EXTRACT | Food preparation in Xhosa culture from ‘Don’t Upset ooMalume!’ by Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka

26 July 2022 - 12:37
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'Don't Upset ooMalume' is 'A Guide to Stepping up Your Xhosa Game' by Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka.
Don't Upset ooMalume! 'Don't Upset ooMalume' is 'A Guide to Stepping up Your Xhosa Game' by Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka.
Image: Supplied

Returning to the family homestead in the Eastern Cape for the holidays, and worried your city ways and less than perfect knowledge of Xhosa culture will get you a wagging finger in the face from ooMalume (the uncles)?

No need to fret. Don’t Upset ooMalume! captures the essence of Xhosa heritage and culture, and explores different aspects of village life. It covers a range of topics, from major Xhosa life ceremonies and traditional clothing to the significance of uronta (the rondavel) and ubuhlanti (the kraal). Not forgetting the importance of traditional food, the author describes popular dishes, edible forage and even medicinal plants.

The book was born from writer and agriculturalist Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka’s concern that aspects of Xhosa heritage will be lost to future generations. By interweaving her guide to Xhosa culture with stories from her daily life at Mqele and Bulungula villages, and lessons taught to her by her mother and her late grandmothers, she hopes to help reconnect Xhosa people to their roots.

Akukho nto imnandi ngathi kukungeqiwa ziindaba xa kuncokolwa ngesiXhosa esintsokothileyo nesineziqhulo. Bathi bezincokolela abantu abadala bexuba nakwintetho yokuhlonipha ube usiva yonke into abayithethayo. Oko kubonisa ukuzingca nokuzingomba isifuba ngolwimi lakho lesiXhosa.

Le ncwadi yenzelwe abantu abasithandayo isiXhosa nabafuna ukufunda nzulu ngolwimi nenkcubeko yesiXhosa. Ungabadanisi ooMalume, lola isiXhosa sakho ngale ncwadi.

Extract: Food preparation 

In the villages, most household chores revolve around food preparation. Cooking takes up much more time in the rural areas than in cities. Many women still grind their maize on a grinding stone, and if there is no electricity in the village, wood must first be gathered so that a fire can be made.

Very few villagers have modern conveniences such as microwaves or fancy ovens. Most of the cooking is done in a pot over an open fire, but let me tell you, traditional dishes taste so much better when cooked outside. Furthermore, women from the villages have their own clever way of heating food.

Pestle and mortar

Isingqusho is a big wooden or metal pestle and mortar. In the Xhosa culture it is used to stamp maize into umngqusho (samp). The root word is ukungqusha, to stamp or crush. Not so long ago we would ngqusha after school to prepare for lunch the next day.

One serving from the mortar is called ibinza, a kilo or two of umngqusho depending on the mortar size. After finishing ukungqusha you separate ikhafu (chaff) from umngqusho. This process is called ukwela. Ikhafu is eaten by pigs, and mixed with umgubo (ground maize) and cooked for dogs to eat.

Back in the day, Mama says people would carry umbona (maize) to ngqusha at their neighbour’s if they did not have isingqusho. When done, they would leave ikhafu for the neighbour’s pigs as a thank you. Gratitude is something that is deeply rooted in our culture.

Grinding stone

Ilitye lokuguba is the traditional grinding stone — ilitye is a rock or a stone and ukuguba is to grind something. The milling stone is made using a hammer, which is called ukuqandula, and a big concave rock and a small one called imbokodo.

Mamas go looking for ilitye lokuguba and, when they have found the right stone, they ask their husbands or any male relatives to load it onto an ox wagon and bring it home. Then they start the long process of ukuqandula. At the same time, they start looking for imbokodo, a smooth, round rock that will fit nicely in the milling stone. Imbokodo is used to crush whatever is being ground on ilitye and it is mostly found by the riverbank or in the forest.

Different iimbokodo could fit perfectly in a single ilitye. Where there are many women in the family, each one probably has their own preferred imbokodo. It may be small, but imbokodo is a crucial part since there can be no grinding without it. I guess that is why Xhosa women are often called iimbokodo. They might look more fragile and be physically smaller than the men, but they play a very important role in society.

On ilitye lokuguba we grind maize to add to dishes such as imifino (greens) or umqa (pumpkin). Amazimba (sorghum) for making porridge is also ground on ilitye. We also guba (regrind) intlama (dough) to make umqombothi (sorghum beer), as the photo below on the right shows. This process is called ukusila.

When a family plans a ceremony where a lot of umqombothi will be served, mamas of that family go around the village and borrow amatye okuguba from other families. All amatye okuguba will then be lined up in the main ronta where the girls and women get together to ukusila for umqombothi. There is usually a lot of laughter as they work to ukusila many drums (hundreds of litres) of maize. Inkoduso — sprouted maize for fermenting umqombothi — is also ground on ilitye. For all these reasons, ilitye lokuguba is a big part of the Xhosa food preparation process.

When I grew up, being able to grind on ilitye was a major thing; it was a big girl’s thing. We started our learning process by grinding maize for amantshontsho enkukhu (chicks). Our mamas would find us small iimbokodo that we could lift easily. They allowed us to make a mess, because it was all in the name of learning this new skill.

Learning the art of ukuguba was exciting, if painful at times. Until you learnt to hold and handle imbokodo properly, you would often hit your own fingers. Then you would run to your mama and hold on to her dress and apron for comfort. Our mamas taught us to dip our fingertips in water and spread it across our hands to keep them moist, which gives you a better grip on imbokodo. This trick really works.

It was a beautiful process, and our mamas were there for us throughout it.

Ukupheka is to cook. Elders in Xhosa culture still prefer their traditional dishes cooked outside.
Ukupheka is to cook. Elders in Xhosa culture still prefer their traditional dishes cooked outside.
Image: Supplied


Ukupheka is to cook. There are two dishes I love to make outside on an open fire, isidudu samarhrewu (cold, fermented porridge) and isophu (maize and bean soup). Many people will know that food cooked on fire tastes very different from food cooked on the stove. Elders in Xhosa culture still prefer their traditional dishes cooked outside, and I do too.

Let me share something about how these dishes are prepared. You start by cooking maize porridge and letting it cool. Then you add sugar with umlumiso (leftover marhewu, or fermented cold porridge) because it helps to quicken the fermentation process. It has to ferment overnight. The next day your marhewu will be ready. At Mama’s home, you will find amarhewu any day in summer.

Yes, we drink amarhewu in summer and in winter we cook and eat isidudu esimuncu — sour porridge.

Extract provided by Jonathan Ball Publishers

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