant and then pressing the result. I’ve seen tofu for sale at Nairobi’s health-food stores, and ate it regularly in noodle bowls at Oh Cha! Thai Restaurant when we lived in the Kenyan capital for Evan’s work. Outside of these contexts, it’s rare.

Instead, the soya here—called pieces, mince, or chunks—are made from soya flour or concentrate. It’s one way of using the leftovers of pressing soybeans for oil, a primary target of their farming throughout southern Africa. These leftovers are heated and forced under pressure through an extruder. They leave the extruder and puff up, are cut into whatever might pass for meat shapes, dried, and packaged.

The end result is “textured soya protein” or “textured vegetable protein,” and I bet you’ve eaten it no matter where you live. It’s a common food throughout Asia, is used in US school lunch (and prison) food programs, as filler for some processed meat products like chicken nuggets, in dehydrated backpacking meals, and in bacon bits!

I’ve yet to find bacon bits in Malawi, Zambia or Zimbabwe. The dried soya products sold here are variations on a narrow theme: beige bits somewhere between dehydrated chicken and sponge. Not very appetizing. But once cooked, they’re not so different than the moist, meatless mince you might find in a corner of a Canadian supermarket’s refrigerated aisle. You could also reach a similar endpoint by crumbling vegan sausage into little pieces. My friend Christine gets excited about certain types of meatless sausages, as do I, and you could say in Canada there’s a certain demographic that aspires to buy them as a treat. Soya in southern Africa is eaten by many people, but I’ve yet to find someone who aspires to these meals. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong people.

a package of TopSoy soya pieces beside a plastic container of our leftover soya stew
A packet of Topsoy soya chunks alongside our leftover soya stew, even tastier the second day.

Billboards in Malawi advertise Carlsberg Beer and Blue Band Margarine, or in Zimbabwe Eat N’ Lick Fast Food. Where they’re advertised at all, soya appears as hand-painted murals on simple buildings in small towns and villages dotting the rural expanses. This humble placement reflects soya’s primary customer base: people with constraints.

a young excited boy eating a taco on an Eat n' Lick billboard in Zimbabwe
We would cycle by these billboards on the edge of Zimbabwean towns, and know what to expect: busy franchises of Eat n’ Lick in town, with few vegetarian options besides french fries.

They’re the kind of food that would survive an apocalypse, and if you also survived, they would be one of the easier things to eat. They’re light, dried, non-perishable, quick-cooking—though, strictly speaking, cooking isn’t required. There’s something a little mysterious about seeing ingredients like “permitted flavours,” sometimes listed. And at first their organic and GMO status were also mysterious to me—they’re not usually included in the packaging, perhaps because it’s irrelevant to most customers. But unless things have changed recently, they’re non-GMO, unless the soya is specifically from South Africa. Some types are perhaps organic, others not.

What the packaging nearly always includes are serving suggestions, and you can learn from these. That soya chunks are marketed as a side dish, a “relish,” to a main starch of maize meal, bread, potatoes or rice. We’ll often use two packages for the two of us, each one saying “serves 4-6,” making me suspect our portion sizes are extravagant. The package says to cook chopped tomato and onion in oil, add the soya chunks with water and simmer for ten minutes. A Zimbabwean man drove Evan across town one afternoon in the capital, Harare. He said during the currency collapse in 2007-09, they couldn’t afford any cooking oil, and even if they could have, Harare’s supermarket shelves were empty.

At the risk of generalizing, it’s very common to find soya chunks all over Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, from the humblest roadside kiosk selling little else besides oil, salt and tomatoes, to all but the fanciest supermarkets in towns and cities. My excitement at their ubiquity blinded me to asking why, and I almost published this post without reading into the back story, which turns out to be dynamic.

small plastic bags of vegetable oil hanging from a kiosk in rural Malawi
Baggies of vegetable oil, for those who don’t want a big bottle, for sale in northern Malawi.

In a sense, soya chunks are the tip of southern Africa’s soya iceberg—and that analogy works despite the warm weather, because most of how people engage with soybeans is hidden from us. On our visit, we only saw a snapshot in time, a little bit of the 2018 soya situation.

What we didn’t see were people gradually changing their minds about soya over decades. That soybean used to be considered viable only for large commercial farming operations—now, with the right fertilizers and techniques, soya also works for small-scale farmers. And these individual farmers no longer think of it as only an oilseed cash crop, but as a way to increase their soil fertility (the soybean plant can fix nitrogen), and not only as a way to feed their animals with the defatted leftovers, but as something they can eat themselves—but without even necessarily buying pre-packaged soya chunks. Instead, they process it themselves or with tools in their community.

It hasn’t been straightforward for farming families to make food from their soybeans. If you don’t process the beans properly, whatever you end up with can have unpleasant tastes and smells and give you lots of gas. Before that knowledge was available, homemade soya products gained a bad reputation in Zimbabwe for being, well, gross. From what I could find online, it seems like a mix of knowledge transfer and soya marketing have turned this around, and that now many people make their own soya porridge, bread, milk, hot drinks and side dishes. This has been particularly important for people suffering from malnourishment or HIV/AIDs and lacking access to more expensive supplements.

Of course, the alternative is to try and sell your soybeans to a processing factory, where there’s larger equipment like extruders capable of popping out soya chunk dough at 250 kg/hour, by one estimate.

Olivine Industries produces soya oil (packaged suspiciously like olive oil in this ad) and soya chunks. At Bulawayo Train Station, Zimbabwe.

I think Robert’s Rastafarianism was the only reason he would consider eating soya regularly, but southern African soya companies might be able to gain more customers of his ilk through appealing to their health. We often meet people in this demographic, and many have the idea the vegetarianism is far healthier than their diet, high in animal cholesterol and fried food.

It would have been pretty cool to cook skeptical Robert soya, but in doing so I may have actually put him off further.

We say vegetarianism is inexpensive, but I probably would have cooked him soya chunk spaghetti bolognese (my favourite way to use soya chunks!) and squandered any cost savings on dried oregano and tomato paste. We say it’s healthy, but I would have liberally glugged the soya oil into our pot to fry all those onions and garlic. I suppose there’s a possibility he wouldn’t like onions or garlic, either.

Sometimes in our delicious soya stews we use chicken or beef flavouring packets and honestly, those meals are some of the more delicious ones. They’re meat free, but still—life is full of hypocrisy. At least we didn’t tell Robert we were vegetarian because we don’t like the taste of meat. For now, fried chicken is way more popular in southern Africa than any soya product, among people who can afford to choose what’s for dinner. When we cycle past the Chicken Inn and KFC franchises popping up, we can barely resist the smells ourselves.

Soya spaghetti with beer and cider in a guesthouse, Zimbabwe. We appreciate soya chunks for their low cost but generally spend these savings elsewhere.



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