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Quest for 100 core South African flavours

Quest for 100 core South African flavours
Flavours of bokkoms, a dried, salted fish. (Photo: Andy Fenner)

If we are what we eat, who are we? The 100 Flavours installation analyses the question and serves up some suggestions.

Drawing up a list of 100 South African flavours for a food installation at the V&A Waterfront’s Makers Landing, one hundred iconic edible items sounds like a lot, but as the person tasked with gathering opinions I can confirm that this number is nowhere near enough.

The project, curated by Studio H, can only be a beginning –  which is as it should be because there are no right or wrong answers in the quest for a country’s core tastes. The list was created after considerable consultation but nevertheless it is merely a tool with which to discuss, debate and thereafter to add/subtract epicurean entries. It is hoped that the 100 Flavours exhibition (which opened on 10 December 2020) will whet appetites for an exploration of South African identity through food.

The brief was impressively/absurdly ambitious. It potentially encompassed everything ever consciously consumed by people living on the land that we currently call South Africa. Space and time considerations resulted in a decision to focus on solid foods in the first iteration of this project but even that was easier said than done. When does eating become drinking? In many Southern African culinary cultures, the point at which a fermented porridge becomes a beer is blurred. So, umqombothi, mageu and even some of the meads made the 100 Flavours list. The sheer volume of wines threatened to overwhelm the endeavour so, for now, only Pinotage is included. Brandy is listed only in so far as it occurs infused with buchu or as a preserving agent for apricots (boeremeisies). 

It seemed sensible to start at the beginning. The first evidence of catching and controlling fire in South Africa predates our species. Homo ergaster was burning up a storm about one million years ago in Gauteng’s Cradle of Humankind but using fire to process food is one of Homo sapiens defining behavioural traits. Nowhere more so than in South Africa where flames regularly link ancestral eating experiences with modernity. Rather than a national dish, 21st century South Africans have a national cooking method which appears in each potjie pot and every post-prayers akhni (rice and spice mélange). It is charred into amarostile breads (roosterkoek or braai bread), wrapped onto sticks with stokbrood (bread on a stick). It is sizzled into every shisa nyama spot and brushed (along with apricot jam) into sides of snoek. Most of all, it is in the defining smell of a South African Sunday. From Atteridgeville to Zebedela, the coriander, fat and smoke laden loveliness of boerewors on a braai is everywhere apparent. All of the above eats and many more of our favourite fire foods are celebrated at the 100 Flavours exhibition. 

The sweetness of honey offers a similar stretch across time and space. Rock art experts are divided on which of the ancient images found all over South Africa depict termite hunting and which feature bees and honey collection so we combined the two. Edible termites (majenjhe in Xitsonga, madzhulu in Tshivenda and magoro in Sepedi) are a Limpopo delicacy which we displayed and described next to an itsili Xhosa traditional clay bee hive, a fynbos honey tasting table and a range of startling strong meads (including Khoi-style !Karri, Tswana-style Khadi and Xhosa IQhilika). Ancient rock art ought not to be understood as a menu or a diner’s wish list. Rather it shows a symbolic and spiritual relationship with bees and honey which is illustrated at Makers Landing with the /Xam creation myth – “How the Ichneumon discovered what the Mantis did with the honey.” It is not just the /Xam who use food and drink to explore a relationship with creator spirits. From Cape ingelegde vis (pickled fish) with hot cross buns at Easter to Baleni salt and ZCC tee ya thaba (herbal infusion drunk by members of the ZCC which they believe offers spiritual cleansing), many of us talk to God and God talks to us through food and drink. drink. Rigid Western divisions between food and medicine, medicine and spirituality often fall away in the South African space.

The exhibition explicitly acknowledges that the physical space upon which it is built is part of the the land that pre-colonial Khoi people called “Camissa” – //ammi i ssa and that, from the 15th century, there was a permanent Khoi trading station supplying food and fresh water to passing Dutch, British and Portuguese ships. Even prior to the Camissa food was a major influencing force in the layered human migrations that have characterised the last 4,000 years of South African history. Many of the favourite foods on show offer evidence of external ancestry but have been made new in response to our environment. This is as true of our drought and disease tolerant Nguni cattle and Khoi Cape fat tailed sheep as it is of some of the most iconic recipes. Melktert has both Dutch and Asian antecedents but the ratio of milk to eggs is completely different from either. Hence the unique taste and texture. Similarly, soetkoekies as we understand them today have travelled very far from the zoetenkoekjies that arrived in 1652. Slavery at the Cape created a culinary context in which forcibly displaced Asian people were cooking in an African environment with European overlords. Classic Cape Malay sweet-sour-spiced dishes such as denningvleis (Cape Malay sweetsour lamb), tamarind balls and tameletjies (classic Cape Malay toffee treat, sprinkled with pine kernels) reflect the adaptations in extremis required to survive such a situation. Huguenots brought brandied fruit preservation and an assortment of enriched doughs that in a Cape context became mosbolletjie breads. At the close of the 1700s British imperial expansion was accompanied by an exodus of trekboers who emphasised dried, preserved, travel friendly food such as droëwors, biltong and boerebeskuit. The 19th century arrival of indentured sugar workers added South Indian curry to the national flavour repertoire, especially in KwaZulu-Natal where bunny chow has become the ultimate South African sandwich. 

Bunny chow offers an opportunity to explore our extensive range of deceptively named dishes. No rabbits bounce into or out of a bunny chow. Monkey gland sauce isn’t quite as adventurous as it sounds. The “smiley” sheep is not really smiling (his lips are retracting in response to heat) and mopane “worms” are actually caterpillars. Some of the foods that feel most profoundly South African are surprisingly shallow. Chillies are not indigenous but can any of us imagine a life before chakalaka, mango atchar, Mrs. Balls chutney or pelepele (in Soweto this is what cayenne powder is called, used like salt as a seasoning once you have finished cooking) with street food inhloko (cow head) beef cheek? The extent to which South Africans adore maize is apparent in the plethora of maize based tastes and textures on display. Taste treats include whole green mealies cooked on an mbaula (street brazier) stove, light as air steamed maize breads and rough textured umngqusho samp and beans. Junk food junkies should know that there are madly multi-coloured Soweto style skopas popcorns and vibrant orange Nik Naks corn chips too… 

Our stigmatised “poverty foods” whether wild imifino (greens), tinned pilchards or Johanne 14 cabbage (township slang for cabbage) are part of who we are and are also on display because for, better or worse, food reflects the social, political, economic, climatic and historical forces within which it is grown, cooked and served. Colonial and later apartheid land policies have impacted on the availability of indigenous ingredients. Industrialised farming and mining migrant labour systems did promote large grained, bright white, dent maize varieties over the ekukanyeni and Tshitonga flint rainbow varieties that came before them. 

And yet, every now and then, South Africans do something so special and so sweet with food that eating is akin to falling in love. Want to feel that way? Treat yourself to some Tsonga xigugu at the 100 Flavours exhibition. Sometimes called “Tsonga chocolate” it is actually more like a salted caramel. Only much, much nicer. This fudge textured peanut and maize mélange is a labour of love requiring hours of pounding and sieving. It is given to prospective bride grooms at the end of engagement negotiations and is said to contain a love potion. Trust me, it is impossible not to love someone who gives you xigugu

In every ostrich egg water container, digging stick, grinding stone, clay pot bee hive, oblie yster waffle iron (used for making oblietjies, rolled wafers), jaffle maker, potjie pot and mbaula South Africans are explaining their identity. It is in each seven colours Sunday lunch and every Mogodu Monday. From mebos and moskonfyt to moatwana (chicken feet) and mother-in-law masala, we are what we eat. At the end of the exhibition there is space for visitors to add their edible entries and fill in the gourmet gaps. So, what are you waiting for? Come contribute to the list… DM/TGIFood

100 Flavours exhibition is at Makers Landing, Cape Town Cruise Terminal, V&A Waterfront, Cape Town.

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  • Judith Shopley says:

    Interesting concept. It is of course reminiscent of the Slow Food Arc of taste registry.
    I wonder if the exhibition might come to Johannesburg, Durban?

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