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Sunny South Africanism

If South Africans were congratulating themselves in the wake of the contaminated meat scandal in Europe about the absence of horse – and, indeed, unlabelled pork – in their red meat, then their self-congratulation appeared misplaced. A couple of weeks ago, scientists at Stellenbosch University revealed that certain processed meat products contained donkey, water buffalo, goat, and even kangaroo meat.

It’s perfectly legal to sell these meats in South Africa, as long as they’re labelled correctly. But what is so disquieting about this local scandal is that it suggests a failure – even collapse – of South Africa’s food safety regulators: no South African abattoir is licensed to slaughter any of these animals, and it seems that this meat was trafficked into South Africa by criminal syndicates.

As I wrote last month, as the world’s food chain has been globalised since at least the beginning of the twentieth century, so this link between crime networks, poor regulation, and food adulteration is nothing new. I was also struck by the snobbery of so much of the response to the presence of horse and other meats in fast food and ready meals: that people who bought cheap, processed meat only had themselves to blame for inadvertently consuming horse, or other ‘taboo’ animals.

I have very little patience for the self-satisfied smuggery of middle-class foodies who advise eating less and more expensive meat to people who would never be able to afford even this shift in their eating habits. But I was amused by South African commentators who noted that nobody would notice if they had eaten water buffalo in their boerewors because, well, nobody really knows what goes into it in the first place.

I was thinking about this recently because a few weeks ago I had supper at Gourmet Boerie, a new restaurant which has opened at the bottom of Kloof Street, in the hub of Capetonian cool. There is something profoundly oxymoronic about a gourmet boerewors roll – or boerie – restaurant. If there is one item of fast – or street – food which unites the vast majority of South Africans, it is the boerewors roll.

Boerewors – which translates, literally, as farmer’s sausage – is a kind of coarse, highly-spiced sausage, sold in coils similar to Cumberland sausage. Strongly flavoured with salt, cumin, cloves, allspice and, particularly, dried coriander, it’s usually barbecued over smouldering wood, and then served either in a hotdog roll with All Gold tomato sauce, for preference, or with maize meal porridge and a spicy tomato and onion relish, also known as chakalaka.

The aroma of barbecued boerewors is the smell of suburban summer evenings, but it’s to be found in townships, at weekend football matches, with their largely black crowds, and at mainly white cricket and rugby games. The boerewors roll stand is a fixture of church bazaars, school sports meetings, festivals, local supermarkets over weekends, and even political party rallies. It is the South African hotdog, but, I think, much more delicious.

It’s also reflective of the country’s own complex social and cultural history. Its flavouring is borrowed from the southeast Asian slaves brought to the Cape Colony between the late seventeenth century and 1807, when the slave trade was abolished. But the sausage itself is part of a northern European tradition of meat preservation and sausage making. Indeed, it can be eaten dried as well. (Many a dog has been trained on bits of droëwors.)

The butcher in Sutherland.

The butcher in Sutherland.

Today, it can be bought in every supermarket, but also at butchers around the countryside. Supermarkets will carry at least two or three different ranges of boerewors, and it also differs from from region to region – the most popular local version being the slightly milder Grabouw sausage. Some of the nicest boerewors I’ve had recently came from a butcher in the Karoo village of Sutherland – best known for its astronomical observatory – but my local Pick ‘n Pay sells perfectly good boerewors too.

And although supermarkets are required to list the ingredients of each pack, there’s always a chance that a local butcher may add fairly unorthodox meats to his particular – usually secret – blend. Curious about what the standard recipe for boerewors is, I turned, inevitably, to my copy of that Mrs Beeton of South African cooking, Kook en Geniet. The recipe recommends a mixture of beef and pork, at a ratio of 5:1. Having marinaded the meat in a mixture of salt, pepper, vinegar, and ground dried coriander, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg, it’s all minced together along with some cubed lard and then stuffed into sausage casings. This is not, admittedly, the most overwhelmingly healthy meal.

Mutton is a frequent addition, and the sausage can vary in thickness and spiciness. The overwhelming flavour, though, is of ground coriander. A few winters ago, I upset a butcher in a farmers’ market held in a Marylebone car park, when I pointed out that his approximation of boerewors was too finely minced and not particularly faithful to the original, being fragrant with cumin and fenugreek.

My point is that although boerewors may vary significantly from region to region, and even from shop to shop, it’s still recognisably the same product because its texture and flavour tend to remain broadly similar.

I was, then, deeply curious about what Gourmet Boerie would do to the boerewors roll to make it ‘gourmet’. I was lucky enough to take Jeffrey Pilcher and Donna Gabaccia – brilliant, US-based historians of food and immigration – with me, and we puzzled over the purpose of the restaurant.

I had the ‘classic’ roll, with traditional boerewors in a hotdog bun with caramelised onions. Despite a softer-than-usual bun, this didn’t differ substantially from similar rolls I have eaten at festivals and friends’ barbecues. In fact, I think I could have eaten as good a boerewors roll at a Boland cricket match.

Jeffrey, though, as befitting a specialist in the history and politics of food and cooking in Mexico, tried the Mexicano roll, which came with tomato salsa, guacamole, sour cream, jalapeños, and fresh coriander. It was interesting – and it’s in the variety of boerewors rolls that the restaurant seems to position its ‘gourmet’ status. Not only can punters choose between different kinds of sausage (traditional, mutton, even vegetarian) and rolls, but they come with a selection of toppings, ranging from a breakfast boerie with bacon and eggs, to a ‘sophistication’ with goats’ cheese and basil pesto.

So the rolls themselves are fine, but not astonishingly, eye-poppingly revelatory. What interested us more was in the way the restaurant reframes South African cooking and, indeed, ‘South African-ness.’ It sells local beers, and versions of traditional puddings. It has proteas arranged in jars on the tables. The lampshades and soft furnishings are covered in fabric designed by Cape Town-based Skinny LaMinx.

Gourmet Boerie in Kloof Street, Cape Town.

Gourmet Boerie in Kloof Street, Cape Town.

Clearly, the owners of Gourmet Boerie are part of an international trend which transforms street foodhamburgers, ramen, Chinese dumplings – into a ‘gourmet’ experience to be eaten in restaurants. There was even, I am told, an episode in the South African series of Masterchef which required contestants to transform the boerewors roll into fine dining. The irony implicit in this refashioning of what was, originally, cheap snacks meant to be cooked and consumed quickly, is that their gourmet incarnations insist upon their ‘authenticity’. That it is, somehow, possible to eat ‘authentic’ Japanese or American street food in a London or Melbourne restaurant.

But what Gourmet Boerie is doing, is not only the recreation of a South African street food into a kind of ‘authentic’ and ‘gourmet’ experience (whatever we may mean by ‘authentic’ and ‘gourmet’), but a refashioning of South Africa itself: Gourmet Boerie is as much about boerewors rolls as it is about being South African. And the South Africa that Gourmet Boerie touts is one which ignores the country’s fractured, contested past and present – it is cool, beautifully designed, and emphasises South Africa’s easily depoliticised natural landscape with the presence of so many indigenous flowers.

But with an overwhelmingly black cooking and serving staff overseen by a white manager, the inequalities of contemporary South African society really can’t be elided in this sunny vision of South Africa.

I don’t argue that Gourmet Boerie should rethink its representation of South Africa – of course not, it’s a restaurant and not a museum – but, rather, that we should pay attention to how it links a version of South African street food to an attempt to create a depoliticised South African-ness. And one that is equally palatable to both locals and the legions of foreign tourists who visit Cape Town every summer.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

National Kitchens

It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and my parents gave me a copy of the new revised English edition of that Bible of Afrikaans cooking, Cook and Enjoy. It’s testimony to the ubiquity of the book that I find myself referring to it by its Afrikaans title Kook en Geniet, rather than its English name.

Kook en Geniet is the Afrikaans Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management. Published as a guide to housekeeping and cooking for young brides in 1951 by Ina de Villiers, a Stellenbosch-based home economist, it has never been out of print. There are very few Afrikaans households which do not possess at least one copy of the book – and, like Mrs Beeton, its success lies partly in the fact that it is regularly updated.

De Villiers herself was responsible for testing and re-testing recipes, and for producing new editions of Kook en Geniet. Her long-standing association with the book helped Kook en Geniet to gain its reputation for being a fail-proof authority on Afrikaans cooking. Since her death in 2010, her daughter, Eunice van der Berg, who also happens to be a home economist, has taken over responsibility for it.

There is no single version of Kook en Geniet. Each edition retains a core of essential recipes, but methods and ingredients change as new products appear. Dishes are added and, less frequently, subtracted as culinary fashions evolve. De Villiers wrote in the preface to the 1992 edition:

As the microwave oven and food processor have become nearly indispensable in many kitchens today, their use is indicated in a number of recipes. However, experienced cooks will be able to use these timesavers for almost any recipe – it is left to their discretion.

My edition contains recipes for moussaka and lasagne. But it’s not for these that I use Kook en Geniet: it’s for staples of Afrikaans cuisine, like buttermilk rusks, Hertzoggies, quince chutney, vinegar pudding, and prickly pear jam. It’s a supremely practical recipe book. Helping out at the pancake stall which seems to accompany every major event – from agricultural shows to local government elections – in small town life? There’s a recipe to make enough batter for a hundred pancakes. Need to make bobotie for fifty at the church fete? Serving sosaties to eighty people at a barbeque? Kook en Geniet will come to the rescue with sensible, authoritative advice.

For anthropologists and historians interested in food, the value of Kook en Geniet lies in the fact that it changed as tastes evolved. It does not present readers with a static, inflexible view of ‘Afrikaner cuisine’. It acknowledges – tacitly – that cooking alters over time.

It’s not, though, the only source on what I’ve called Afrikaans or Afrikaner cuisine – more frequently referred to as boerekos, which translates literally as ‘farmers’ food’, but signifies considerably more than that. Boerekos is the homely, comfort cooking associated particularly with rural Afrikaans living. A wildly popular new series on the Afrikaans cable channel Kyknet, titled simply Boerekos, interviews a collection of Afrikaans women cooking their favourite, old-fashioned boerekos, from mosbolletjies to pie.

Programmes like this one, as well as other books on boerekos, seek to frame it as an unchanging cuisine: as a form of cooking which has remained reassuringly the same during a century of tumultuous change. For Afrikaner nationalists before and during apartheid, food was a useful way of forging a new, unified and distinct Afrikaner identity. As they codified and regularised Afrikaans, so they sought to create a unique Afrikaner cuisine.

C. Louis Leipoldt, culture broker, poet, journalist, doctor, Buddhist, and eugenicist, filled several journals with recipes he collected from friends, acquaintances, and people whom he came across while working during the 1920s and 1930s. (These are now held by the National Library in Cape Town.) He wrote about these recipes and rural cooking for Die Huisgenoot, a popular magazine with a distinct enthusiasm for nationalism, between 1942 and 1947. In 1933, at the height of the Afrikaner nationalist revival, he published Kos vie die Kenner (Food for the Expert), a collection of a more than a thousand recipes. Polfyntjies vir die Proe, Three Hundred Years of Cape Wine, and Leipoldt’s Cape Cookery appeared posthumously.

One of the ironies of boerekos is that so much of it is derived from the cooking of the slaves who were transported to the Cape from southeast Asia during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. The sambals, atchars, and chutneys of Afrikaner cooking are a particularly obvious debt to the food traditions imported to South Africa from present-day Indonesia and Malaysia.

Although Leipoldt, an unusually thoughtful nationalist, acknowledge that many of the recipes he found were cooked and invented by ‘Malay’ women – a term which he used to describe the largely Muslim and Afrikaans-speaking descendants of slaves who lived in the Cape –their presence gradually disappeared in other, later boerekos recipe books.

There is no neat boundary between Afrikaner cuisine and what most South Africans dub ‘Cape Malay’ cooking: there are recipes for bredie (mutton stew), bobotie, and sosaties (kebabs) in both boerekos and Malay recipe books. But in order to use food to construct distinct, discrete national or group identities, the differences between these two cuisines had to be emphasised over their similarities.

Nationalisms have long co-opted food and cooking to construct national identities. Leipoldt’s recipe books are the first in an extensive literature which seeks – both overtly and inadvertently – to construct an Afrikaner cuisine. It’s telling that the Afrikaanse Taal en Kultuur Vereeniging (Afrikaans Language and Culture Organisation), once strongly allied to the National Party but now a society which works towards the promotion of Afrikaans as a language, bestowed Ina de Villiers with its Afrikoon prize in 2010 for furthering the cause of Afrikaans.

But minority groups use food and recipes in similar ways – to construct, maintain, and assert identities, often in the face of discrimination and social and political marginalisation. Cass Abrahams as well as other Cape-based women have created a rich literature on ‘Cape Malay’ cooking, often basing their writing on recipes collected from, and donated by, local women. These are as much social histories as they are cookery books.

Similarly, one of my favourite South African recipe books, Indian Delights, was compiled by a community organisation, the Women’s Culture Group in Durban. First published in 1961, the book has been revised several times. My mother’s copy – which I covet – is the 1982 ‘Enlarged Super Edition.’ As the editor, Zuleikha Mayat, writes in the introduction, the recipes were

mostly passed on to me by persons ranging from ordinary housewives to the super cooks who abound in our community. This is why Indian Delights remains – as it has always been – a representation of the collective culinary knowledge of our Community.

The book is as much an assertion of a distinct form of South African Indian cooking as it is a record of how a group of women cooked for their families in Natal during the second half of the twentieth century. But it is also an attempt to preserve a culinary tradition at risk of being forgotten as family life changed:

Twenty years ago when Indian Delights was first published, I had stated that the cookery book as such was something foreign to Indian women; that each dish was taught down the generations till daughters became as proficient as their mothers; but that the need of a reliable cookery book was beginning to be felt since daughters were spending more time with studies and acquiring careers.

As a result of this ‘a good reliable cookery book has become essential’.

It’s partly because of this extensive collection of recipe books – from Indian Delights to Kook en Geniet – that it’s particularly obvious that there is no, single homogenous South African cuisine. One of the best collections of South African recipes, African Salad demonstrates this particularly well: it’s a series of photographs and short interviews with of a more-or-less random selection of South Africans on their favourite meals. The recipes are as varied as the interviewees.

I’ve been struck while watching the South African version of the MasterChef franchise by the absence of references to the African cuisines of South Africa. During one episode in which the contestants were required to barbeque, one (black) Twitter user commented jokingly that the black contestants would struggle because they would prefer over- rather than underdone meat.

So far the dominant cuisine (the meta-cuisine?) of the show has been broadly western. It is this which is most closely associated with ‘fine dining’ (hateful phrase). Indeed, I was annoyed when a black contestant was criticised for cooking a steak too well: a liking for pink, lightly cooked meat is both a relatively recent phenomenon and culturally specific. Why should someone be penalised if she has cooked meat according to the dictates of another cuisine?

A couple of contestants have cooked African dishes and I’ve watched those with the most curiosity: as a white South African raised in the Western Cape, I feel that I have a fairly good grasp of Afrikaans and Malay cooking, but African cuisine still eludes me. I know of certain dishes and have seen sheep heads and walkie talkies (chicken heads and feet) being sold, but this is as far as my knowledge goes.

I know that there probably isn’t a single ‘African cuisine’ or African culinary tradition in South Africa – that it must differ between regions and has changed over time. There are, to my knowledge, no substantial recipe books dedicated to this country’s African cuisines – although do please feel free to enlighten me if there are.

With the current wave of enthusiasm for local producers, it’s striking that the various markets which have sprung up around South Africa have tended to model themselves on a foreign – mainly European – model. They are Borough Markets in miniature. These new ingredients – these cheeses, sausages, and free-range duck and chicken – are sold to be used in cassoulet, poule au pot, and arrosto di maiale al latte. We use local products for overseas cuisines.

I’m not some mad nationalist loon who advocates that we only eat local cuisines, but as South African society changes during the early twenty-first century – as urbanisation increases and as our middle class expands – we are, as in the case of any rapidly evolving society, in danger of losing a lot of culinary knowledge. This is a pity: not only do food and cooking provide useful ways of understanding how societies function, but it also strikes me as deeply strange that the white, middle-class customers of the Neighbourgoods Market in Cape Town know more about the cooking of northern Italy than they do of the Eastern Cape. Or Langa, which is right next door.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.