Food activist and Eat Out judge, Mkogadi Itsweng, says knowledge and awareness of Africa's indigenous foods starts with chefs and cooks.
Eating consciously and sustainably is an urgent necessity. We are living in times of climate uncertainty and disease. Latching onto our indigenous food means having ingredients that are good for our health and good for the planet.
Chef, food activist and Eat Out judge, Mokgadi Itsweng who is passionate about indigenous foods knows a lot about their health and nutritional values. The accessibility of indigenous foods starts with knowing that they grow naturally and abundantly in Africa. We speak to Mokgadi about how we can make them more accessible.
What indigenous ingredients are you obsessed with? Which do you have in your kitchen?
I’m obsessed with the leafy greens, beans, and tubers. Leafy greens are collectively called morogo or imifino and they include amaranth (thepe in Setswana, Sesotho and Sepedi or imbuya in isiZulu); blackjack; spider flower (lerotho in Sepedi, Sesotho and Sestwana) and okra leaves (delele). I also love chomolia which is Zimbabwean. I refer to it as indigenous as it can grow on our soil. It is not a wild leafy green. You have to grow it. Chomolia is big here now because we and Zimbabweans are almost like one people, just separated by borders. Our food is very similar, especially when you go towards Limpopo.
The beans I love are ditloo (bambara nuts); cowpeas (black-eyed peas or dinawa) and mung beans. Mung beans were indigenized from India. They grow here and have become part of what we eat. They’re eaten mostly in Limpopo, Mpumalanga. The grains we have are sorghum and millet. And the tubers are amadumbe.
Leafy greens are so abundant. We’re always complaining about food security, but we have leafy greens that grow wildly here. With indigenous plants we eat everything, nothing is wasted. With okra, for example, we eat the leaves and the pod. We also eat the bambara nut leaves. Mung beans, bambara nuts and cowpeas are easily accessible and they are good for the earth – they add nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil.
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Sorghum is also good for the planet and good for our health. It’s gluten-free and packed with protein. It’s the perfect ingredient for many vegans and vegetarians. And it adds minerals back to the earth. It’s one we need to grow and it’s sad that over the years, it was pushed aside and made to be the stepsister to maize. This is mainly due to commercial farming. Maize is easier to farm (although it is not sustainable – it needs more water) than sorghum because sorghum grows wild. Harvesting sorghum and millet takes more manpower. It’s the same with amaranth, it gets big. And it’s not just the leaves that we eat, we even eat the grain – it is the same kind of grain as quinoa. You can crush it and make it into flour and make biscuits with it. You can even make soft porridge with it. So our indigenous ingredients are incredibly versatile.
Accessibility starts with knowing that indigenous plants are ours and grow abundantly here. Do we also need to access them through a mental shift?
Definitely! I believe chefs and feeders (everyone that cooks) are at the forefront of accessibility. If chefs are using the ingredients in their menus and showing people how to use them and enjoy them, that’s how people shift their minds. So, education is key. The more they learn about and use these indigenous ingredients, the more people will be curious. I have seen it with bambara nuts (ditloo) which for me are the ultimate beans. My grandmother cooked them for us growing up and that’s how I got to know, eat and love them. I’m using them now in new ways and sharing them with friends and they’re hooked. So, the feeders – whoever is cooking – has the power to change perceptions.
Accessibility is also about us not being ashamed of our indigenous ingredients and ditching stigmatizations like ‘poverty food.’ And again, for me playing and experimenting with ditloo has helped change the perceptions of the food and has made it appealing to others. So, the mental shift starts with the feeders and the cooks.
How affordable are our indigenous ingredients?
Affordability is a big thing when it comes to accessibility. If we are to give people good food, it has to be food that is affordable to all. You can get bambara nuts at SPAR for R30. There’s a nut shop in Randburg that sells bambara for R20. Some retailers are seeing that they need to stock indigenous ingredients because customers are asking for them. The price point of some of them from upmarket suppliers is high, but I think the more demand there is, the more farmers will grow them – and the prices will come down. When there’s demand and enough supply, the price equalizes. Right now, there’s not enough supply. That’s where the problem is because whoever supplies the product can name their price.
Where else can we get indigenous food?
You can access them through local markets. I grow some of mine. When I run out, I go to the mamas who sell fresh greens at the taxi ranks. They have great indigenous knowledge!
I’m so excited that Woolworths now stocks sorghum grains. With the grain, you can make so many things from salads to baked goods. And it’s so cheap – just under R30. For me, that’s a win. It shows we’re on the right track; that these ingredients are going to be in everyone’s kitchen. With Woolworths setting the standard and stocking them, other retailers might follow suit. And they might even be cheaper, but the competition is healthy. I’m also blown away by how open-minded SPAR has been and continues to be. With the retailer being owner-managed, it’s able to tap into what specific communities want. You can find amadumbe and thepe at some SPARS. Thepe is also available at selected Checkers stores as part of the Indian ingredients section where you also find plantain and bambara nuts.
Food preparation when it comes to some indigenous food can be intimidating. How do we help people incorporate indigenous ingredients into their daily lives in easy ways?
I know that some food producers like Local Village Foods are working on a ready-made sorghum product that is pre-cooked. All you have to do is warm it up. (A ready-made bambara nut in a can is also in the works from them).
Through their Future 50 Foods project, Knorr is also looking into incorporating indigenous ingredients into their pre-packaged goods.
It’s our job as feeders to help people bring indigenous food into their daily lives. I like to soak my sorghum. It takes me an hour to cook once I have soaked it. But I also batch cook it and then I freeze it. When I need it, I simply take it out of the freezer.
I like to make morogo with pasta. Ditloo as I said is my favourite. I love its bold flavour. I use it in curries – a vegetarian or chicken curry. It’s so delicious and creamy. I also make falafels and veggie cakes with it. I also like to make hummus with it. Hummus is essentially a bean dip so you can use any bean for it. With the looming chickpea shortage, we might as well use our own beans.
Do you cook with indigenous foods at home? Tell us in the comments section below how you like to enjoy them!