Pumpkins – the canny gardener’s pot of gold

Pumpkins – the canny gardener’s pot of gold
The oudtydse boerpampoen – American Big Max pumpkin cross – which Karen grows in her farm garden. It makes for a large pumpkin with a meaty flesh. Photo: Karen McEwan

Pumpkins are like South Africans – “plat op die aarde” (flat on the ground). Our veiny tendrils connect us, grabbing hold of those closest and intertwining our cultures and communities. Carve through our tough outer shells and inside you’ll find a heart of gold.

My mother is an avid gardener. Everything she touches grows with vigour and determination. One year, we had a spinach crop over 1.5 metres tall. It was right after a hailstorm and everything in the garden had boomed to Frankenstein proportions from all the nitrates in the soil.

Her green fingers have been a blessing for everyone involved. For the most part.

A few years ago, she planted the usual pre-summer combo of South African oudtydse boerpampoene and watermelons in our lush farm garden. Watermelons are a South African summer staple and we waited in anticipation until December for the yield, so we could throw the juice-balloons into the farm dam on those crazy hot summer days. This trick, my dad believes, cools down the watermelon quickest for our eager consumption.

We must have suspected that something was amiss when we picked the first one. It was heavier than a sack of corn and took two strong men to carry it up the steep slope to our kitchen.

The puzzle of the lead-like watermelon was solved when we slaughtered it in half. The results were as disappointing as they were amusing. The watermelons had cross-bred with the nearby boerpampoene, creating a watermelon crop with juicy inner texture, but the unmistakable taste of raw pumpkin. Even the colour was offish, more of a pale peachy hue as opposed to the desirable reddish-pink.

The pumpkins, again, had spongy watermelon-like inners. These, too, had been compromised by the unexpected cross-breeding. “The texture of watermelon, heavy as lead, no taste at all and extremely watery,” my mom recalls.

My mother’s Frankenstein pumpkin-watermelon crosses. They were used solely for decoration. Photo: Elanie Lombard

That year, we stuck to the Sweet Melons for summer. These had, luckily, been planted far away in another corner of the garden. But we missed our pumpkin harvest dearly for the next couple of months. It’s a staple in our home, as it is in many South African homes.

Dishes like pampoenkoekies and pampoenpoffers are synonymous with Afrikaans food culture. During the peak of our Lombard family catering business, my mom fried up at least 400 “poffertjies” every week. The fluffy, sweet morsels covered in a thin, custard-like glaze are still served at every self-respecting Afrikaans wedding. And rightfully so; they’re downright delicious.

Then there’s the beloved soetpampoen, which was cool before Michelin star chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen made a sweet pumpkin pie, as an ode to his South African roots. My dad loves his soetpampoen, which is the perfect side to Karoo leg of lamb or, his favourite, frikkadels and mash.

The thing with these Afrikaans recipes is that the sugar and butter used often overshadow the delicious earthy and nutty flavours of pumpkin. My mom would say that “it at least got us to eat our vegetables”. However, I doubt that our pampoentert would ever pass as a vegetable in the eyes of a nutritionist.

The Afrikaans favourite, pampoenpoffertjies served with its classic glazing at a local wedding. Photo: Celeste Lombard

The traditional Xhosa and Zulu dishes that include the versatile vegetable are typically less sugary… Imithwane is a pumpkin leaf and butter melange that often features the addition of masala. The most eaten, perhaps, is isigwamba – a traditional recipe made with pumpkin leaves, chopped onion and spinach, boiled together in a small amount of water and maize meal to create a pap dish that shines on its own, or can be served with braaied meat.

Isijingi is another pap and pumpkin flesh mixture made with chunks of pumpkin (leftovers work great), mashed into warm pap with butter. Ilaxa, meanwhile, is made with a mixture of pumpkin leaves cooked with fresh pumpkin.

When making a dish with pumpkin leaves, be sure to select the younger, more tender leaves for the best nutty taste. Photo: Nikki Brighton

Young leaves, tendrils and tiny pumpkins can provide food even while the larger fruit still grows. Photo: Nikki Brighton

The Xhosa and Zulu aren’t afraid to use the entire plant – not just its fruits – in farm-to-table eating.

From the Mpophomeni township in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, the cookbook Mnandi – A taste of Mpophomeni celebrates just this; freshly grown garden food from a community that shares its delight in seasonal produce. It also celebrates eating everything nature has to offer and creating delicious recipes from often disregarded parts.

Pumpkin features front and centre, celebrating these lesser-known recipes with the leaves, flesh and even pumpkin stems.

The fiddly preparation of stripping the strings (which taste bitter) from the stems and leaf veins is well worth the effort as pumpkin leaves are nutty and sweet,” says Midlands-based writer Nikki Brighton, who compiled the Mnandi cookbook.

Pumpkin stems add sensational crunch to any salad or sarmie. It can even be substituted for pasta penne, when cut in the right shape! Just add a sauce of your choice. Photo: Nikki Brighton

Pumpkins epitomise abundance,” she says. “You get a lot of different meals from one plant.” In fact, you can eat pumpkin while the fruit is still forming. “Young leaves, tendrils and tiny pumpkins are picked and eaten as the plants grow, ensuring that the plant’s energy is put into producing just a few fabulous pumpkins,” Nikki says. “Often many of the small pumpkin fruits rot or fall off, so you might as well eat them before that happens.

My favourite way of eating pumpkin leaves is to shred the leaves and stir-fry until tender, then add a little garlic, fresh chilli and chopped tomatoes. From a Zimbabwean friend, I learnt to stir in two tablespoons of peanut butter and cook for another minute or two. I also adore the ‘umlungu’ version of isigwamba,” she says, “cooked pumpkin leaves mashed into soft polenta.”

The leaves contain almost 3g of protein per 100g, cooked, as well as phosphorus, potassium, manganese and Vitamin B. I’d argue that this is probably a healthier way of eating pumpkin, as opposed to the sugary-buttery versions of my childhood.

There’s no wasting with pumpkin. You can consume the entire plant – leaves and all – but be sure always to save seeds from your own, homegrown pumpkins for next season. This is paramount. “Each year the pumpkins are better suited to growing conditions in your area and so you build a resilient seed bank,” Nikki says.

Karen McEwan, from Fairfield Farm & Garden just outside Middelburg in the Eastern Cape, agrees. She’s considered the pumpkin queen of our region and makes a pumpkin preserve in which chunks of pumpkin are candied to become almost see-through, like stained-glass morsels of gold.

She also recommends eating the stems. “You peel back the thorny outer layer and then add them to a fresh salad or a gourmet sarmie. They taste similar to watercress, but have a delightful crunch that adds dimension to any dish.”

She says pumpkin is like a treasured pot of gold for any gardener.

Karen also practises cross-breeding in her garden, slightly more successfully than what we experienced with our unfortunate pumpkin-melon mishap.

She’s crossed our oudtydse boerpampoene, which can be a bit watery, with those large fleshly American pumpkins called Big Max – the orange ones used for Halloween. The result is a large and hardy pumpkin with the perfect flesh-to-moisture ratio.

(See main photo)

But still, “one should never boil pumpkin”, she says. “It’s the least effective way to harness all the good qualities of the vegetable. Everything becomes a watery mess. Even when making pumpkin soup, it’s best to always roast the pumpkin first,” Karen says.

Pumpkins are relatively easy to grow. Even in challenging conditions, they require little attention, which is probably the reason they are so popular and prevalent in South African food culture.

Nieu-Bethesda in the Eastern Cape even has an annual pumpkin festival – the Nieu Bethesda Pump Palooza. Here, the locally brewed pumpkin beer made by the Two Goats Brewery is a sure hit while local growers eagerly await the weighing of their pumpkin giants. The largest one, in 2018, weighed a whopping 177kgs.

The bumper harvest at Karen’s Fairfield Farm and Garden. The pumpkins are a favourite among kids, who adore the odd shapes and sizes. Photo: Karen McEwan

The kids love these quirky, often misshapen pumps. And hopefully, it can inspire them to grow their own food one day. “Teaching young people to grow food and medicine and become more self-sufficient is the most important thing we can do,” says Ntombenhle Mtambo, one of the Mnandi cookbook’s recipe contributors.

Pumpkins are a lot like South Africans, I think. Like pumpkin plants, we are “plat op die aarde” (flat on the ground), as the Afrikaans saying goes. Our veiny tendrils also connect us, grabbing hold of those closest and intertwining our cultures and communities. Carve through our tough outer shells and inside you’ll find a heart of gold that can draw from its humble composition enough resources to delight, feed, and inspire new growth that will be specially adapted for the seasons to come.

In search of a pumpkin recipe to spice up your next party? Try Nikki’s 50th Birthday pumpkin “stew”…

Caramelized pumpkin crescents celebrate the natural sugars in pumpkin, which is paired with a sweet-and-sour prune and onion sauce. Photo: Nikki Brighton

1 pumpkin, cut into crescents

2 tbsp olive oil

2 tbsp brown sugar

1 cinnamon coil



For the sauce

2 tbsp butter or olive oil

10 small onions, peeled

5 garlic cloves, peeled

1 cup prunes, pitted

1/2 cup almonds, blanched, to serve

handful parsley, chopped, to serve

sourdough bread, to serve

Sprinkle crescents of pumpkin with olive oil, salt, pepper, brown sugar and add cinnamon before roasting in the oven until browned.

Then, fry the small onions in butter or olive oil until golden, add garlic cloves and prunes and just enough water to cover. Simmer until water is absorbed and add a little more as needed. The onions must become soft and caramelised all the way through and the prunes need to start to disintegrate into the sauce. This should take about 20 minutes.

Pour the sauce over the pumpkin pieces with lots and lots of fresh parsley and almonds, and serve with millet or chunks of sourdough bread. DM


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