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Umngqusho, koeksisters and defining South African culture

Being a vegetarian I never imagined that I would find myself (happily) plating 12 dishes of a braised sheep’s head and fried chicken feet. But these are the kinds of delicacies you end up serving if you’re ever tasked with showcasing South African food. “Smileys” and “walkie talkies” are what they’re called in Khayelitsha, where the street food is popularly sold in Cape Town. Amanqina enkukhu or maotwana is the local lingo for chicken feet and is cheapest in urban township eateries – best value for money and flavour. If steamed or braaied, it’s even low-carb and high-protein. Trendy and healthy.

Back home in KwaZulu-Natal, a sheep’s head on a plate translates to inhloko isigqokweni in isiZulu. There are variations in preparation depending on cultural tastes. My mother chops it up into smaller pieces and curries it, served with rice. Down south, we sourced a whole head, intact and still smiling. Morbid but meaty.

But this column is only half about food.

Four other South Africans and I found ourselves among a pan-African group, completing a short course in probably the least South African city in this country. Our guests were in awe of the larney’s paradise you see on those red bus tours. Our hotel and its Tamboerskloof surrounds stamped the confirmation that if you’re in Africa’s southern tip, you’ve arrived. I love and hate Cape Town for the same reasons; it embodies that paradox of not knowing whether to feel embarrassed or proud to be South African. It’s like serving a horrible tasting meal that actually looks fantastic. Squirm, smile, spit, swallow, vomit?

So while plating these dishes for our colleagues from Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Uganda, we were reminded once again that South African culture is just too damn hard to define. What is South African culture? It’s obviously not a new question – it tends to pop here and there (“Who are we? What makes ‘us’ ‘us’?”), but it’s not an old question either (they tend to be rhetorical – at worst left angrily unanswered, or at best left amusingly debated).

Alongside the fried faces and feet was home-made Umngqusho, or samp, a mix of mealies, sugar beans, butter, onions, potatoes, chilli peppers. Not to be outdone, I brought a touch of Durban into this plate, and sourced some roti and palak paneer from a nearby Indian take-away. It was a mild curry for the virgin palates, made up of spinach and blocks of cheese.

Pondering our inescapable Afrikaans history, dessert was either going to be a slice of melktert or a twisted koeksister. The milktart didn’t stand a chance against deep-fried dough soaked in syrup and sugar! I later learnt, while writing this, that a monument of a koeksister stands in the Afrikaner enclave of Orania, as a tribute to the folk tradition of baking them to raise funds for the building of churches and schools. That kind of twisted history would be sweet if it were not so sour.

And there we had it. A proudly South African culturally inclusive plate of some local favourites. Notable omissions are obviously the pap, bunny chows, ijekwe, and basically a dozen other home-grown delights. But much like the question of what defines being South African, the answers are never bite-sized enough to fit comfortably on a small plate.