Pre-pandemic I was all for mocking romantic restaurant Valentine’s Day dinners. I dismissed them as a money-making ploy to fill the gourmet gap between the departure of the Christmas Turkey and the arrival of the Easter Bunny. Reminding my nearest and dearest that the real St Valentine was not only celibate but also clubbed to death and then beheaded seemed stylishly cynical.
Now? Not so much. I am nostalgic for the days before social distancing, booze bans and curfews when I blithely assumed that there would be endless opportunities for amorous eating out. I am aware that, even if (please God) my husband and I are alive, economically afloat and vaccinated by this time next year, many of the hospitality hotspots we loved will not have survived.
So, this year I am setting aside cynicism in favour of romance with a capital R. Which is where xigugu (pronounced shi-gugu) comes in. My first introduction to xigugu came through Mpumalanga food heritage activist Praising Mabunda who observed that this traditional treat “is like Tsonga Ferrero Rocher”.
Although there is no chocolate in xigugu, Praising’s description does give some sense of its luxuriously layered compatible yet contrasting sequence of tastes and textures. The dark, glossy, subtly sweet, salty, smoky, buttery blend of roasted maize and peanuts might also be compared to salted caramel or peanut butter fudge but ultimately none of the above is entirely accurate. Xigugu is its own epicurean experience. And I love it.
My adoration of xigugu has an evolutionary explanation. According to Barb Stuckley, author of Taste: Surprising stories and science about why food tastes good, humans are biologically driven to appreciate energy rich, sweet foods and essential mineral laden salty flavours. Our brains interpret the simultaneous consumption of sweet and salty as extreme satisfaction because Stuckey says the combination is “like hearing beautiful music while sniffing rose petals: two positive sensory stimuli”.
While xigugu is served in some platonic social situations (and is traditionally made following the harvesting and drying of corn and peanuts) it is most often a literal labour of love. In rural Mpumalanga and Limpopo, the manufacture of xigugu not only requires hours of dedicated roasting, pounding and sieving but also plays a role in the ceremonial customs attendant on Tsonga-Shangaan ma lovolo (bride-wealth) negotiations. Prospective partners are not directly involved in the dialogue between their families but once an agreement is reached the bride cooks her groom a meal of chicken (huku ya m’konwana, which directly translates as son-in-law’s chicken) at her parents’ home and presents him with a gift of xigugu. This xigugu accompanies the bride from her parents’ home into her groom’s clan as the couple start their new life together. In such situations xigugu is said to represent the bride’s hopes for a sweet life and also a recognition of the hard work that goes into maintaining successful relationships. Like life, there are no shortcuts with xigugu. Only experienced, patient, hard-working human hands are sufficiently subtle to create the correct texture – those who have tried to make xigugu in a blender have found themselves with an oily mess.
Just in case hoping and hard work are not enough, nuptial xigugu includes korobela so as to guarantee the groom’s love and fidelity in future. Praising observes that “the tonic is said to infuse via the nut oils into his body so that he will only have eyes for his woman ever after”.
Everlasting love exists in many incarnations. Commercial production of xigugu is extremely rare but Chef Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen, Managing Director at the Prue Leith Culinary Institute, Centurion, recently purchased a batch from Praising Mabunda. Inspired by taste, texture and traditions, the chef school students have created xigugu ice cream sandwiches. This Valentine’s Day the afore-mentioned xigugu-laden cookies embracing xigugu ice cream with dark chocolate mousse and a peanut praline appear on the institute’s restaurant menu (R95). For those wanting to reenact the whole huku ya m’konwana experience there is a chermoula-stuffed chicken ballotine on the main menu too.
While restrictions on the sale of alcohol have recently been lifted, and Prue Leith Culinary Institute has a superb cellar, there is no greater love than volunteering to be the designated driver. Those carrying the car keys should know that the restaurant also keeps a wide range of artisan cordials, non-alcoholic beers, wines, gins and mocktails. Tables are well spaced and waiters are masked but, if eating at home is less anxiety inducing, everything on the menu (including the ice cream sandwich) is also available as posh-nosh, plated takeaway.
Next year, if we are all still here and vaccinated, my cynicism might return, but for now xigugu’s sweet-salty promise of everlasting love appeals to the rose petals and music in me… DM/TGIFood
Xigugu can be ordered from Praising Mabunda by contacting her on 076 429 2175 or [email protected]
Prue Leith Restaurant is open for lunch, dinner and home dining. 262 Rhino Ave, Hennopspark, Centurion. 012 654 5203 Prue Leith.co.za
The movie Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is titled It’s Raining Falafel in Israel.
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