Subject of Empire
Subject of Empire Charles Mudede

There is a Nando's in downtown Vancouver BC. It is at 828 Davie Street. For those who may not be in the know, Nando's is a "fast casual dining" chain that began in Johannesburg, South Africa, and, according to Wikipedia, presently "has 1,000... branches in 35 countries." Nando's specializes in chicken flame-grilled in Portuguese style, using peri-peri sauce. Peri-peri is a pepper that comes from Mozambique (a Southern African country, and former Portuguese colony). Nando's is now a global corporation (three locations in Vancouver—in the US, there are 12 locations "in Illinois, 6 in Washington, D.C., 14 in Maryland; and 10 in Virginia") known not only for its chicken, which is very popular in the UK, particularly with black Brits (who connect its flavors with Caribbean jerk Chicken), but also its wacky and controversial commercials, the most famous of which depicted the late Robert Mugabe as a lonely dictator.

Ultimately, Nando's chicken is a healthier option to fried chicken, and it tastes better because, when combined with peri-peri, the chicken has the taste of being cooked outside by fire. You can taste the flames in the meat, which is never burnt but always has as its "flavor profile" an indication that, if the chicken were left on the grill a moment longer, it would be charred. This fire, this near-charred bird flesh, this smoke is for me the Southern African institution of the braai. But it is important to think of Nando's as purely colonial.

It is neither the United Kingdom, or Black Africa, but the imperially directed exchanges of the two and other members of the commonwealth: India, Canada, New Zealand. When you eat Nando's chicken, you are eating several empires, one of which is African, the Mwenemutapa (called Monomotapa by the Portuguese). One is also the British empire, which I found myself in only by the accident of a line drawn on a map by a civil servant. Move the line a little to the east, and I would have been in the empire that has Portugal as its Britain and Brazil as its USA. All of this is a part of my experience of eating Nando's. And there is more.

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As a boy in Harare, I lived in a world filled with all sorts of plants. There were sugarcane grass and banana trees at my cousin's house. There were avocados and tomatoes at my parents' house. My aunt had lemon trees. And if a piece of land was not claimed, this or that person planted corn in it. For many years, I was amazed by African abundance. Plums, papayas, guavas, gooseberries, okra. Africa was, in my teenage mind, a regular Eden. And then I did a class at Commercial Careers College on the history of economic botany in Southern Africa and learned that all of these plants came from somewhere else. Most of them came from the other side of the world. Some, like okra, arrived from other parts of Africa. There was very little in the geography of my growing years that was strictly African. The landscape had been globalized long before I was born. The Bantus from the north, the whites from Europe, the South Asians from the east had contributed to the radical transformation of the plant kingdom in Southern Africa.

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I eat this transformation when I'm at the Nando's in Vancouver BC. My moments there, on Davie Street (which has a deep LGBT history), is like that described in Lizzie Collingham's masterful The Taste of Empire: "...the surveyors of British Columbia eat tinned Australian rabbit." The taste of this chicken in the Pacific Northwest. The sun is setting on the cold flower of a city. The day, short. The twilight, an alien orange. The dark waters of the Pacific. Those black evergreen trees on the surrounding hills. The Southern African chicken on my plate. The Portugal marinated in its meat. And then there is that moment I was stunned, at 13.

It was Christmas and the family was heading to rural areas, to kamusha, home. For us, this is the highlands: nyanga. We are Manicas. We are highlanders. The mountain-bound Mudedes have left the city for the sticks of their ancestors. And then it happens. As our car progresses ever-upward to the highlands, the geography suddenly changes from Africa to the Pacific Northwest, to miles upon miles of pine trees. Thousands upon thousands of pine trees. My father, an economist, noticing my complete wonder, explains that they are the source of the country's pulp for paper. Europeans planted them in the mountains, where it is just cold enough for them to thrive. There is really no place like home.