Delve into a can of comfort
It could also be of familiarity, nostalgia, joy or pride. Each can evokes some emotion and many memories for these are the cans South Africans love most, our most popular tinned foods.
More people in South Africa, it seems, buy tins of baked beans than any other canned food.
When I think of a can of baked beans I also think of white cardboard plates and people loading them at a table in a garden. Smoke from a braai curls around this picture. Those plates fill up with small piles of things, a little heap of vibrant purple, glistening and inevitably sweet pickled beetroot, then the best-seller baked beans, red-pink, also slightly sweet, a pile of them. Next to those goes a small pile of grated carrot, sweetened with orange juice and raisins and then a small heap of potato salad, glued together with not-quite mayonnaise that is also slightly sweet. There’s a small space left and a man with braai tongs reaches for a chop and plops it onto your plate, as the whole thing collapses helplessly into a radiant heap on the lawn.
“Don’t worry – that’s why we have dogs,” he says cheerfully and whistles. Two slavering rottweilers hurtle straight for the lurid lawn meal and disappear the lot via a massive lick apiece.
Apart from the baked beans featuring in suburban dramas as themselves, they take on roles of other foods, like meats or other beans that would have to be made from scratch. I do think that, apart from the familiar look of the product, its texture is a winsome aspect. Tinned baked beans are tender and appealing to the tongue. But I still reckon the best thing to do with baked beans is to mix them with a small bit of any miso except the “white” one. Just to conquer the sweetness with a little adult umaminess. If you don’t have any miso left, mix in a teaspoon or so of tamarind when you heat the beans and you’ll produce more of an interesting sweet-sour taste than the bland sweetness.
But you like them anyway, don’t you?, even straight from the can, so better than mentioning how to improve them, let me suggest context for them. I have seen baked beans tucked into good, old-fashioned Yorkshire puddings and something I feel makes a good combination is baked beans and mash, so what about Baked Beans Cottage Pie? Use the baked beans instead of the usual carrots and onions and leave out the minced beef altogether if you are a baked beans purist. Slather potato mash over the top, even maybe using some of the can juice in the mash. But don’t forget to put some butter on top of the mash topping and finish it under the grill for a nice crispy topping.
A can of chakalaka. It’s a likely thought that the gold miners from Mozambique would try and jolly up bland mine-hostel food with canned tomatoes, beans and veggies and some chilli, to seem more like home food. Everyone eats it now. With everything. With pap, with just bread, with chicken and now it’s taking over at braais from the old tamatie-en-ui sauce. It is made a lot of different ways, with lots of different vegetables, but generally a can of chakalaka will contain tomatoes, carrots, beans and chilli with curry powder.
You want to do something different with the can you’ve got. You can have it for breakfast or even lunch as Chakalaka Shakshuka. Luckily there’s no booze around because it could be tricky enunciating that either with a hangover or on the way to getting one. Have three eggs, even four but it’s easier with three. Fry some onion rings from an onion till beginning to caramelise. Add a few skinned, seeded tomatoes or even some tomato paste and mix that up over a medium heat. Then add that can of chakalaka. In the pan, make three good egg-size dents and crack the eggs into those, leaving them to poach in the burbling stew. Take the pan to the table to serve, for full effect.
Of course, a can of tomato and onion mix is a hot seller. It’s a useful and fairly cheap shortcut to chopping it all yourself. So turf the mix into what’s going to be soup, what’s going to be stew or curry, all those things. No-brainer stuff. No mystery. Like before the chakalaka goes into the pot for the shakshuka above, use half a can of this mix, instead and cook it a bit as though you’d chopped your own onions and skinned and deseeded those tomatoes.
Such a South African thing, a can of creamed sweetcorn. It’s on the yearn list for South Africans on other shores, along with Mrs Balls etc. The yearners just spoon it out of the can into their mouths when they get it. We usually used it for making Cheddar-cheesey sweetcorn bread baked in soup cans when we went on holidays, or sweetcorn fritters.
Cheese and creamed sweetcorn are firm friends and, if the cheese is taken up a taste notch, to grated parmesan or pecorino, the combo works very well in a fat, multi-egg omelette or frittata, with bacon crumbled into the mixture or bits of ham, chopped chives or the stems of spring onions included, all pan-cooked to creamy perfection. Then the whole thing is sliced at the table like a pie, which it almost is, just without the crust.
The label of a can of pilchards is always Lucky Star in the mind, though there are countless brands. It’s just the iconic one or ones, because there are a few varieties. Again, people do eat it straight from the can for a protein hit. I try to dodge the sauces but I like eating the soft bone with the flesh, spread on buttered toast with a squeeze of lemon juice, even dill.
Many people seem to like pilchards with mayo but if you take out the pieces, yes soft bone and all, and dip them in beaten egg and then with seasoned flour, quickly deep-fry them. The ensuing crispy outsides with soft insides can be good with that mayonnaise but, again, they’re great with just lemon squeezed over a nice, hot and crispy pile. And there’s no shortage of lemons around.
When South Africans see a can of apricot jam, if they’re not thinking With Bread, or With Scones, they are definitely thinking of snoek or yellowtail braai’d with a generous brushing of apricot jam. Our national pud, Malva Pudding, also owes its distinctiveness to that apricot jam within, and the vinegar of course.
About 20 years ago, there was a New Orleans-style craze for buttery fried breakfast sarmies filled with strawberries but, now that our taste buds are all grown up, and we love that sour-sweet apricot taste, make use of some of that white pre-sliced sandwich bread, even raisin bread or a better but soft white bread, without its crusts and cut diagonally. Add a drop of almond essence to the apricot jam and sandwich it between the twin diagonally cut slices of the bread, pressing the crustless edges together with the jam. Fry the sandwiches in butter till they are golden on both sides. Or you could brush the outsides of the sarmies generously with melted butter and grill them. Dust with icing sugar and have with breakfast coffee.
After disembarking at Cape Town to return to South Africa and I’d seen my first silver tree, the first drink I was given was granadilla juice, marvellously exotic and grown-up seeming for one more used to Lemon Barley Water. The label showed the “passion fruit” with its seeds but the drink was devoid of them. Not long afterwards, I ate the actual pulp from the fruit, with delight and have loved it ever since. It seems I’m far from being alone, since a can of granadilla pulp is one of South Africa’s favourite tinned items, which we use for putting in or on ice cream, fridge cakes and in yoghurt. I am sure I have not ever seen a pavlova without granadilla pulp on it. If you wondered, like I did, why people use the little cans of pulp instead of the granadillas growing on vines over their fences, it’s because they often think the actual fruit pulp is too sour and also they can get the cans in or out of granadilla season.
If you own one, don’t wait for a pavlova but just have some or all of it with cheese. The cheese could be something creamy or something stronger. Camembert or Brie but goats cheese or even milder blue cheeses are beautiful to look at and beautiful to eat with granadilla pulp spilled over them. Make a nice looking pile of cheese or just have one solo, pour the granadilla pulp over it and serve it with whole wheat or nutty biscuits or toast. If you want it to look even more grand, you could crumble some nuts up, toasted or not, and sprinkle them over the lot.
There must be many, many time-strapped curry fans for a can of vegetable curry to be one of our hottest sellers. You could at least warm it up, serve it on hot basmati (not with turmeric – the curry is already turmeric-looking), on a plate with fresh coriander leaves.
It also makes a happy soup, pureed and combined with a swirl of full-cream yoghurt and something crunchy like chopped radishes or maybe a bright nasturtium flower and its chopped leaves on the surface.
South Africans like to buy their syrup in cans, so a can of golden syrup might be the local Illovo or the beautiful green tin of Lyle’s imported golden syrup, the latter recognised for having the world’s oldest branding and packaging. It still features that lion. I used to think he was just badly drawn and used to worry about the flies or bees buzzing around him when I was a kid. Apparently he’s supposed to be a dead lion, Samson’s very one, in reference to the biblical story where bees made a comb in that dead lion’s carcass.
Most golden syrup is eaten on unhealthy slices of white bread, of course, or by healthy vegans instead of honey. It’s not corn syrup and regarded as something of a good food. South African flapjacks or crumpets simply have to have warmed golden syrup mixing with melting butter in a drippily delicious mess over them. Then there are our koeksusters, glossy and sticky with syrup.
I wasn’t at boarding school for very long before I started escaping but long enough to look balefully at a pudding that cropped up on whichever day of the week, consisting of very ugly uncustard in a pool of watered down syrup. I thought more than once of treacle tart.
Treacle tart is made with golden syrup because that’s what light treacle is. In shortcrust pastry for a pie crust of 22-23cm, pour in a mixture of one cup of golden syrup, a quarter cup of thick cream, a cup of breadcrumbs, zest from a lemon and 2Tbsp of its lemon juice. Bake the tart at 190°C for 35-40 minutes.
I looked at a list of Australia’s nine favourite cans and it’s not that dissimilar, with cherries replacing our granadilla pulp and no chakalaka of course, inter a few alia. Baked beans are tops there too. In lockdown, we and they certainly get the chance to look at these cans a lot more than usual and wonder about their whats and hows and whys. DM/TGIFood