Monday, February 28, 2011

The Last Suppers

How could I leave this country without a final public sharing of what I’ve eaten and cooked in my last few weeks?  With the dwindling days, there were certain “must-eats” that I either tried for the first time or ate again as I doubt I will run into them in the Peg. 

Sarah and I jumped back onto the workshop circuit in Qunu and relished in the heaping Xhosa plates.  Butternut, papa (stiff pap), imifuno (spinach and wildd greens), mngqusho (samp and beans), beetroot, chakalaka (spicy tomato and onion relish), and of course mountains of meat.  After being here for 6 months, we became aware of our new approach to eating while being reunited with Canadians!  For example, we have picked up the local use of spoons to eat, our hands to get all the meat off the bones, and toothpicks to clean our teeth.  I know you’re reading this Jos, but it was funny to observe the Canadian use of forks and knives and it was all I could do not to pick up their bones and strip them clean!

The General-one of ourcolleagues enjoying a "legging"

This may not have been my smartest move as I was still suffering some of the effects of Mthatha water, but I had try the curried chicken foot or “leggings” that I was offered with toenails still attached.  Also, I had a proper fat cake; also known as vetkoek in Afrikaans or amagwenya in Xhosa-dense balls of fried bread.  Both chicken feet and fat cake are sold from big buckets outside of our WSU offices.

My food journey has also included me learning and trying recipes after interrogating friends and catering women.

One interesting dish is umvubo-porridge with sour milk.  The ingredients are simple: super fine maize meal (mealies that are ground to a coarse flour) and amasi (fermented milk traditionally prepared by storing unpasteurised cow's milk in a calabash or hide sack).

Maize meal and amasi, umvubo or umphokoqo
In rural areas, it would be made in a huge three legged pot outside—sadly I could not recreate that!  We boiled water with salt, then poured in the maize meal to form a tall pyramid which sat and cooked before I attempted to stir the cement-like mixture.  When it’s cooked and clump-free, you spoon out the crumbly pap into bowls and walk outside with a fork to fold cold air into it so that it cools down.  In a jug, you mix the amasi and full cream (of the long life variety which is another new thing) and then pour it all over the bowl of cooled pap.  Amasi is an acquired taste, a bit like Greek yoghurt or cottage cheese, but very filling and nice!   

In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, he describes how he cautiously left a comrade's apartment—his hiding place in a white area when he was wanted by the Apartheid government—after he overheard two Zulu workers comment that it was strange to see milk on the window sill (left out to ferment) because whites did not drink amasi.  

My culinary horizons now extend to other forms of pap porridge and stiff pap, butternut squash and pumpkin, mngqusho, and braised meat stews all with thumbs-up approval!  Using simple techniques, often in one pot with little finicky preparation or attention. Using whatever spices you have around the house (including the national staple Aromat) and avoiding the two enemies of water and high heat, the tough cuts of stewing meat cook down to tender fatty chunks that fall off the bone and the hard cubes of pumpkin and butternut become soft and sweet with a little help from butter and sugar.  I can’t wait to try this all out for family and friends in Canada!

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