Johannesburg - In the beginning, there were mealies…
Whole, ground, dried, fresh or fermented, it is almost impossible to imagine Mzansi culinary culture without this grain. So much so, that the World Health Organisation recently revealed that the average South African consumes 222g of maize per person per day. Such is our adoration of this staple starch that many of us erroneously assume mealies are indigenous to Africa.
In fact, our original grains were sorghum and millet, while maize – which was first domesticated by Mexicans about 10 000 years ago – only arrived on our continent at the end of the 16th century.
Given the antiquity of maize in Mexico, it is unsurprising that it is a core component in almost all of that country’s most famous foods. So central is maize to Mexican modality that the passion extends beyond their bellies into the original Mesoamerican creation myths that tell tales of humanity formed by Gods out of ground maize paste.
South Africans have a much shorter history with mealies, but we are equally obsessed with them – nowhere more so than in rural communities in the Eastern Cape, where Xhosa cooks have created a plethora of tastes and textures. There is roughly broken umbona and super fine ingolobo flour. There are steamed intlaphoyi breads and umqombothi beers. There is the crumbling perfection of umphokoqo, the soothing softness of isidudu porridge and the tingling tartness of fermented inconco, to name a few.
We may not believe that people were made out of maize, but we do have a founding father with such an epic enthusiasm for the crop that he referenced the grain in the opening chapter of his autobiography as a symbol of freedom.
Nelson Mandela wrote: “I was born free. Free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies under the stars…”
He is telling us all that, in the beginning, there were mealies. And it was good.
The shared South African-Mexican craving for maize was deliciously apparent when City Press and the Soweto Hotel introduced Mexican restaurateur and culinary star Abigail Mendoza to Madiba’s longstanding personal chef Xoliswa Ndoyiya.
Tasked with making maize-based meals that reflected their respective culinary cultures, these queens of traditional flavour went to work to create magnificent mealie dishes.
At first glance, Mendoza and Ndoyiya seem worlds apart, but superficial differences mask fundamental similarities. Mendoza, who came traditionally dressed with long, ribbon-woven braids and a traditional serape shawl, is a Zapotec indigenous Mesoamerican from Oaxaca (pronounced Wahaca) in southwestern Mexico.
Aside from travelling the world to promote her traditional cuisine, she also runs a restaurant called Tlamanalli in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, with her sisters Rufina and Marcelina.
As she got on to her hands and knees to roll the mano over the metate grinding stone, Mendoza said through an interpreter that “this is how my people have made food for thousands of years and it is still what I do in my restaurant every day”.
“To use pre-prepared maize would be a travesty – it must be freshly ground. There is no comparison in taste.”
Ndoyiya describes herself as “a girl from Ezibeleni near Queenstown who grew up knowing that when my grandmother, MaSitatu, fed me umkhuphu [beans with maize meal], she was seeking to pass on her hopes, dreams and good wishes in each spoonful.”
In maize, the two women immediately recognised a deep and delicious sisterhood. As Mendoza described “milpas” fields at home, she referred to “the three sisters” she grows – describing her three main traditional crops and the manner in which they have been planted for thousands of years. Pumpkins, maize and climbing beans are grown together and develop a symbiotic relationship.
The maize provides the structure for the beans to climb, the beans introduce nitrogen into the earth and the pumpkins spread along the ground, preventing weeds from growing and retaining moisture in the soil. With the help of hand gestures and little drawings on a scrap of paper, they established that Ndoyiya’s family engage in an almost identical agricultural practice referred to in isiXhosa as ukuxabangela.
There was discussion of a Mexican ritual whereby Mendoza pours a maize drink onto her land to ask Mother Earth for permission to plant, which closely resembles the umqombothi ukunqula ceremonies carried out in the Eastern Cape.
While Mendoza pressed her ground corn into tlayudas (large tortilla) discs and cooked them to a perfect crispness, Ndoyiya stirred maize meal with a fork until a deliciously rough texture formed.
As she strained a batch of soured milk amasi curd out of a calabash, the former president’s chef recalled how she made this dish for Madiba on many occasions, including once “when he was in London at the Dorchester Hotel with all that fancy food – but he was just longing for umphokoqo. No one in London knew how to make it and we weren’t really allowed to bring sour milk and stuff on the plane, but he was craving it so we had to cook it all up in Johannesburg and then package it so it looked like a birthday gift. He was so happy when we got it to him.”
For all the similarities between the women, there was one significant difference – Mexicans have an ancient secret that they are eager to share. As Mexican ambassador Mauricio Escanero explained, “when maize was first introduced as a staple into farming systems other than those used by traditional native American people, a widespread problem of malnutrition and disease soon arose”.
“This was not seen among the indigenous Americans, for whom maize had been the staple for centuries. This is because we traditionally use most of the corn in the form of masa, whereby we soak dried maize in alkali water, made with ashes and lime.
“This soaking process, which is called nixtamalisation, makes the nutrients in corn much easier to absorb. Maize was introduced into the diet of nonindigenous Americans without the necessary cultural knowledge acquired over thousands of years in the Americas. That is what we hope to bring now.”
Ndoyiya tucked in to Mendoza’s tlayuda topped with seguesa (black bean and maize melange) with gusto. She was initially a little nervous of the chapulín grasshoppers that Mendoza had fried in garlic and lime, but was reassured when it was explained that the high-protein garnish had been harvested from the maize growing in the travelling chef’s garden.
Mendoza observed that the umphokoqo was “delicious. Fit for a president.”