The cuisine of Southern Africa (including Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland) has a highly multicultural history, with influences from the original indigenous people, as well as numerous waves of immigration from The Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Britain, as well as Indo-Asia. Beef is particularly prized in this part of the world and meat usually forms the centre of most meals. Dried food such as biltong (jerky, often made with antelope meat), droëwors (dried sausage) and rusks is also common to Southern Africa, which was born out of necessity for pioneers and travellers.
Seswaa, pap and morongo
Seswaa is a traditional dish of Botswana, and is one of those convenient national dishes that makes use of the cheap and tough cuts of meat, the meat in question usually being a combination of beef and goat still on the bone. The recipe is very simple: the meat is boiled in a pot with salt until tender, then pounded to help finalise the tenderisation process. Purportedly seswaa is often prepared by men because of the physical exertion necessary to pound and shred the meat. As a proud feminist, I tenderised my own meat, and found that it was not nearly as tiring as kneading dough or even stirring a pot continually. Maybe this legend lives on in part perpetuated by the women to allow themselves a break from domestic duties? Your secret is (sort of) safe with me, ladies! Seswaa is cooked traditionally in three-legged, cast iron lidded pots over open fires, called “potjie”, although I used a slow cooker, which produced a fabulous texture, but likely lost some of the smoky flavour. Potjie are also a common cooking vessel in South Africa, where a popular food is “potjiekos” (small pot food), describing a wide variety of stews cooked in a potjie. Although the ingredients of the potpie are flexible, usually comprising meat and vegetables with some subtle spices and alcohol to flavour the broth, there are strict rules about the cooking process: namely that the pot must not be stirred. The rule prevents the ingredients from breaking down and melding into a homogeneously-tasting mass, and ensures that each different ingredient maintains its own unique flavour. This method necessitates a low and slow heat, and has created a custom of taking the excuse of the long cooking time to socialise around a fire with your dinner guests, making the ritual of the dish a strong glue of the community. Indeed seswaa is always at the top of the catering list for any big community event, from weddings to funerals. I served my seswaa with the traditional pap (a porridge of cornmeal popular under different pseudonyms all over Africa), morongo (stewed spinach and vegetables) and fried plantains, which are actually more typical of more northern parts of Africa, but I had some to spare and they are a particular favourite of mine.
Butha-buthe is a soup from Lesotho, one of only three countries in the world that is entirely surrounded by another single country, in this case South Africa. It is named for a region in northern Lesotho, which, perhaps due to its high elevation and comparably cooler weather than other parts of Africa, particularly delights in warming soups. Indeed, the name “Butha-buthe” means “place of lying down”, enhancing the comforting, relaxed vibe of this district and meal. I was drawn to this dish because, at first glance it seems like a fairly standard healthy soup, with a base of legumes (yellow split peas), flavoured with onion, turmeric, coriander and parsley, and bulked up with a little rice flour and heaping handfuls of spinach. However, further down the recipe list lurks a surprise: fresh tangerines! Recipes sometimes call for their juice, zest, whole inclusion, or a combination of these, but it is always a necessary ingredient in the soup. At first I was a little shocked by this, as I had never come across tangerines in a soup before. However, upon reflection, I’ve added lemon to soups and stews from many parts of the world, and lime to almost every soup from South-East Asia, both of which reliably add a wonderfully fresh zing to the dish in question. Of course, then, there’s no reason why other citrus fruits, tangerines included, wouldn’t work well in savoury soups! I faithfully added my tangerines, and finished off the dish with a dollop of plain yoghurt. My instincts were correct: the tangerines were a wonderful inclusion and elevated the other simple ingredients with their sweet tangy flavours, creating a surprisingly light and refreshing meal from what could have been a hot and stodgy mush. It is this kind of revelation that I crave and started this project to find more of – further evidence that, hidden all over the world, there are pockets of human ingenuity in flavour combinations and food preparation that truly need to be tasted to be appreciated.
Borewors, pap and chakalaka
Borewors is a long spiral sausage from South Africa, usually made with beef and another meat such as pork or lamb, and spiced with ingredients like coriander seed, nutmeg, black pepper, cloves and allspice. The word for barbecued in South Africa is “braaied”, which is a common and important concept in South African cuisine, as many social occasions are centred on the outdoor grill. Indeed there is even a Braai day annually on the 24th September, which celebrates multiculturalism, acceptance and unity among all cultures and religions, by sharing a meal around a barbecue. Wikipedia reliably informs me that there is a Guinness World Record for the longest borewors, which measured 1,557.15 metres, which makes mine seem rather paltry in comparison. Pap is a white corn meal mash/porridge that is a staple food in much of Southern Africa. It is sometimes eaten as a breakfast food, but also commonly served with borewors. Chakalaka typically accompanies pap; it’s a spicy vegetable and bean relish with a base of tomatoes. These mixtures of legumes, spices and vegetables are among my favourite dishes, not least because it allows the thrifty cook to get rid of all of the ageing vegetables in the fridge, and also because it’s a delicious way to consume a lot of said vegetables in a single sitting. The spiciness of the chakalaka goes splendidly with the blander pap and altogether comprises a fantastic new take on the concept of “bangers and mash”.
Bobotie is a South African dish of mince spiced with onion, curry powder, apple, carrot, raisins, ginger and garlic, topped with a mixture of egg, milk and turmeric and then baked and topped with bay leaves. I have to admit, I wasn’t quite sure about this dish when I first heard of it, but it turned out to be delicious. Who knew savoury custard was the perfect accompaniment to curry-flavoured meat? Apparently bobotie is quite an ancient recipe indeed, a variant purportedly appearing in an ancient Roman cook book “Apicius” in the 4th century AD. The name “bobotie” is considerably younger, first being referenced in a Dutch cook book in the 1600s, although the etymology of the name remains mysterious. It may originate from the Malayan word “boemboe”, which refers to curry spices, or alternatively the Indonesian word “bobotok” which is an entirely different meal.