MAIZE DIPLO­MACY

Xhosa and Zapotec cuisines col­lide as two chefs show off their prow­ess in the kitchen with the hum­ble mealie

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In the be­gin­ning, there were mealies…

Whole, ground, dried, fresh or fer­mented, it is al­most im­pos­si­ble to imag­ine Mzansi culi­nary cul­ture with­out this grain. So much so, that the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion re­cently re­vealed that the av­er­age South African con­sumes 222g of maize per per­son per day. Such is our ado­ra­tion of this sta­ple starch that many of us er­ro­neously as­sume mealies are in­dige­nous to Africa.

In fact, our orig­i­nal grains were sorghum and millet, while maize – which was first do­mes­ti­cated by Mex­i­cans about 10 000 years ago – only ar­rived on our con­ti­nent at the end of the 16th cen­tury.

Given the an­tiq­uity of maize in Mex­ico, it is un­sur­pris­ing that it is a core com­po­nent in al­most all of that coun­try’s most fa­mous foods. So cen­tral is maize to Mex­i­can modal­ity that the pas­sion ex­tends be­yond their bel­lies into the orig­i­nal Me­soamer­i­can cre­ation myths that tell tales of hu­man­ity formed by Gods out of ground maize paste.

South Africans have a much shorter his­tory with mealies, but we are equally ob­sessed with them – nowhere more so than in ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties in the East­ern Cape, where Xhosa cooks have cre­ated a plethora of tastes and textures. There is roughly bro­ken um­bona and su­per fine in­golobo flour. There are steamed int­laphoyi breads and umqom­bothi beers. There is the crum­bling per­fec­tion of umphokoqo, the sooth­ing soft­ness of isidudu por­ridge and the tin­gling tart­ness of fer­mented in­conco, to name a few.

We may not be­lieve that peo­ple were made out of maize, but we do have a found­ing fa­ther with such an epic en­thu­si­asm for the crop that he ref­er­enced the grain in the open­ing chap­ter of his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy as a sym­bol of free­dom.

Nel­son Man­dela wrote: “I was born free. Free in ev­ery way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my vil­lage, free to roast mealies un­der the stars…”

He is telling us all that, in the be­gin­ning, there were mealies. And it was good.

The shared South African-Mex­i­can crav­ing for maize was de­li­ciously ap­par­ent when City Press and the Soweto Ho­tel in­tro­duced Mex­i­can restau­ra­teur and culi­nary star Abigail Men­doza to Madiba’s long­stand­ing per­sonal chef Xoliswa Ndoyiya.

Tasked with mak­ing maize-based meals that re­flected their re­spec­tive culi­nary cul­tures, th­ese queens of tra­di­tional flavour went to work to cre­ate mag­nif­i­cent mealie dishes.

At first glance, Men­doza and Ndoyiya seem worlds apart, but su­per­fi­cial dif­fer­ences mask fun­da­men­tal sim­i­lar­i­ties. Men­doza, who came tra­di­tion­ally dressed with long, rib­bon-woven braids and a tra­di­tional ser­ape shawl, is a Zapotec in­dige­nous Me­soamer­i­can from Oax­aca (pro­nounced Wa­haca) in south­west­ern Mex­ico.

Aside from trav­el­ling the world to pro­mote her tra­di­tional cui­sine, she also runs a restau­rant called Tla­manalli in Teoti­tlán del Valle, Oax­aca, with her sis­ters Ru­fina and Marcelina.

As she got on to her hands and knees to roll the mano over the metate grind­ing stone, Men­doza said through an in­ter­preter that “this is how my peo­ple have made food for thou­sands of years and it is still what I do in my restau­rant ev­ery day”.

“To use pre-pre­pared maize would be a trav­esty – it must be freshly ground. There is no com­par­i­son in taste.”

Ndoyiya de­scribes her­self as “a girl from Ez­i­be­leni near Queen­stown who grew up know­ing that when my grand­mother, MaSi­tatu, fed me umkhu­phu [beans with maize meal], she was seek­ing to pass on her hopes, dreams and good wishes in each spoon­ful.”

In maize, the two women im­me­di­ately recog­nised a deep and de­li­cious sis­ter­hood. As Men­doza de­scribed “mil­pas” fields at home, she re­ferred to “the three sis­ters” she grows – de­scrib­ing her three main tra­di­tional crops and the man­ner in which they have been planted for thou­sands of years. Pump­kins, maize and climb­ing beans are grown to­gether and de­velop a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship.

The maize pro­vides the struc­ture for the beans to climb, the beans in­tro­duce ni­tro­gen into the earth and the pump­kins spread along the ground, pre­vent­ing weeds from grow­ing and re­tain­ing mois­ture in the soil. With the help of hand ges­tures and lit­tle draw­ings on a scrap of pa­per, they es­tab­lished that Ndoyiya’s fam­ily en­gage in an al­most iden­ti­cal agri­cul­tural prac­tice re­ferred to in isiXhosa as ukux­a­ban­gela.

There was dis­cus­sion of a Mex­i­can rit­ual whereby Men­doza pours a maize drink onto her land to ask Mother Earth for per­mis­sion to plant, which closely re­sem­bles the umqom­bothi ukun­qula cer­e­monies car­ried out in the East­ern Cape.

While Men­doza pressed her ground corn into tlayu­das (large tor­tilla) discs and cooked them to a per­fect crisp­ness, Ndoyiya stirred maize meal with a fork un­til a de­li­ciously rough tex­ture formed.

As she strained a batch of soured milk amasi curd out of a cal­abash, the for­mer pres­i­dent’s chef re­called how she made this dish for Madiba on many oc­ca­sions, in­clud­ing once “when he was in Lon­don at the Dorch­ester Ho­tel with all that fancy food – but he was just long­ing for umphokoqo. No one in Lon­don knew how to make it and we weren’t re­ally al­lowed to bring sour milk and stuff on the plane, but he was crav­ing it so we had to cook it all up in Jo­han­nes­burg and then pack­age it so it looked like a birth­day gift. He was so happy when we got it to him.”

For all the sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the women, there was one sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence – Mex­i­cans have an an­cient se­cret that they are ea­ger to share. As Mex­i­can am­bas­sador Mauri­cio Es­canero ex­plained, “when maize was first in­tro­duced as a sta­ple into farm­ing sys­tems other than those used by tra­di­tional na­tive Amer­i­can peo­ple, a wide­spread prob­lem of mal­nu­tri­tion and dis­ease soon arose”.

“This was not seen among the in­dige­nous Amer­i­cans, for whom maize had been the sta­ple for cen­turies. This is be­cause we tra­di­tion­ally use most of the corn in the form of masa, whereby we soak dried maize in al­kali wa­ter, made with ashes and lime.

“This soak­ing process, which is called nix­ta­mal­i­sa­tion, makes the nu­tri­ents in corn much eas­ier to ab­sorb. Maize was in­tro­duced into the diet of non­indige­nous Amer­i­cans with­out the nec­es­sary cul­tural knowl­edge ac­quired over thou­sands of years in the Amer­i­cas. That is what we hope to bring now.”

Ndoyiya tucked in to Men­doza’s tlayuda topped with seguesa (black bean and maize melange) with gusto. She was ini­tially a lit­tle ner­vous of the cha­pulín grasshop­pers that Men­doza had fried in gar­lic and lime, but was re­as­sured when it was ex­plained that the high­pro­tein gar­nish had been har­vested from the maize grow­ing in the trav­el­ling chef’s gar­den.

Men­doza ob­served that the umphokoqo was “de­li­cious. Fit for a pres­i­dent.”

Mex­i­can chef Abigail Men­doza and Xoliswa Ndoyiya dur­ing their cook­ing ses­sion at the Soweto Ho­tel in Klip­town SOUL SIS­TERS

PHO­TOS: LEON SADIKI

DE­LI­CIOUS DISHES Mex­i­can restau­ra­teur and culi­nary star Abigail Men­doza, who is from Oax­aca in Mex­ico, in­sists the maize she uses in her dishes must be freshly ground

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