Dietitian, Mpho Tshukudu and Anna Trapido, food writer and culinary anthropologist, take us back to our roots with their book, Eat-Ting.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Photos courtesy of Mpho Tshukudu/Quivertree Publications
The book offers potent information about the history of our traditional food, while also sharing the nutritional benefits of our indigenous ingredients.
“The aim of this book is to identify some of the forgotten foods and cooking methods that help you lose weight and gain health,” writes Mpho.
“The core concepts of healthy eating are not foreign to African farmers, cooks and eaters and yet most, if not all, of the existing diet books include no African recipes.”
When I studied to become a dietitian I was always interested in the healing part of food. I loved herbs (traditional medicine), like how certain nutrients can heal certain conditions or kick-start the process of healing. – Mpho
Not only does Eat-Ting dust off our grandmothers’ golden cooking secrets, it also shares some recipes that explore how traditional food can be modernised, and be equally fit to be served at any restaurant or household.
Did you ever think Thepe (amaranth) could make a great smoothie, or Sorghum (Amabele) could make edible hapjacks, or Figs (Amafiya) could make for a great dessert? Well Eat-Ting shows you how.
I met Mpho when she had just spoken about her book at Art Keys Mile, Rosebank, in Johannesburg. She is a registered Dietitian. Through her consultations with her clients about African culture and systems, her curiosity was aroused, and Eat-Ting was born.
Inspiration for the book
“When I studied to become a dietitian I was always interested in the healing part of food. I loved herbs (traditional medicine), like how certain nutrients can heal certain conditions or kick-start the process of healing.
So I studied functional medicine. Functional medicine looks at how certain nutrients and foods can help treat certain conditions or cure them. It’s an American programme and so you study mostly using American products and Chinese medicine.
I then began to ask myself if it was possible for us to use our food to treat diseases or to live a healthier lifestyle, in a more African context. I wanted to learn more about that but there was nothing much written.
That’s when I quit my job and went into private practice. In that time I realised that we as health care practitioners are failing the people. We study western food, we then qualify, then we have to treat a grandmother in the rural areas who has diabetes, high-cholesterol etc.
What we know is the western nutritional information. We then can’t speak a language they can understand because we know nothing about our traditional foods and their nutritional benefits.
I started talking to my grandmother and some of my patients about their lives growing up and what they ate. I found out about some of our recipes, herbs, cultural practices, and I realised that some of the information was related to what we Iearned in school.
We have terms that we learn at school, like low-GI, but we don’t identify those terms in our traditional food. We just never had nutritional terms for our foods or they are not documented in a way that we can know about them. That’s what propelled me to embark on this journey.”
Researching about our traditional food
“Some of the research happened during my consultations with clients – paying attention to people’s stories about food and asking questions. I then decided to document what I uncovered during that process and also study it further.
I realised with my patients that there is will power, everybody wants to be alive, and nobody wants to die. The problem is that the food choices we give them are not sustainable or accessible.
If we teach people about eating healthy using familiar terms or ingredients, they can understand us and be able to implement.
We wrote this book looking at the health aspect, the sociology and the anthropology of African food.
We are saying to South Africans: ‘we have done you wrong, you come from a culture that has rich nutritional knowledge and that has cultural knowledge you need to embrace’.”
Teaching people about their own food
“In the book we use African terms for the ingredients because we want people to know exactly what we are talking about, and there are also translations.
I think it’s important for us to use African terms because I knew Thepe (Amaranth) from an early age and when I was studying for an exam for Functional Medicine that’s when I realised that the Amaranth plant is actually Thepe.
The plant actually lowers blood pressure and now I can say to someone if they have blood pressure, boil Thepe and drink the water, and it’s quite effective.
Our grandparents have known all of this. but it’s time for us to learn to appreciate it. What troubles me is that we have a culture of oral history but we rarely document.
Our elders will die with a wealth of information because we don’t ask and we don’t document.”
African Food crisis
“We come from a culture where our grandmothers had butter and salt – let’s appreciate that.
We learned about the herbs, sauces and adding wine to food, which is not wrong, but there was also nothing wrong with the old way.
For instance, with Sorghum (Mabele), we can have it the old way, which is mixing it water, or the modern way, which is adding herbs, milk etc.
I remember I was teaching some upcoming chefs about our indigenous grains, which are Sorghum and Millet.
I was boiling Sorghum and they were saying things like: “Eeey, it smells like African beer, what is that?”
These are our future chefs who will be serving us in the next two years. That, for me, is a huge problem.
Some of us have travelled to France and when you are there, they serve you their cuisine. But we are actually serving tourists their own food when they get here and we are insulting them because we have done the food completely wrong.
It’s time we stop hiding who we truly are.”
Getting young people interested in traditional food again
“This was never meant to be a recipe book. At the beginning of the book we have like seventy pages of stories that touch on the topics like kids living in the suburbs and not being informed about traditional food.
We have parents who buy their children burgers and chips so they don’t nag. That needs to stop. It’s time to have the conversation, whether you stay in Sandton or in the township. We need to teach our kids about our food.
And that can only happen if you as a parent cook the food. If you don’t have time, you can even have a helper who comes from the village you come from to do the food education.
We can also make our food interesting and modern. We can present it in a new way that can make our kids interested. But if we don’t take time to educate ourselves about it, we won’t be able to give them this experience.”
Great discoveries while compiling the book
“A lot of information was sourced from old people. There is nothing new here. We just included the nutritional benefits, the history, the recipes etc.
This book was just to prove that we as Africans also have what we need to live a balanced life.
I feel like we just opened a little door because people are taking their grandparents’ secrets from under the bed and teaching me more and more, which is why I am writing a second book.
I was scared when I wrote this one because I thought people would crucify me for revealing our food secrets.
But people are truly showing appreciation for making the information more accessible.
I now believe that if you give people something familiar, or speak to them in familiar terms then they can understand you.”
Basic ingredients every South African should have
“We should stop with the Maize Meal and the bread. The maize meal is tied to the apartheid story because the colonisers benefited from us eating it.
For me, Maize Meal is a political, nutritional, economical thing, and it is wrong. The new government is not even doing anything about it. It’s killing us. We really need to be honest about pap.
We should swap Maize Meal with Sorghum and Millet because they are easy to grow, they are drought resistant, they don’t need much fertilizers; it’s Low-GI, its high on fibert and protein, and its filling.
The lesson here is that, we, as the people, need to know where our food comes from and what’s in it.”
Eat-Ting is available online and at all leading book stores.