In the first of a series on the traditional foods of Southern Africa, chef and writer Dorah Sitole visits the Eastern Cape for a lesson in Xhosa cooking
The indigenous food of Southern Africa is unexplored territory in cookbooks, and yet it is so rich and diverse. In this column I hope to retrace my steps and introduce you to the ingredients and dishes that I enjoyed on my journey.
The Eastern Cape has to be one of the most beautiful parts of Mzansi, made more beautiful by its people, the Xhosa, and their delicious food. Umngqusho (samp) has its origins in these parts, but has become popular throughout the country. I maintain that the Xhosa people are the custodians of this special grain. They really know how to work it.
During my visit to the Eastern Cape, I spent a day with Mrs Phoqela, a wonderful woman who was running a cultural village on the outskirts of Mthatha. The plan was to experience the cuisine and to see how umngqusho is cooked in its place of origin.
This was also prompted by a number of spirited debates with my Xhosa friends about how we Sowetans mess up umngqusho by doing uncalled-for things like soaking it in water overnight and then rinsing it - as if it needed spring cleaning.
Mrs Phoqela cooked the samp very simply, no soaking or rinsing. Just as my friends had told me, she explained that whether you soak or not, the cooking time remains the same and the rinsing will not enhance the flavour in any way.
Now I know.
I also got to experience other exciting dishes like umxhaxha (corn mixed with pumpkin) and isophu lombona nembotyi (corn and bean soup), both absolutely delicious. Umphokoqo is another favourite. This is crumbly mieliepap (phutu) served with sour milk. There is another lovely dish called umfino: mieliepap cooked with spinach and cabbage.
Samp is dried corn that has been hulled and the kernels are then broken into pieces. It can be cooked and enjoyed plain, or cooked together with butter beans, sugar beans or even potatoes. It is a versatile grain. Like rice, it can be used as a base for paella or in salads.
I love to cook my samp with butter beans. I grew up with samp and sugar beans, which I still love, but samp and butter beans make the perfect starch for curries - my favourite being seafood curry.
Probably one of the reasons I just love serving samp with fish or seafood is that it brings back wonderful memories of my Eastern Cape experience.
UMNGQUSHO NEMBOTJI (SAMP AND BEANS)
800g (4 cups) samp
500ml (2 cups) dried butter beans
2 chicken stock cubes
45ml (3 tbsp) butter
Place samp and beans in a large saucepan and cover completely with water. Bring to the boil, add stock cubes, season with salt, then simmer gently. Replenish the water whenever the samp gets dry and cook until soft, about 2½-3 hours. Stir in butter and mash gently with a wooden spoon.
QUICK SEAFOOD CURRY
60ml ( cup) sunflower oil
1 onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 green pepper, cored, seeded and chopped
45ml (3 tbsp) curry paste
1 x 410g can chopped tomatoes
125ml (½ cup) coconut milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
600g mixed seafood (fish, prawns, calamari and mussels)
Heat oil in a pan and sauté onion, garlic, green pepper and curry paste until the onion is transparent. Add tomatoes and cook for about 10 minutes. Add coconut milk and seasoning and cook for 5 minutes. Add all the seafood except for the mussels and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Add the mussels and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Serve over samp and beans.