It doesn’t matter where you live — food is a common thread. Every day, around the world, mothers prepare healthy dishes for their children, families meet around the dinner table, friends laugh over a meal and communities gather to celebrate a milestone.
Across cultures, food is the way we honor, rejoice, share, mourn and communicate — together.
With local staff in more than 45 countries, the Mercy Corps team is just as diverse as the communities it serves. That means, so are their culinary tastes, techniques and traditions. So, we asked a few of them: What’s cooking in your kitchen?
Below, hear what some of our international team members have to say about traditional cuisine in their home countries. Learn how typical meals are prepared and the ways in which they bring people together.
Democratic Republic of Congo: Beans and foufou
Photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps
According to Baby Muzi, an officer with our hygiene programming in DR Congo, traditional Congolese cuisine has few frills. It’s simple food with little spice — think beans and other legumes, sweet potatoes, rice, and foufou (pronounced foo-foo), a plain, sticky dough that takes the place of utensils in most meals. Still, Baby says, Congolese people love to eat.
Beans in particular are common throughout the country because they’re affordable and can be stored for long periods of time without perishing. And one of the country’s most traditional meals is basic beans and foufou.
Traditionally, beans are cooked in oil instead of water, and sometimes things like onions, bell peppers or tomatoes and spices like garlic, coriander and white pepper are added to taste. And foufou? That’s made by pounding maize or cassava root into a fine flour, then adding the flour to boiling water and stirring until it becomes a thick, smooth, tacky dough. Foufou is traditionally eaten in bite-sized pieces with the right hand — it serves as a scoop to collect the sauce, beans or meat that make up the rest of the meal.
And if you’re doing as the Congolese do, you’re cooking over an open fire. “A kitchen? I wish,” says Baby. “In Congo the majority of kitchens are not modern.” Most families cook using firewood or charcoal, she explains, and they wash their dishes in a big basin on the ground.
Guatemala: Kaq ik
Photos: Laura Hajar for Mercy Corps
“When someone offers you food in Guatemala, they are offering a piece of their culture. They are sharing what they don’t have,” says Emma Mendez Rossell, a program coordinator for gender integration in Guatemala. “Many of the families we visit have very limited resources. However, within their limitations, they always have something to share.”
Kaq ik, a soup made from turkey, grilled tomatoes and spices, is a traditional dish served on special occasions like weddings, births and other celebrations in northern Guatemala.
“When we go to the communities to visit, almost always we would be welcomed with a dish of kaq ik,” Emma says. “Even if we are visiting two or three communities, we would have two or three dishes of kaq ik, one per each community we visit.”
Guests are commonly given a portion of food to take home to share with their own families, and it’s considered rude not to receive the offering. In Guatemala, food is one of the primary and most heartfelt ways families and communities connect with one another.
“As of my family, on a daily basis we do not have time to eat together except for dinner. So dinner is our family time, “ explains Emma. “We take turns to say grace and talk about what we did during the day. On weekends, most people, and I’m included, visit their relatives and the way to relate and communicate is through food.”
Nepal: Dal, bhat and tarkari
Photos: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
“In Nepal, guests are treated as gods. It is [our] culture to welcome them with homemade traditional food,” says Aishwarya Rana, a deputy manager in Nepal. “And usually all major festivals include families coming together and eating traditional food.”
And the most common traditional Nepali meal, she says, is the typical dal, bhat and tarkari. It also happens to be her favorite.
“I like it because it is healthy and tasty,” Aishwarya tells us. Dal is a soup made of lentils and spices — it’s served over bhat (steamed rice) and tarkari (vegetable curry).
Nepali cuisine as a whole is quite diverse, just like the country’s geography and culture. But, Aishwarya explains, you’ll generally find plenty of colorful spices like turmeric, cardamom, ginger and garlic. Other traditional foods nationwide include gundruk (sun-dried, fermented vegetable leaves), and sel roti (rice doughnuts), which are served throughout the country during festivals.
“In Nepal, culinary traditions are passed down from generations,” Aishwarya tells us. “In some families it is [our] custom for men to eat before the women. Other families begin their meal by providing a small amount of food to their gods and ancestors.”
Uganda: Sweet potatoes with malakwang sauce
Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps
Traditional cuisine in Uganda differs by region, and most of the country’s tribes have their own unique meals and culinary customs. In northern Uganda, malakwang is king.
“Malakwang is just one of the many traditional delicacies in northern Uganda,” explains Jennifer Acheng, a finance officer in Uganda. “It is a fast-growing vegetable, which is easy to grow around the homestead. And it tastes good, too.”
Malakwang sauce is a tangy condiment made from malakwang leaves, salt, groundnut (like peanut) paste and simsim (sesame) paste. Few Ugandan families have electricity or gas appliances so this dish, like most others, is cooked over a fire or charcoal stove in a kitchen separate from the main house.
According to Jennifer, malakwang is best paired with sweet potatoes, which are a popular staple food throughout the country. And where she lives, in northern Uganda, the sauce is given to a woman who has just given birth to boost her milk production.
Jennifer’s family has mealtime traditions of their own. “The children sit around the food and they eat from the same point,” she explains. “This is believed to help them grow with strong attachment as brothers and sisters.”
Photos: Miguel Samper for Mercy Corps
Traditional food in Timor-Leste also varies distinctly by region because it’s made up primarily of what’s found locally — things like corn, red and black beans, fish, pumpkin and different types of leaves. But Graziela Xavier, a project manager for our fuel-efficient clean cookstove program, says one meal you will find in all parts of the country is marotok.
“People in Timor-Leste mostly cook the traditional way, with firewood,” explains Graziela. “Only people that live in the city or have access to electricity use a different way to cook.”
That means marotok is cooked over an open fire. It’s a stew-like dish of corn, red and black beans, pumpkin, pumpkin leaves and flowers, and moringa leaves — the ingredients are all boiled together until soft and thick, then the mixture is salted to taste and ready to serve.
A typical kitchen in rural Timor-Leste is actually a building separate from the main house, made of bamboo walls and a grass roof. But regardless of where — or how — food is cooked in Timor-Leste, it has a critical function in its culture.
“Food plays a very important role because for specific occasions, or during ceremonies, you can recognize people and their role in the family or community by seeing the food provided to them,” Graziela says.