South Africa's Amazing Indigenous Delicacies
“It is a real shame that we buy spinach – which has as little taste as a curried cucumber – but spurn wateruintjies*, which are tastier and more flavourful, and are plentiful to boot.” – C. Louis Leipoldt. * Wateruintjies = Waterblommetjies.
Southern Africa’s indigenous delicacies
As a child, one of my favourite books was “Polfyntjies vir die proe” by the late Dr Louis Leipoldt. The book consisted of 55 editions of a weekly column he had written for the Afrikaans magazine “Huisgenoot” about food and wine during the late 1940s. His vivid, humorous depiction of Cape life in the early 20th century fascinated me, and the dishes he described made my mouth water.
Leipoldt was no ordinary GP. He was an explorer, a botanist, a philanthropist, a poet, a hunter and an academic. His multi-faceted knowledge enabled him to provide amazingly rich context to his subject matter. I owe to him my life-long interest in, and passion for, cooking with indigenous South African ingredients. Today many top Cape restaurants proudly serve foraged or cultivated indigenous fruits, vegetables and herbs – seventy years after the man from the Cedarberg waxed lyrical about plants with evocative names like “Jakkalskos”, “Wateruintjies”, “Kambro” and “Veldkool”.
Some of these treasures are rare, and exceedingly hard to come by (e.g. Jakkalskos) while others are now grown commercially, most notably Waterblommetjies. When I was a student at the Military Academy in Saldanha, I collected Veldkool seeds in late Spring and sowed them in my garden. To my delight, they actually thrived there and provided us with numerous tasty meals. Waterblommetjies are also very easy to grow – I have a dozen plants in the water feature in our garden and harvest enough for two pots of Waterblommetjiebredie every winter.
Another fond memory from my childhood concerns the Beef Steak Mushroom or iKhowe, as it is known in the Lowveld where I grew up. After good summer rains, these giants would appear as if by magic on termite mounds; easily a foot high and with a cap the size of a dinner plate. Pan-fried in butter, a decent-sized one provided a delectable supper for a family of five!
Allow me then to introduce you to some of these culinary treasures of our country. This column is not meant to be either comprehensive or a piece of academic research: merely a celebration of our natural heritage and how we can use some of these amazing plants to please our palettes.
Better known as “Veldkool” or “Varkslaai” (and in days gone by “Hotnotskool”), Trachyandra Falcata is actually related to the lily family. It grows abundantly in the sandy soil of the Cape West Coast during and after the winter rains. It reaches not even half a metre in height, and the young shoots closely resemble tiny green asparagus. If left undisturbed, the shoots produce clusters of tiny lily-like flowers which are not edible. Foragers must therefore collect the shoots before they mature.
Dr Leipoldt was very fond of a stew made using only Veldkool, cubes of lamb rib meat and some chopped wild Cape sorrel (“geelsuring”). Perhaps because I never had regular access to much of it, I preferred to steam them until still al dente and then serve with lemon butter, or grill them wrapped in lean streaky bacon. In my honest opinion, Veldkool is up there with young green asparagus when it comes to taste.
“Kalahari Truffles” or N!abba (Terfezia Pfeilii) are distant relatives of European truffles. They are subterranean tubers, which are found in the sandy soil of the Northern Cape, Namibia and Botswana. The truffle has a shape and colour similar to a potato, and range from golf ball to tennis ball size. They appear in autumn in years with good summer rains. They do not make any shoots, and the only sign of their presence is a slight bulging of the soil, with perhaps slight cracks around it. Whereas European truffles have a symbiotic relationship with oak trees, the partner plant of the Kalahari Truffle is the Tsamma wild melon.
The flesh is white, with the texture of a soft cheese. The flesh darkens and becomes coarse with age, until it finally disintegrates, leaving its fungal spores dormant in the soil until the next rainy season. It is particularly prized by Namibians of German ancestry, and snapped up eagerly when served in restaurants from April to June. While not nearly as pungent as its European relatives, the N!abba has a pleasant fungal flavour and the taste is reminiscent of Porcini mushrooms. It is sometimes eaten raw; with truffle shavings simply drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese. Sautéed in butter with onions, white wine and pepper is also a treat of note.
Known in the Lowveld and Zululand as “iKhowe”, and in Namibia as “Omahova” these mushrooms (Termitomyces Umkowaani) appear on termite mounds after good rains. They form an important part of the diet of the Ovambo people of Northern Namibia, because they become available before the cultivated summer crops. In especially good years there is even enough to dry for later use. These giants can reach a height of more than 50 cm, and can weigh more than a kilo.
Zulu herdboys love their iKhowe for breakfast, and will unceremoniously fry pieces on a stick over an open fire. The good news is that these mushrooms – notwithstanding their size – are delicate and packed with beefy, Porcini-like flavour. You can use any of your favourite mushroom recipes on them. Simply pan-fried with garlic and butter is my idea of the real deal, but iKhowe can be the basis of a really fine Alfredo sauce for pasta too.
“Waterblommetjies” or water hawthorn (Aponogeton distachyos) are abundant in the winter rainfall region of the Western Cape, and their pretty pink/white flowers cover many ponds during the winter months. The plant is actually a tuber, hence the old Cape term “wateruintjies” which refers to the bulbs of the plant. Waterblommetjies have been introduced to England and France, and have become naturalised in the south of France, where they are known as Epis d’Eau (water sheaves).
The flowers are now big business, and huge consignments leave the farm ponds where they are grown for the markets of inland cities. They are also canned to good effect, and are therefore available year-round in good supermarkets. As far as cooking them is concerned, I believe that the traditional Boland recipe cannot be beaten. Make an “Irish stew” of lamb neck, onions and potatoes, and when it is just about ready add blanched Waterblommetjies and some chopped Geelsuring for acidity. Simmer for about 10 minutes, season and serve on rice.
Weird as it might sound, this plant (Hydnora Africana) which deters predators with a smell not unlike human faeces, bears incredibly tasty fruit. This unusual plant, endemic to the Karoo and Suurveld, lives in a parasitic relationship with the Milkbush (Euphorbia spp.) and is normally found among the roots of the host plant. It doesn’t look like a fruit all - much more like a bulbous fungus, until the flower opens. After a while a half-round, berry-like fruit develops that remains hidden underground. It contains numerous tiny gelatinous pips which have to be scooped out before the juicy flesh can be eaten. Fruits can be up to 80 mm in diameter.
The putrid stench emitted by the flowers serves to attract to attract carrion beetles, which are flummoxed Venus Fly Trap-style. The terrible pong does not affect the fruit at all, though. It is extremely juicy, with a tart taste and a flavour reminiscent of guava and other tropical fruit. Animals like jackals, baboons and porcupines love the fruit, and help distribute the (indigestible) seeds. Discerning human foragers love them too, and the pulpy fruit is whisked into creamy soufflés, custard pies and cheesecakes.
Gethyllis Ciliaris, commonly known as “Koekemakranka”, is a bulb plant found in many parts of North-Western South Africa, as well as in adjacent parts of Namibia and Botswana. It only grows in sandy soil, and can withstand arid conditions. It flowers at the first sign of the summer rains, and in early autumn produces a single fruit shaped like a bowling pin. Orange/red in colour, the fruit develops underground and only emerges above ground when nearly ripe. When fully ripe, the “shaft” collapses and the fruit disintegrates; scattering its seeds.
The ripe fruit smells strongly of strawberry, and has been popular with the Khoisan people since time immemorial. It has an equally strong following among omnivores, and they fulfil the same role in the dissemination of its seeds as described with regard to Jakkalskos. The aroma of the fruit is so pleasant that early white settlers used them as a substitute for potpourri. The fruits are eaten raw, incorporated into fruit salad, or preserved in brandy. It also has medicinal properties, and Koekemakranka Brandy is a long-established “Boereraat” for heartburn, upset stomachs and teething pains.
“Kambro” (Fockea Angustifolia)is a quintessential Karoo plant. Its bulb (about the size of a mango) grows largely underground. It is rich in carbohydrates, tastes sweet and is used to make a highly prized preserve.
For the San people, this plant was often the only source of water during late winter and spring. It was dug up with a special digging stick, and the process required skill and experience as the bulb has to be unearthed intact - it dehydrates rapidly if punctured.
From a culinary perspective, the bulb is best known preserved or in a jam. It can, however, be utilised in the same way as a sweet potato – baked au naturelle in the oven, or making a sumptuous dessert. This involves peeling and slicing it and baking it Dauphinoise-style with butter, honey and cinnamon. Unfortunately the Kambro has become very scarce, a state of affairs exacerbated by its popularity as a Bonsai plant.
“It is so dry in the Boland, they are now selling waterblommetjies as dried flower arrangements.” – Roelof van der Westhuizen.
The slide show below shows different aspects of each of the fascinating plants described above, in the sequence I have discussed them.