Let the steady flow of the Zambezi River transport you upstream of the Victoria Falls to an earthy oasis. The bush breathes around you, steadying your heart rate and instilling a sense of wholeness and calm within you. The Elephant Café veers off the beaten track not only in location but with its unique blend of wild eatables, foraged from magnanimous natural resources. The elephant are gentle giants and their peaceful demeanour washes over their guests, as diners taste buds are taken on an African adventure. Chef Annabel Hughes combines indigenous ingredients to create exotic flavours. She commissions community members to delve into the bush and bring her mongongo nuts, marulas, wild sourplums, baobab and muchingachinga fruit. These delicacies are popular with both elephants and humans, simultaneously enriching palates and the local economy.
The seasons change, the scenery transforms and the menu evolves with it. Summer, winter, autumn and spring bring with them a unique bounty of ingredients, so the treats on the menu mirror the treasures hidden in the surrounding landscape. Feast your eyes on a few of the crazy culinary concoctions that make Elephant Café such an exciting dining experience.
Nature’s Bombshell + Muchingachinga Mess with lavender Flowers Muchingachinga is a tart fruit that hangs in colorful clusters from trees. School children can be seen racing to get their hands on the most succulent, iridescent bunch, climbing through the branches with lips and fingertips stained ruby red. The tangy kick of the monkey fingers, accompanied by a sugary meringue, creates a taste sensation that makes customers weak at the knees.
Bush biscotti Annabel’s secret weapon when baking these biscotti is the creamy mongongo nut. And weapon can be used in more than one sense of the word. With a rock hard outer casing, this delectable little nut plays extremely hard to get, and cracking open the shell is nothing short of an art. However, when manpower fails, we turn to our expert elephants. With a sweet tooth that only mongongo nuts can cure, elephants snack on these nuts by the branchful. They are unable to digest the soft, cashew-like texture of the nut inside, so when nature calls, the elephant unload a heap of uncased nuts. For most chefs, a simple trip to the grocery store will suffice, but not the extraordinary Annabel. Read more about her ingredient endeavors here.
Creating Couscous Annabel uses mineral rich millet to make dishes that are bound to convert all couscous and quinoa lovers. So far, Annabel has prepared it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh chopped herbs and feta, making a light and luscious lunch.
Slow roasted duck with wild sourplum sauce These mouth puckering plums can be reduced to a syrupy sauce that adds a flavourful dimension to most dishes. Annabel uses these cheerful little fruit as a sauce, and for those who can’t get enough, she also has a heavenly sour plum ice cream dessert.
Q & A with Annabel Hughes, the menu mastermind
What would you say is the strangest ingredient that you have used? I would say the munkoyo root and masembe, which is a local root combined with maize, ground into the size of arborio rice. The Zambians make the most delicious drink from it. The brewing takes a day or so, and they drink it lumpy, but I prefer to strain it! I'm going to test munkoyo in a panna cotta soon. It's white and milky, and I think it would be delicious served with a bright red wild fruit coulis.
What is your favourite dish, either to prepare or enjoy?
I don't have a favourite dish as such, but I am in my bliss experimenting with new ingredients and flavours I've never tasted before. Working with the Zambian wild food is such fun and very creative. Today I am making a sorbet out of a mixture of two wild fruits, inji and masawa, where the combined flavour and colour is similar to apricot.
Do any of your dishes use the staple food Nshima?
Not yet, but I am planning on making a local version of cornbread from nshima for breakfast and high tea.
What dish would you recommend to anyone visiting the Elephant café or Zambia in general, for the first time?
The two most popular dishes to date have been the Thai-inspired Tilapia Ceviche with Sesame-infused Lime, Cucumber, Pickled Radish & Avocado, and the Muchingachinga Mess with Lavender Flowers