11. Jan, 2015

Viagra for supper

I think it is safe to say that most South Africans, regardless of race or culture, are essentially “meat and potatoes” people. The braai is ubiquitous, burgers and chips outsell all other fast foods and the only ”ethnic” dishes with large followings are pizza, southern-fried and peri-peri chicken and sweet-and-sour prawns/pork/chicken. Latterly sushi has become quite fashionable, but time will tell whether this is a fad or something more permanent.

As a nation, we consume relatively little fish and seafood, and most of what we do eat consists of deep-fried battered hake fillets. Many people of my acquaintance will eat fish, as long as it doesn’t taste too much like fish… I suppose the explanation for this state of affairs is twofold. Firstly, we are a water-poor country. South Africa is not blessed with an abundance of large rivers and lakes, and - with the majority of the population always having lived in the interior – none of our major indigenous cultures took up fishing and the utilisation of aquatic fauna to any great extent. 

If one studies our geography, the second major reason for our national indifference to fish becomes apparent. Although we have a very long coastline (nearly 2 800 km long) most of the west coast is arid, and – apart from small bands of nomadic Khoisan people - it was never densely settled. While the east coast used to teem with fish, and has a much more hospitable landscape, the Nguni tribes that settled there were pastoralists who were mainly interested in finding grazing for their cattle.

The only real enthusiasm for fish is therefore to be found among whites (whose ancestors brought it with them from Europe), so-called "Coloureds" (among whom European, Asian and Strandloper influences combined to create a community with a maritime affinity)and South Africans of Indian descent. Even among these groups, fish is by no means a universal favourite, and red meat is often preferred.

For many years, I have been championing the benefits of eating more fish and seafood among my friends and family – with disappointing results. Sure, fish is rich in protein yet lower in kilojoules and cholesterol than red meat. Sure, Omega 3 fatty acids make you smarter, alleviate depression and reduce the risk of heart disease. Sure, they help prevent blood clotting and arrest the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. Sure, they contain Selenium which has cancer-fighting properties. Sure, lamb chops cost way more than line fish. The net effect of my sermon? “I hear what you say. Kom, ons gaan nou braai...”

Immediate benefit

I have learnt my lesson. While I am not going to recant my beliefs, I am going to change my tactics. Very few people make major lifestyle changes based on promises of long-term, “pie in the sky”-type benefits. Instant gratification is a much more powerful driver of behaviour in our consumerist society. Consequently I have made a New Year’s resolution to box clever in future. If appealing to people’s common sense is futile, I am going to focus on their baser instincts. It so happens that I have personal, empirical evidence of another, much more direct, benefit of eating fish which should appeal to most men (except perhaps Nataniël).

In late 1994 I was part of Operation Amizade (Portuguese for “friendship”), as part of which the South African Air Force (SAAF) provided airlift support to Mozambique’s first democratic elections. I was one of two SAAF liaison officers deployed at the Electoral Commission’s headquarters in Maputo. We were a small team: Lt Col Ronnie Jonsson and myself as the “front office” with two telecommunications operators, Chris Christou and Stanley van der Velde providing us with a secure communication link to SAAF Headquarters.

We were housed in the South African Embassy’s residential estate on the beachfront in a self-catering mobile home. As the only alleged cook among us, I was entrusted with the responsibility of providing evening meals and lunch boxes. Since we were in the home of the LM Prawn and Frango Peri-Peri, we initially overdosed on these iconic dishes, but we soon started longing for more mundane fare.

In those days, good quality red meat was both scarce and very expensive in Maputo. We did braai as often as our S & T pay allowed, but I soon realised that the most economical (and wholesome) diet would have to contain plenty of fish and seafood. On our way home in the afternoons we passed a fresh produce market, where – with a little haggling – we could buy fresh line fish, crayfish, prawns, squid, mangrove crabs and clams at reasonable prices, plus crispy pao (Portuguese buns), fresh fruit and vegetables to boot. As a keen amateur marine biologist, I was quickly entrusted with selecting our “catch of the day”. Some of the fish were well known to South African anglers: Serra (King Mackerel or ‘Cuta), Garopa (Rock Cod), Pomfret (Angel Fish), Roncacho (Grunter) and Dorado were readily available. Being recognisable to the “Boere” meant that they were also much more expensive than lesser-known line fish. While we did occasionally treat ourselves to hot-smoked ‘Cuta or barbecued Rock Cod, I insisted on introducing the crew to other tasty reef fish like Scotsman, Red Snapper and Emperor. All three prey largely on crustaceans and shellfish, and consequently have a distinct crayfish-like flavour. The Yellowfin Emperor (Lethrinus Crocineus) was a huge hit with my colleagues, who started specifically requesting Emperor for supper.

I was probably less susceptible to the side effects of this succulent fish than my mates, because I could not understand why the guys had become such zealous converts. My ignorance lasted until one evening, when we were playing cards and enjoying a night cap after a particularly tasty meal of Emperador. Out of the blue, I developed what Americans would call a “boner” that forced me to sit cross-legged until it was time to adjourn. When I started making discreet enquiries, it emerged that this was not an aberration – the rest of the guys were unanimous that oysters and Viagra couldn’t hold a candle to the Yellowfin!

This episode led to one of the funniest moments our family has ever experienced around a dinner table. After our return from Maputo Jakki, Elouise and I went to visit my parents on their farm near Lydenburg. My folks were obviously curious to hear about my adventures in “LM”, and quizzed me at length about my experiences and impressions. Thus it came to pass that, after a glass or three of wine over Sunday lunch, I told them about the invigorating effect of this remarkable fish. My dad, still a quick wit at (then) 66, was clearly impressed and couldn’t stop himself from enquiring from my mom: “So Lovey, when are we going to LM again?” For dessert he got cold shoulder and hot tongue...