South Africa, the Food of the AmaXhosa
We’re having strange weather on the farm today; it’s warm, slightly overcast and ominously silent because there’s not a breath of wind. The butterflies are frolling* around and the birds are as irritatingly cheerful as they always are here so it’s one of those days that inspires reflection. I’m good at that but it has it’s drawbacks. I read the history of the Xhosa nation this weekend and feel terribly intelligent so wish I could share it with someone. Flora, who taught me about Xhosa food, would listen or pretend to which is one of the reasons I miss her so much today. She
also humoured me. I think she would have liked living here and I’m pretty sure the guinea fowl population would have been kept in check as well. You’ll have to listen to 3 minutes of history so that you can understand why the Xhosa nation eat the food they do, though. The person that best describes the very beginning has to be John H. Clark so here’s a tiny extract from one of his papers: “The people and nations of Central Africa have no records of their ancient and medieval history like the “Tarikh es Sudan” or the “Tarikh el Fettach” of the Western Sudan (West Africa). The early travellers to these areas are mostly unknown. In spite of the forest as an obstacle to the formation of empires comparable to those of the Western Sudan, notable kingdoms did rise in this part of Africa and some of them did achieve a high degree of civilization. The Congo Valley became the gathering place of various branches of the people ……between 2000 – 3000 years ago a group of tribes began to move out of the region south or southwest of Lake Chad. Sometime during the 1400 – 1500 BC the centre of Africa became crowded with pastoral tribes who needed more land for their larger flocks and herds. This condition started another migration that lasted for more than 100 years. Tribes with the prefix Ba to their names spread far to the west into the Congo basin and southward through the central plains. The Nechuana and Basuto were among these tribes. Tribes with the prefix Ama (great warriors like the Ama-Xosa and Ama-Zulu) passed
down the eastern side”. It is from these great warriors that the Xhosa of South Africa were born and importance of meat in the Xhosa diets thus easily explained. Nguni migration probably arrived in South Africa around 1500 years ago settling along the eastern coast for logical reasons. Legend has it there was a great leader known as uXhosa. But that’s just what it was, a legend.
FLORA’S UMNGQUSHO (SAMP AND BEANS)
I’m including this recipe because Flora taught me how to cook it. It’s terribly fattening but unfortunately, too good not to eat. For those of you who live in America – it’s looks pretty much like whole hominy – before they’re turned into grits. In South Africa the Xhosa people add beans to the samp but I like them unadulterated with butter.
- 1 kg samp – rinse well, pick out any stones or twigs and soak in cold water overnight.
- ½ tsp lemon zest, finely grated
- Salted butter to taste
- Salt to taste
- Rinse the samp and beans well a few times and put in a pot, cover with fresh water, salt to taste and boil until the samp & beans are just soft and most of the water has evaporated.
- Add butter to taste & lemon zest and mix into the samp and simmer until all the water has evaporated, check and correct the seasoning to taste.
- Serve with whatever you’re eating instead of rice.
- Tip: instead of stirring in butter you could make an onion mixture by slicing 2 onions, 1 garlic clove, 4 allspice berries, a good grating of nutmeg, salt and black pepper to taste and then frying it in a generous amount of butter and stirring this into the samp mixture instead of just the butter.
To look at the food of South Africa, as I am here, it’s enough to know that the nation is the amaXhosa, that they were great warriors who became pastoralists here and they speak isiXhosa. In the 18th century there was huge blow up between two chiefs and the nation divided into 2 groups, the Gcaleka and the Rharhabe (Ngqika) – everyone was crushing everyone else out of the way and the whole mess gave birth to new nations like the Pondo, the Thembu and the Mfengu who were originally part of the amaXhosa. At that stage the traditional diet consisted of meat, maize and indigenous vegetables (wild mushrooms, morogo and other wild leafy green vegetables), Manto’s wild potatoes and sweet potatoes; all of which were very healthy. The dreaded white man arrived and, at first, things were fine; one or two trekboers made their appearance on traditional land with not enough cattle to upset grazing or anyone’s ego; the Xhosa allowed them to graze their cattle because they posed no threat (at that stage) and the amaXhosa weren’t really the bloodthirsty animals portrayed by the British army. Nor were they stupid or wild.
FLORA’S UMLEQWA CASSEROLE
Flora gave me this recipe while she was ironing one day. I wrote it down and decided that it was one I wasn’t going to try but in the end, I did just to see what it tasted like. It was really good but I did adapt it a bit by using olive oil instead of maize oil and by adding lemon zest, garlic and parsley. The skin is not removed here because the Xhosa people, generally, do not have cholesterol problems.
- 1 whole organic chicken (she calls it an umleqwa - a chicken raised at home), jointed and with the skin left on
- 1 tin red kidney beans, rinsed
- 2 large onion, peeled and chopped finely
- 1 fat clove garlic
- 2 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
- 1 tsp lemon zest, grated (optional)
- 2 tbsp Italian parsley, finely chopped
- 1 tbsp flour
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Sear the chicken in a little olive oil until all the pieces are golden brown on all sides and then add the onions, sauté until soft and translucent and add the garlic, the tomatoes, the beans, the flour, salt & pepper to taste and then stir well to combine everything.
- Pour over enough water to cover the chicken, bring to the boil and then turn down to simmer gently for about 40 minutes; should the water evaporate before the chicken is tender, simply add a little more, stir through and carry on simmering again.
- When ready serve with samp or rice.
They weren’t as warlike as the Zulu at that stage but brilliant military strategists nonetheless and could have destroyed the trekboers in a heartbeat, had they wanted to. When the boer’s cousins and cousin’s cousins arrived, it was also okay and they found ways to co-exist at first. Actually, from the little information I have, it looks as if they helped the trekker women quite a bit with advice and taught them where to find indigenous foods (how else would the great great grandmother have known about morogo and wild potatoes?) And then all hell broke loose between trekboer and Xhosa at which point the British arrived, mit guns, all dressed up for a good fight and in a collective bad mood, so they had a war (Frontier War) and that became a few more wars and that pushed the amaXhosa back way past the Kei River; at the same time, their distant cousins, the AmaZulu needed a little more space and they pushed them back down again so the only thing the amaXhosa could do was to move west and then everything started to go horribly wrong. Since the history has been debated ad nauseam from this point onwards, I’ll leave it right there and concentrate on the traditional food of the Xhosa today. I urge everyone of you interested in the food of the Xhosa to read Hunger for Freedom. It is the story about the food that played an important role in the life of the man of the century, Nelson Mandela and you would be poorer for not reading it. Today the Xhosa people eat pretty much what anyone else does but meat and maize still play an important role, even if only as comfort food.
This could be really delicious at lunch time and if it’s only the two of you, halve this recipe if you like. I’ve adapted it and turned it into a Mediterranean type omelette because it’s so much easier and can even be done if you’re out camping.
- 6 extra large eggs
- 250 ml morogo (or spinach)
- 250 ml cooked mealies (corn taken off the cob) or simply tinned whole kernel corn.
- 6 tbsp spring onions, chopped
- 4 tbsp chakalaka** (optional)
- 4 fresh mint leaves, chopped
- 4 large fresh basil leaves, chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Butter for frying
- Whisk all the eggs with half of the morogo, half off the mealies, the mint, the basil and salt & pepper to taste.
- Heat a little butter in a non stick frying man and pour the egg mixture into it, sliding it from side to side as you would do with any omelette.
- Cook until the base is golden and but not set, then sprinkle the rest of the vegetables & herbs over the omelette and continue cooking until it has just set.
- Slide out of the pan onto a plate and slide that, upper side down, back into the pan.
- Cook for a few minutes so that everything has set, slide out and set aside.
- Sprinkle with salt and serve warm or at room temperature, cutting slices for each guest.
*that’s what butterflies do because they can’t stroll
** chakalaka is a hot atjar, typical of South African and can only be found in South African speciality shops overseas