Wednesday 10 April 2013

Soul Food is Heart Food.

(Milk Tart will always be found at any celebration whether birthdays, christenings, graduations or funerals where Afrikaans is spoken. 
May also be eaten for no reason at all.)

My friend (and soul sister) Ingrid Jones (aka Mrs Jones) commissioned me to write something about soul food for the magazine she edits. She knows all about soul, so I'm flattered that she asked me to write this, because she could have easily done it herself.

Sacred Soul Food

Food, in additional to keeping us alive has also become both fashion and high art. But in its most honest form, when it is offered as Soul Food it becomes something else, it becomes the essence of who we are.

I’m not good with foams. Or dots. Or intricately layered towers of ingredients. I appreciate Fancy Food, but I seldom crave it.
I’m also not good with calories. Or steaming. Or carb-free, protein-laden plates. I value Healthy Food but I seldom desire it.
What I am good at is biltong. Syrupy koeksisters. Steaming pots of stew. I understand Soul Food. It’s what my heart recognizes.

There are days when my heart aches and the longing threatens to engulf me. On those days I need cinnamon. Specifically, sweet, milky cinnamon as found in melkkos, pancakes and milk tart. But bizarrely these are also the flavours I crave when my heart busts with joy, when the excitement bubbles up inside me, on days when I feel the urge to celebrate. You see, cinnamon-flavoured melkkos, pancakes, and milk tart are my Soul Food. Along with peppery lamb and green bean stew, pumpkin fritters, slightly spicy bobotie, boerewors, snoek braaied with garlic and apricot jam and nutmeg- infused alikreukel. My love for these foods gives clues as to who I am. That I have an Afrikaner heritage and that I grew up in the Western Cape. Had I grown up speaking Afrikaans in the old Transvaal I may well have added krummelpap into the mix. But I didn’t and so I don’t.

For me, Soul Food is the heart food.  It can best be described as heritage food. It is the food we ate as a child. The food our mothers prepared for us. The food that we want when we need the comfort of home. The food we long for when we long for our mothers. It is the food that defines us, the food that tells others who we identify with culturally, who we are and what we love. It is the taste of our forefathers.

I have some friends who long for fiery crab curries, for piping hot bhaji the way their grandmother makes them, for the comfort of a warm lentil dahl. Friends who dream of bunny chow. Some friends crave chicken livers and per-peri. Other friends speak lyrically of rooti and  denningvleis, of the meditative comfort of making of mince samoosas and of sweet, cardamom-infused boeber. Then there are those that seek the comfort of pickled fish and speak longingly of Gatsbies filled with slap chips. While others speak proudly of real free range, slightly tough chicken, declare their affection for mogodu and who click their longing for umngqusho and umphokoqo.

Soul food is the food that gets spoken of when people try and explain who they are in this often divided country. When we need to remember that that which binds is is often stronger than that which divides us. When the young Afrikaans girl tells of the sweetly-sour taste of karringmelk pudding her grandmother made her, and when her Zulu friend recounts how her grandfather drinks amasi. And they realize how similar the flavours are. Or when the milky sweet sameness of melkkos and boeber are discovered. Or when we realize that there are few South Africans who don’t love the taste of charred meat.

And when it comes to memories, it matters not if you remember the first time you slept with a sykous, or how old you were on the occasion of your first weave, or when your first had that bad perm, what matters is what food comforted you when you were sad, what food your mother made you when you were happy. Even the food that you disliked as a child, those same flavours that you now crave. These are the things that define you. More than the hair you have or the colour of your skin or the language you speak at home. Our Soul Food (that which has very little to do with nutrition and everything to do with nurturing) will always remind us of who were are and where we come from. It is the food that we will take with us wherever we go. Because we carry it in our heart.

GLOSSARY (in order of appearance)
Biltong  - A type of cured meat which evolved from the type of dried meat carried by the Voortrekkers. Similar to Aussie beef jerky, but way, way better.
Koeksisters – A deep-fried, syrup-soaked plaited cake. The Afrikaner version is crispy and very sweet while the Cape Malay version, known as koesister is round cake-like and spicier.
Melkkos – A milky cinnamon-flavoured soup thicked with either sago or thin strips of pasta
Bobotie – Spicy mincemeat with an egg-based topping. A lot nicer than it seems.
Boerewors – Traditional Afrikaans sausage
Snoek – A locally caught fish, similar to a barracuda in looks.
Alikreukel – A giant periwinkle. A lot scarcer than it used to be.
Krummelpap – A crumbly porridge made from mielie meal.
Bhaji – An Indian version of vegetable fritters.
Dhal – An Indian dish made from lentils
Bunny Chow – A Durban favourite – a loaf of bread filled with curry.
Rooti – The Cape Malay version of the Indian roti – an unleavened bread.
Denningvleis – A Cape Malay lamb stew flavoured with tamarind or lemon juice.
Samoosas – A fried triangular pastry filled with savoury mince or vegetables
Boeber – Similar to and also the inspiration for melkkos. A Cape Malay milky soup using condenced milk and cardamom.
Pickled fish  - also known as Pickle Fish. In the Western Cape we like to leave out the ‘d’. A fish pickled with vinegar spices and onions.
Gatsby – A sandwich roll filled with anything from chips, to Vienna sausages to calamari, or steak. Originating in the Cape Flats where it’s regarded as messy –meant-to-be-shared food.
Slap chips – What the rest of the world calls French Fries, we call slap (floppy) chips, a ticker cut of chip served with lashings of salt and vinegar.
Mogodu - tripe
Umngqushu – A Xhosa favourite of samp (crushed de-hulled dried corn) and cowpeas  - a type of black-eyed peas.
Umphokoqo – A mielie meal porridge.
Karringmelk – Buttermilk
Amasi – Fermented milk



  1. It would seem we have the same Soul Food, you write so well!
    I have yet to make my very own melktert, but I think it's time to rememdy that!

  2. Like you I too am a lover of Melktert, Melkkos and Koeksisters. Although I no longer live in SA, these are the flavours that remind me of my childhood, along with my Ouma's fluffy dumplings that sat proudly on top of her stew. Sadly I can no longer eat any of my favorite delights since I now cannot tolerate milk, eggs or gluten. How wonderful it would have been if I only knew dhal, then I would never feel anguish when I think about all those sweet milky cinnamony flavors. Your beautiful post has just brought a smile to my face and a tear to my eye...thank you.