Last week I made one of the traditional South Africa dishes; umngqusho (samp and beans) whilst here in London. During a WhatsApp a conversation with a friend from home (South Africa) it turned out that she was cooking the same. It sparked another conversation where she was surprised that there are ingredients to make umngqusho in London. I told her that we buy the ingredients at the South African shop in the UK.
The UK is probably one of the few countries outside South Africa where you can find South African food ingredients. It gives a certain sense of comfort that even though we are away from home, for various reasons, most of them work related, one can have a certain sense of nostalgia by visiting one of the shops. These range from The Savanna in London Bridge station and Paddington station amongst others to The South African Shop between Embankment and Charing Cross stations.
I set about to ask the different shop owners the question “What do most South Africans buy in these shops?" The top three answers that I received were I) Biltong ii) South African Wine iii) Sweets – in that order. I have learnt that sweets remind people of their childhood and they often buy them in large quantities. I remember that Chappies suddenly became a delicacy now that I am in the UK yet when in South Africa; it is a chewing gum that you remember having whilst you were in primary school.
All of this made me reflect on how food can serve as a connector: that when you are away from home food can connect you to childhood memories, to belonging, to comfort, nostalgia and general good feelings wherein you feel a sense of self, identity and culture intertwined. I am aware that South Africans worldwide always reminisce about their favourite food and if you ask any South African who is outside the country what you should bring them if you visit the countries that they live in, the likelihood is that it will be a food item.
Food also served as a human connector for me because whilst sitting on a tube train this morning, I saw a gentleman who was carrying a transparent plastic bag with some of the well-known South African foodstuffs. I approached him and told him “You must be South African”. Needless to say, he was. From thereon we had a conversation that lasted until we were out of the tube station, exchanged business cards and agreed to meet again.
One of my all-time favourite people, Nelson Mandela also loved umngqusho… (Remember the samp and beans I cooked!). In the book called Ukutya Kwasekhaya , his chef Ms Xoliswa Ndoyiya, offers a recipe for umngqusho as it was one of the meals that she used to cook for Tata Madiba ( Nelson Mandela) . In the book she mentions that Tata Madiba enjoyed home food, what we could call soul food. He did not want to eat junk food. Home food meant the traditional food such as umngqusho and umvubo ( sour milk and porridge) . Ironically these are some of my favourite meals. Every time I go home in the Eastern Cape the menu changes at home and my mother only cooks these food types for me.
In her book, Xoliswa Ndoyiya mentions that she started cooking for Nelson Mandela in 1992. She says that Madiba said : “I believe that you are a great cook, but can you cook our food?” wherein she replied “I can cook ukutya kwasekhaya (home food)”. That is where the title of the book come from Ukutya Kwasekhaya (home food).
She mentions that Madiba was happiest with traditional food. As a result, when she did not give him traditional food for a few days he would ask “ What’s wrong? Why are you not feeding me well?. Xoliswa describes her book as having recipes from a real South African kitchen.
So to me, it appears that through food in addition to connecting with a sense of self, culture and identity we can also connect with a particular well-known figure by living their lives vicariously through food or any individuals we meet randomly on the streets with whom we share an identity such as being South African.