If we are what we eat, who are we?

2017-09-24 06:05
Tswana-style Classic Beef Tšhotlho served over Ting, or fermented sorghum porridge

Tswana-style Classic Beef Tšhotlho served over Ting, or fermented sorghum porridge

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Almost before it had begun, Heritage Day was hijacked by the men – and, let’s face it, they were all men – at National Braai Day NBD, whose patron/yoda-in chief Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, once said that braais “unite us all in a common purpose which transcends racial, social, cultural and language barriers”.

Those who follow the NBD fire faith argue that a shared fascination with open-flame cooking has the power to bring South Africans together in a hand-holding hug of amnesiac kumbaya cuisine.

Clearly, they have not seen Israelis and Palestinians hate each other over hummus.

Archbishop Tutu is not stupid – he must have known that the recipe for reconciliation was more complicated than a T-bone totem, but ours was a young nation in need of nutrition.

Just as many parents tell toddlers that a teaspoon of food is an aeroplane or a choo-choo train to get them to open their mouths and swallow, so too the Arch told a foodie fib in the name of the greater good. The strategy sort of worked for a while, but there comes a time when children grow up and we tell them to stop playing with their food.

Culinary heritage is not child’s play. South Africa has inherited a painful past in which indigenous food culture has been negatively affected by urbanisation, acculturation and apartheid.

Formerly diverse ancestral foods (in which various indigenous cereal crops were garnished with numerous varieties of wild greens, cultivated beans, nuts, meat and fermented milk) have been largely replaced by monotonous, poorly balanced, starch-heavy eating patterns.

Many traditional crops and cooking methods have been relegated to special occasions, rather than everyday eating. Some people even disparage and despise such foods as unsuitable now that “re tlhabologile” (we are sophisticated).

“Poverty foods”

Two decades into democracy, very few black South Africans have attempted to reintroduce precolonial, pre-apartheid dietary diversity into their daily lives.

Recent food heritage is even more disparaged than that pertaining to the ancient past. Those who have created an economically successful post-apartheid existence often express deep-seated food aversions formed in economically, socially and politically difficult times.

There is a widespread feeling that suburban living is incompatible with a fondness for chicken mala (intestines). The professed hatred of township staples such as cabbage and pilchards borders on food phobia. These ingredients are pushed aside as painful “poverty foods”.

In the rush to shed the indignity of apartheid, many people have shed the nutritious and delicious tastes of those times in favour of imported junk food. Where adults lead, children follow, and many black youngsters refuse to eat traditional African food. It’s not just that they don’t like it – they literally don’t know what to do with it.

Many Model C kids try to eat chicken necks with a knife and fork. They favour super-sweetened fruit yoghurts over superbly sour amasi. Their negative opinions on “that brown pap” (indigenous mabele) don’t bear repeating. They whine for Happy Meals and spurn the cooking of their grandmothers.

Is it any wonder that childhood obesity is running rampant? A 2015 study found that 16% of black African schoolchildren with an average age of 17 had hypertension.

Ancestral eating not only defines what once was, but can play a role in what will be. To scorn heritage food is to disparage the very essence of past, present and future self.

Every culture combines flavours in ways that are unique to them. Whatever the occasion, these ethnically specific taste-building blocks allow our mouths and minds to understand where we are and who is cooking.

For professional chefs, these flavour foundations should be tools of the trade. Once understood, these culturally specific core tastes allow for the development of modern recipes within a particular ethnic style.

Food culture is not and should not be static. Yet almost all South African restaurant chefs are even more disparaging of indigenous culinary traditions than home cooks. Fine dining establishments still largely regard African South African cuisine as an oxymoron, and there is a widespread assumption among professional chefs that, in 1652, South Africa was a culinary terra nullius.

In other parts of the world, food professionals take traditional flavours and reconfigure them as reflections of modern national identity. Multiaward-winning Brazilian chef Alex Atala fuses the core tastes of his terroir with avant-garde culinary techniques to create recipes infused with the past, present and future of his homeland. On a visit to Design Indaba 2013, he observed: “If I say soya sauce, ginger and seaweed, your mind goes to Japan. If I say tomato, basil and mozzarella, your mind goes to Italy. One of the most important souvenirs for a traveller is flavours; and I’m still missing South African flavours. Why?”

Why indeed. If we are what we eat, the kindest thing we could say about ourselves is that we are confused.

Read more on:    heritage day  |  food

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