South African cuisine is diverse, unique, and delicious. Influenced by centuries of migration and colonisation, many of its flavours originate from such places as Malaysia, India, France and The Netherlands but has more recently been diluted by cheap, highly processed, junk food that offers people little in the way of healthier, better eating choices.
It’s also a cuisine not widely known outside its borders. That is, until now.
Mpho Tshukudu comes from the Eastern Cape region and has worked as dietician for public and private health services. Currently a food studies student in Italy, Mpho recently published the ‘EAT TING’ book with co-author Anna Trapido, herself a food writer and culinary anthropologist.
Ting is a soured starter required for making mofokotso (cooked ting porridge) and bogobe (double-cooked ‘wedding ting’ or ‘funeral ting’ pap). These traditional porridges are labours of love – bogobe is an even greater labour of love, but both are time-consuming processes. Many people refer to bogobe as wedding or funeral ting because it is so time-consuming to make.
EAT TING offers readers a solid insight into the country’s cuisine and food but with a view to eating healthily and deliciously using local ingredients and traditional southern African foods. Its pages are packed with well researched nutritional advice, including ten good habits your Grandmother might share such cooking meat slowly with very little fat; freshly ground is better and fermenting dairy and grain is super healthy.
Mpho and Anna also offer dozens of recipes from ‘Millet, Cabbage & Pumpkin Seed Salad,’ and ‘Sorghum Risotto with Mushrooms & Walnuts’ to ‘Calves Liver with Sage Salsa’ and ‘Tripe & Trotters Curry’.
Having visited South Africa many years ago and with family living there now, I was intrigued to learn more about its cuisine and asked Mpho to share her thoughts on healthy eating, South Africa, its cuisine and how her childhood influenced her love for good, delicious food.
Her interest is using ingredients rooted in South African soil, history and traditional ingredients and recipes that were suppressed during the apartheid era. As Mpho writes, “In our rush to shed the indignity of apartheid and poverty, we have abandoned many of the nutritious tastes of those times in favour of foreign junk food. Very few of us have attempted to re-introduce pre-colonial, pre-apartheid dietary diversity to our daily lives”.
Mpho’s and Anna’s book a useful guide to making better food choices through using traditional foods and through expert dietary research alongside many delicious recipes and fresh gastronomic ideas.
Thank you for taking time out to share your knowledge and experience South African food with us.
THE LEMON GROVE Please can you describe how you became involved with food culture and healthy eating?
MPHO I am integrative and functional dietitian. This nutrition idea uses biology to identify the root cause of disease, and works with the client to personalise a holistic nutrition care plan to restore function and improve outcomes. It integrates food, exercise, nutrigenomics (the relationship between human genome, nutrition and health) and mind-body connections.
What lead me to study this complex biochemistry and genetics relationship was my love for cooking and food. I found comfort in the kitchen from a very young age, and always felt a deeper connection to nature and to eat food that is not only healthy but visually beautiful. My mother was very encouraging and shared much of her wisdom with me.
When I competed my dietetics internship, I eager to help improve people’s health issues. Most of my clients were middle-class professionals in their early 30s to late 50s and the first in their families to have lifestyle diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. In the patients stories, they would make the connection that their ‘disease’ was partly caused by abandoning rural, cultural eating habits, in favour of processed foods found in the cities. Their rural lifestyles were characterised by long walks, organic foods, whole-grain sorghum and millet, legumes, seasonal dairy, fruits and vegetables and social connection.
My clients were eager to return to heritage foods and ingredients and which in turn improved their physical and mental wellbeing. Most of them had tried improving their health before, using the popular western diet consisting of brown rice, quinoa, broccoli and salmon. But despite strong will-power, they could not sustain eating such foods because it is not their taste preference and nor does satisfy them. This lead to cheating, overeating and eventually giving up.
About 80% of South African population is black, but the dietetics and culinary studies do not incorporate southern African indigenous and heritage foods and cultural competency. The popular definition of healthy, which forms the basis of trainings is Euro-centric, implying that other cultures are not healthy.
My clients never saw their food represented as healthy. They feel they have to choose between health and heritage – and no person should be forced to choose.
I wanted to incorporate local heritage foods into my practice. What I know about cultural food, practices and meaning is self-taught through asking older people questions and experimenting. In all these story telling, I learned more about farming practices, recipes, food preservation and lifestyle activities, and realised that African food is healthy, delicious and beautiful. Some stories were like revisiting my childhood.
THE LEMON GROVE How is South African food evolving?
MPHO Currently, the education for dietitians and chefs is currently Euro-centric. But there are efforts to bring back the heritage ingredients and recipes in high-end restaurants and urban restaurant.
Although it is improving, there is perception that heritage foods are poverty foods, associated with rural life, made in kitchens with no running water or electricity.
THE LEMON GROVE Are today’s chefs and home cooks using more traditional ingredients and recipes?
MPHO Sorghum is the new quinoa, and no longer regarded as the brown grain that makes African beer when there is a wedding or funeral.
The challenge is also that the ingredients are not easy to find in urban areas, because they are not part of the commercial supply chain.
THE LEMON GROVE Do you feel South African cuisine has an international presence? If not, how do you think this can change?
MPHO I don’t think so. The chef’s training and what is served in restaurants do not reflect the local products and ingredients. But there are a few chefs and cooks who are doing excellent work in embracing local ingredients and recipes.
Food is part of our culture and identity, and I think it can be used to tell the stories of who we are and where we come from.
THE LEMON GROVE What are your special childhood memories of preparing, cooking and eating food with family and friends?
MPHO My family loves cooking and I invited myself to the kitchen when I was about 6 years old. I started with chopping, peeling and cleaning up. I am obsessed with colourful foods, and remember my mother saying ‘add colour’. In nutrition, colours indicate phytochemicals – all these things that are good for your heart, will prevent wrinkles and make you live forever. I earned me my first ‘cooking tattoo’ or burn on my arm from an overzealous peek into a bubbling pot of ting (fermented sorghum porridge) at ten years old. Being in the kitchen branded my fascination with health and culture.
THE LEMON GROVE If you could one dish that represents South African cuisine, what would you choose and why?
MPHO Although we have different cultures, the core taste of South Africa is fermented milk.
That tart, can’t get enough taste. It is used in every culture and reminds most of my happy childhood.
THE LEMON GROVE How do you see your future in food and healthy living evolving?
MPHO More people are realising the effect of food on their health and vitality. Although trends come and go, consumers are more empowered and are asking questions and demanding better foods that are food for them and the plant. The common elements are whole grains, legumes, seasonal vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds and less animal protein.
They are looking inward for what the body needs and feels like, than following trends. The microbiome is the leading topic in every health discussion. There is a direct connection between the gut and the brain. Most people who seek health care complain about stress, and it can be managed by influencing the gut microbes through diet and mindfulness.
2 large pork cheeks (about 900g)
1 tbsp butter
1 onion, finely chopped
250g carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tsp crushed garlic, roughly chopped
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
150g pitted prunes
4 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
400 ml dry sherry
2 cups chicken, pork or vegetable stock
Preheat the oven to 160 ̊C.
In an ovenproof pan, brown the pork cheeks in the butter over a moderate heat.
When the cheeks are browned on both sides, lift them out of the pan and set aside.
Pour off any excess oil.
Add the onion and carrot to the pan and fry gently until the onions are soft and golden, and then add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry briefly.
Add the prunes, star anise and cinnamon, return the pork to the pan and pour the sherry and stock over.
Season, cover with a lid and place in the oven.
Bake, turning over from time to time, for at least three hours until fat has rendered out and the meat is tender.
CITRUS FLAVOURED WATERS
Cucumber & Lime Water
1 cucumber, sliced
2 litres of fresh water
Orange & Mint Water
3 oranges, sliced
10 fresh mint leaves
2 litres of fresh water
Mix all the ingredients together.
Chill to infuse for 2 hours, and serve.
EAT TING by Mpho Tshukudu and Anna Trapido can be ordered online and ordered from any good bookshop or from the publishers, Quiver Tree at Quivertreepublications.com