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South Africa: Poor Man's Food Becomes Rich Man's Luxury

In South Africa, a revival of traditional foods is underway. South Africans are beginning to recognize their local recipes as essential to their heritage. They’re proud of their unique cuisine and want to share it with the world, after decades of apartheid prevented different cultures from experiencing each other’s culinary delights. Now foods previously dismissed in South Africa as fit only for the poor are being served in some of the finest restaurants.

Decades of toil as a washer of richer people’s clothes have made the skin on Alinah Makhubele’s hands rough and hard.

“It is good; the hard skin means my hands do not hurt easily and I can work even harder!” she laughs, at a time when others would be justified in complaining about the hardship life has heaped on them.

But Makhubele says she’s always been “super strong!” Recently, she lost her laundry job of 32 years. The “next day,” she says, she began selling food from a makeshift store near her home in Lenasia, on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

Makhubele’s specialty is umngqusho, or samp and beans, a traditional staple of South Africa’s Xhosa people.

She runs her fingers through hundreds of hard, ivory-colored bits of maize, until her hands are covered in a fine white powder.

“This is the samp part of the meal,” Makhubele explains. “It is maize that is so hard it would normally be thrown away or fed to animals. But the Xhosa, they invented a great meal when they decided to boil the samp until it was soft, together with beans.” 

Makhubele’s store is so tiny that it doesn’t even have a name. But this doesn’t deter her from serving dozens of plates of piping hot umngqusho to ravenous workers from nearby building sites.

‘It swells in your stomach’

Makhubele soaks the samp and beans overnight, “to make it softer,” otherwise she’d be cooking it the “whole day,” she says, emptying the mixture into a large cast iron pot. She covers it with water and brings it to the boil, adding salt and pepper.

“Sometimes, I add a few chopped tomatoes and a meat bone – if it’s been a good week and I’m able to afford these,” she says, while stirring the bubbling broth.

Makhubele boils the samp and beans for about four hours, occasionally adding water to prevent it from drying and burning. Eventually, a rich, creamy stew emerges.

“Samp and beans is very good to eat. And besides, we are poor, and this is all many people can afford. It makes a big meal to feed a lot of people,” Makhubele says. “With one plate of umngqusho, you can go without eating the whole day. You are full for a long time, because the maize and beans swell in your stomach.”

Nelson Mandela’s favorite food

Makhubele sells a large plate of samp and beans for about one US dollar. In stark contrast to this, restaurants in more affluent areas of South Africa are now offering umngqusho for up to four dollars for a small portion. The up-market eateries sell samp and beans as a starchy accompaniment to expensive cuts of meat.

But Makhubele dismisses their attempts to “copy” the traditional meal. She says she’s read that the “fancy” restaurants “put all kinds of foreign herbs and spices – and even cream!” – in their umngqusho.

“This isn’t ‘traditional’ samp and beans,” Makhubele complains. “You cannot add all these foreign ingredients and expect to follow tradition. This is a township recipe, so it is best served simple.”

But she’s nevertheless “pleased” that growing numbers of white South Africans are coming to regard umngqusho as “wonderful food…. They’re now able to see that [even though] we are poor and live in townships, we…are able to make good food,” says a smiling Makhubele.

The washerwoman-turned-cook says it’s taken “too long” for her compatriots of all colors  and creeds to include the once lowly meal of samp and beans in their diets…especially in view of the fact that shortly after former president Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he declared umngqusho to be his favorite food.

Mandela is a Xhosa, born and raised in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, where samp and beans was first made.

Miriam Makeba, the great South African singer and anti-apartheid activist who passed away in November last year, was also a lover of umngqusho. When in exile in the United States, Makeba would often long for a plate of samp and beans and would tell her American hosts about the benefits of the dish.
 
Besides its taste, the simple meal of samp and beans continues to protect many South Africans against malnutrition and to be an exciting new addition to the diets of the country’s wealthier people.

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