A throwback to a South African grain with a look at its culinary and nutritional potential.
When Food24’s head of content, Tessa Purdon, shared with the team an article paying homage to mielie rice (or maize rice) as the grain of South African Indians, it sparked a nostalgic memory, a personal enquiry and the conception of this piece.
When I was growing up, mielie rice was a regular feature on our lunch or dinner table. Whenever my dad cooked, his go-to meal was curry and rice made specifically with mielie rice that he would brag about. The delicious dish earned him his bragging rights. I haven’t had mielie rice since those early years of my childhood and I wondered why?
The connection and separation with mielie rice seems to be generational. While mielie rice is available in retail stores (from Ace and Iwisa to the Woolworths’ private label), it is in low volumes and seemingly relegated to occasional and ceremonial consumption. It is not completely forgotten but it remains in the background. The aim of this story is to remember the grain. To see if it would be worth bringing it to the foreground, especially given current conversations around revisiting and engaging with our local grains.
The above-mentioned article gives historical context around the consumption of mielie rice back in the day. When indentured Indian labourers arrived in the port of KwaZulu-Natal, they worked on British sugar cane plantations under poor conditions comparable to slavery. They had a limited supply of food and ingredients. There was a shortage of rice due to the challenge of growing it in South Africa’s climate. However, maize, which is a South African staple but not indigenous to the country, grew in abundance. Mielie rice then became a substitute for rice in “authentic South African Indian dishes”.
The distinction is important to food blogger and recipe developer Lorraine Maharaj, who is all too familiar with this history.
“I say ‘authentic’ because most dishes cooked by South African Indians are unique to the rest of the world,” she points out. “The love for anything maize comes from this history. In our home, my mum made a mielie meal porridge, sour porridge, mielie bread, mielie meal roti and mielie rice. These were the most popular maize dishes in Indian homes. It was affordable and sustained the large families in our homes,” Lorraine shares.
“My mum always cooked mielie rice with dry fish chutney. Meat was expensive so dried fish (snoek) added flavour to what would otherwise be a plain tomato-based ‘sauce’. The older generation absolutely loved mielie rice and dry fish chutney. The two paired so well together. Sometimes it would be a dry fish and boiled egg chutney.
“Mielie rice is no longer a meal of sustenance in most homes today. It is now a delicacy in Indian homes. The humble mielie rice is a reminder of how far we’ve come. It reminds us of the struggles our forefathers endured to create a better life for us. That makes us so much more grateful for everything we have today,” says Lorraine.
These days, mielie rice doesn’t sell so well. For Botselo Mills, which specialises in maize products, mielie rice only accounted for 0.5% of their overall sales in 2021, for example.
“I think it has something to do with consumers going for what they know and not wanting to make that jump or take a chance with maize rice. There may also be some misconstrued perceptions that maize rice is the poor man’s equivalent of rice. I think it’s unfortunate because maize rice has good nutritional value and it is reasonably cheaper than rice,” says Lianda Rautenbach of Botselo Mills’ research and development department.
Mielie rice and nutrition
“Maize rice is gluten-free, although you may not see that readily labelled on the packaging. It is a good product for people who are gluten-intolerant. It can be used as a replacement for couscous, which is a wheat product,” Lianda points out.
Arthur Ramoroka is a corporate nutritionist at Tiger Brands. He adds: “The nutritional benefits of mielie rice are similar to maize meal in that it is a good source of fibre. Fibre is something that we South Africans don’t have enough of. We do not meet the recommended intake, which is 25g of fibre a day for a healthy adult. Fibre helps to keep you regular and is an important contributor to gut health.”
“As a carbohydrate or starch, mielie rice fuels you. A quarter of your plate from your main meals needs to be coming from carbohydrates. And mielie rice can be one of those carbohydrate options. Different cooking methods can make it nutritious. If you ferment any type of carbohydrate, you’re actually cultivating probiotics in a natural way. Fermentation also reduces its glycemic index for slowly released energy that keeps you sustained,” says Arthur.
Cooking with mielie rice
“The challenge with people is that we’re often intimidated by how food is prepared. It’s important to give people options and inspiration on how to include maize rice in their diet. Perhaps we as brands need to do a better job of that. But maize rice should definitely be included in the grain options that one should be having, especially when promoting diets for South Africans.” Arthur says.
Giving general tips on how to cook maize rice, Lorraine says: “When mielie rice is cooked it becomes a stodgy rice. It is cooked by rinsing it a few times, adding it to boiling water and whisking it until there are no lumps. It is seasoned with salt, then covered and simmered on a low heat, until all the liquid is absorbed and the maize is tender. It does take a long time to cook. My mum added some margarine to give it a little richness; butter was not affordable for them.”
Lianda explains that washing and rinsing maize rice periodically as you cook helps to wash the starch off. “Some people soak it overnight. There are different ways to prepare, cook and discover how great maize rice can really be. If you cook it correctly, it resembles sushi rice. You can use it for salads, or make a maize rice pudding or tart,” she adds.
“I’m Pedi and when we make mielie rice, we usually have it as a fermented porridge dish,” Arthur says. “This is usually at weddings, funerals or any other big functions. Sometimes the dish is accompanied by meat and veggies on a plate. When I’m at home, I enjoy it as one of my breakfast options. Sometimes I add yoghurt. You can add milk to it if you want or some pieces of fruit,” says Arthur.
Have you tried mielie rice before? What are some of your favourite ways to enjoy it? Let us know in the comments below.