The chef and consumer scientist speaks on her mission to mainstream and popularise indigenous foods.
Sorghum evokes nostalgic and homecoming memories associated with ritual and the ceremonial. This traditional grain is an intrinsic part of our heritage that provides sustenance. But it often gets positioned as “poverty food” with other indigenous crops – an unfortunate stigmatisation.
With The Sorghum Agenda, a growing digital series now boasting over 4,000 followers, Queen Finxa is challenging perceptions and attitudes about how we view and consume sorghum and other indigenous foods. Her fun and exciting recipes, ranging from her sorghum bakes and desserts to experimental savoury dishes, are a hit. She shares insights and motivations behind her passion project for a necessary conversation.
What memories does sorghum bring up for you?
I grew up in a home that embraced sacred traditions and ceremonials. My first encounter with sorghum was in a clay pot being passed around in my grandmother’s yard, as the men each took a sip in their show of gratitude to badimo (ancestors). In the same way, sorghum was on each table when we had mekete (ceremonies) as a show of thanksgiving. A very distinct fermented aroma remains ingrained in me. One of my favourite memories will always be waking up to a big bowl of steaming mabele porridge on the table at my grandmother’s house (a staple breakfast). I guess sorghum for me is firstly an ode to my grandmother, and then an ode to the generations that raised me.
The Sorghum Agenda has been long in the making, having started in the final year of your consumer sciences studies at the University of Pretoria in 2019, when you conceptualised a dinner highlighting indigenous crops. What’s your intention with it?
The actual inception happened a few months before – a lightbulb moment. I heroed sorghum in my recipe/product development module. When I was awarded the prize for the most innovative and creative product, I realised how little exposure the food I considered a staple actually had. When it did, it was looked down upon, which didn’t exactly do justice to the memories I embraced. The Sorghum Agenda started with me sharing my story with the grain and has grown into a passion project that sets out to have more people embracing African indigenous foods. The objective is for our culinary contributions and our voices to matter. And this, I hope, will end with institutions such as retail and academia embracing our food and giving it better access, in the way we see it.
You have developed exciting recipes, from your sorghum cookies to your sorghum banana bread. What are you learning from working with the crop?
The grain requires patience and intention. You have to consider it outside of simply copying and pasting a recipe and assuming it will work. It has different forms that interact differently. From grain to flour each speaks to a different use, purpose and flavour.
What has working with local farmers of sorghum informed you about its faring when it comes to climate change and sustainability?
The crop is quite resilient and speaks to what we currently need more of in a world where the climate is changing, water supplies are decreasing and heat is rising. My favourite collaboration has been with Local Village Foods, which have been instrumental in making the different forms of sorghum more accessible, amongst other African indigenous grains. The brand, like myself, is very devoted to creating agricultural connections across the continent to supply sustainably grown indigenous African ingredients. I think neglecting the communities that take care of that land and the wealth of knowledge within indigenous systems is not sustainable. It affects the use of the resources and contributes negatively to the ever-affected climate. Sustainability starts with acknowledging the gatekeepers of the indigenous systems and working with them.
The overall agenda is popularising and mainstreaming all indigenous foods and grains. Why is this important to you?
Having studied consumer sciences and culinary arts, it has been quite an experience to see how much European cuisine is simply accepted without question. Our African food often seems to require explanation, motivation and pardons to somehow find a place at the table. It’s puzzling how African food is not palatable on its own land. A dear mentor and friend, the late chef Lesego Semenya, shared with me the vision to simply be unapologetic in our food and break down all the glass ceilings that convinced society that it wasn’t “fine dining”.
How can local academic institutions play their part in standardising African cuisine?
Local academic institutions need to first and foremost hire Black people. I can’t stress this enough. Give space for Black people to teach their food, to communicate their stories and to educate on its significance and history. Centre indigenous people in the education of indigenous systems.
What messages are you hoping to convey about the marketing of and how we consume sorghum and other indigenous foods?
Our food is beautiful! The “poverty foods” stigma strips away the enjoyment for those who would like to think they are moving beyond the traumas of their poverty. The constant need to be perceived as being accomplished shouldn’t come at the detriment of one’s heritage. Transformation is required to help mainstream our underutilised and unappreciated crops as this will not only help the environment but also the people. There is a great opportunity to educate people on the foods they haven’t been exposed to and to create an awareness that drives demand. We can use this to help build a healthy and sustainable food system that creates local employment, diversifies our consumed food and encourages overall wellbeing.