SURF AND TURF – Putting Indigenous Food on the Big Table

Down here in the Cape, especially, the idea of eating masonja is usually greeted with a nervous giggle and not taken seriously. In luscious Limpopo province, especially among the Venda, this traditional dish of Mopani worms with ground peanuts (dhovi) is a delicacy.
If Tshidi Moroka and her team have it their way, not only will Capetonians be adding this indigenous dish to their menus, but it may well find favour on international tables.

Promoting indigenous South African food as a commercially-viable proposition in tandem with poverty alleviation has spurred a number of exciting projects and developments and Tshidi Moroka, a development program manager at the CSIR, has been at the scheme since 2000.

Already available in selected stores are products such as marula salad dressing, dipabi bites and xigugu biscuits, amadube crisps, potele muffin mix, mohadikoane porridge and lerotse jam. And yes, there are processed masonja stew and snacks in the pipeline.

These products and a number more in development are now slowly being introduced to the South African commercial domain. Ultimately, they would also target the international markets.

Five local fairs to promote indigenous food and cooking have been held at places around the country, the most recent in March when women prepared unusual dishes for the public at the Eastern Cape Indigenous Food Fair.

Complimenting the practise of introducing the public to the foods is a colourful cookbook called South African Indigenous Foods: A Collection of Recipes of Indigenous Foods prepared by Generations of Women.

The latter acknowledgement gives one an idea of the thinking behind this remarkable culinary initiative.

African produce and cooking traditions have never featured in the mainstream of food culture. At most influences are indicated in eating habits which have always been held to be ‘Western’. Now things are about to change.

Putting South African food firmly on the map and table is but an aspect. What weighs particularly heavily on the positive side is the empowerment component – which will promote small artisanal farming and cultivation and help with poverty elevation.

As many products are, in reality, growing indigenously, the project has a very positive environmental-biodiversity spin-off.

In this manner it is a food proposition fully in line with the philosophy of the international Slow Food movement: preserving biodiversity and promoting indigenous culinary traditions – including local threatened produce – natural food products, fresh and good ingredients, in contrast to today’s easy convenience food.

Moroka says the Department of Science and Technology commissioned the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 2000 to implement an indigenous food project in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, North West, the Free State and the Eastern Cape.

“The project aims to improve the lives of people through the creation of sustainable SMMEs in the food domain. At the same time it hopes to enhance the existing knowledge and appreciation of indigenous foods.

“Over the last three years, our interaction with communities to learn about traditional food preparation and subsequent transferral of relevant technologies has produced great results. We have completed the product development and diversification in all the five earmarked provinces. The last, held in Port St John’s, contributed to product selection and diversification from Eastern Cape-based foods.”

Food fairs have proven to be a powerful platform during which communities, business, government stakeholders, the food industry and potential consumers interact, according to Moroka.

In this project, food scientists have been involved in technology transfer with respect to food stabilisation, modification, processing methods, shelf-life studies and appropriate packaging.

To take the project forward, a Section 21 company, IndiZAFoods, was established as a commercialisation vehicle. Profits will be re-invested into community initiatives.

The new cookbook has also appeared under the IndiZAFoods imprint.

The bright, eye-catching South African Indigenous Foods is a unique book and at the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki earlier this year was selected as gift for VIP guests.

Many of those from overseas would not know the names of traditional dishes such as potele (morogo with mealie meal – from the Free State), isithwalaphisi (beans with mealie meal – from KwaZulu-Natal), semphemphe (wild melon from the North West, cooked into a lovely pudding!), xitopya (a Tsonga peanut dish from Limpopo) and umngqusho onembotyi (the famous samp and beans from the Eastern Cape).

The book is divided into five sections with colourful pictures and illustrations. Recipes are clear and straightforward, inter-spiked with delightful African sayings. At the back all the women and groups who contributed are duly credited.

Five provinces were initially selected for the start of the IndiZAFoods project and recipes were collected in North West, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. “

Typically our implementation started with community interaction. We met with women in remote corners of South Africa and experienced how they traditionally prepare food; we looked at the raw products available in the regions and thereafter staged food fairs to further facilitate interaction with communities,” says Moroka.

“In addition to capturing this information, we evaluated these dishes for commercial potential. At this stage, food scientists joined the process to assist with new product development, studies on stabilisation, food processing and shelf-life.”

While some dishes and beverages was the starting point for new products that are being commercialised, the recipe book contains the broader range of dishes prepared by generations of women.

The book is available at selected bookstores or can be purchased online at the CSIR e-shop.

As the IndiZAFoods project and recipe book hit the food news, Woolworths added a most unusual vegetable to their organic shelves: the indigenous amadube of KwaZulu-Natal (there is a recipe for an amadube and spinach tart in South African Indigenous Foods), elsewhere also know as madumbi.

This too is the result on an impressive empowerment scheme.

A collaboration between the Ezemvelo Farmers Organisation, Dr James Hartzell of Assegai Organics and Dr Albert Modi of the University of KwaZulu-Natal has resulted in more than 200 farmers supplying Woolworths with organically-grown madumbis. The project also produces sweet potatoes, baby potatoes and green beans.

Madumbi is a tubular root or corm (also called a ‘mammy’) from the Colocasia esculenta plant. The ‘potato of the tropics’ is found all over the world in sub-tropical regions and cooked much as a yam. It is know as cocoyam, taro or dasheen.

It has been around so long and cultivated by villagers that it is regarded as kind of indigenous in Kwazulu-Natal.

Traditional subsistence farmers farm organically and naturally comply with the criteria for growing crops without the use of artificial pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers. The Woolworth-supported scheme opens up opportunities for previously-disadvantaged South African farmers to enter and participate in the economic mainstream.

Melvyn Minnaar of Slow Food is a freelance journalist based in South Africa’s Cape Region, where he contributes wine and lifestyle articles to a variety of publications. He is also an art critic, curator and judge.

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