It’s time to get excited and claim our indigenous foods

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In her 2016 book, Eat Ting, co-written with food anthropologist (and Eat Out judge) Anna Trapido, registered dietician and African foods researcher Mpho Tshukudu puts the aversion to indigenous/traditional foods into perspective. The book encourages people to eat healthily, reconnect with cultural food, and fall in love with timeless African flavours.

Mpho notes that the food and health industries have not made enough of an effort to promote the nutritional benefits of traditional South African foods, cooking methods, recipes and food practices.

The aversion to these foods, often linked to the urbanisation of our food system and the unfortunate stigmatisation of indigenous ingredients as “poverty foods”, persists. But it’s 2022. We’re only now just coming off the crippling effects of a global pandemic, although it feels like diseases are not yet done with us.

Coupled with this are the alarming impacts of a changing climate as seen by the devastating KwaZulu-Natal floods. Eating healthily and sustainably and tapping into foods that are kind to the earth have become imperative.

Eat Out Woolworths Restaurants Awards judge, food activist, chef and gardener Mokgadi Itsweng asserts that it is now urgent to promote the crucial benefits of indigenous ingredients, not only for ourselves but for the healing of the earth.

“We need to find ways to live with and heal the planet. It’s because of us that things are happening the way they are. The 2015 Paris Climate Peace Talks came up with a sustainable development goal that we’re supposed to reach by 2030. So, 2020–2030 is the decade of action.

Action means we (and not just our leaders) need to make the change. Change comes with education, and it will not happen until we teach ourselves about our indigenous foods, why we should eat them, and why they’re good for the earth.”

Mokgadi points out that many indigenous plants are good for restoring the earth after monoculture farming – which depletes soil health.

“Growing indigenous ingredients helps bring life back into the soil. For example, indigenous leafy greens like amaranth, mung beans and bambara nuts (known as ditloo in Sesotho and Setswana languages) add nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil,” Mokgadi shares.

Siphiwe Sithole is a farmer and the founder of African Marmalade in Johannesburg. She grows indigenous plants, supplies indigenous seeds and coaches people about natural farming. She specialises in a broad spectrum of crops, including grains such as sorghum (both white and red) and millet (foxtail and pearl), and a variety of wild leafy greens (collectively called morogo or imifino) such as:

  • Amaranth (called thepe in Setswana; imbuya in isiXhosa; isheke in isiZulu; varkbessie in Afrikaans and pigweed in English)
  • Spider flower (lerotho in Setswana and amazonde in isiZulu)
  • Cowpeas (called dinawa [the plant] and nawa [the beans] in Setswana)
  • Pumpkin leaves
  • Tubers such as amadumbe, cassava and coco yams
  • A variety of beans, including bambara nuts

Speaking about the farming practices of indigenous plants, Siphiwe says: “You don’t need a lot of water for indigenous crops. You plant them in the rainy seasons of spring and summer. African crops are drought resistant. They are well adapted to our situation in the continent whether they are indigenous or were indigenised through migration.”

She adds that to help people become interested in indigenous food, we need to dial up their health benefits, get the farmers to grow the plants, and organise tasters so people know what indigenous food tastes like.


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Mokgadi agrees and points out the importance of teaching people how to use the ingredients to incorporate them into their daily lives.

“Accessibility is teaching people easy ways with the ingredients, making indigenous foods a part of our everyday lives and making them trendy,” Mokgadi says. She is a huge fan of okra and has been working with it for many years as a chef.

“Okra is indigenous to us and West Africa. With it, we eat everything – the leaves and the pod. Some people are not a fan of its slimy texture, but I have a slime-free recipe. I like to have it raw in warm water with lemon as a morning drink on an empty stomach. It’s amazing,” says Mokgadi.

Okra is a seasonal crop available at Woolworths from November to April – ensuring that you can get it at its very best.

Click here for Mokgadi’s okra fries recipe, which she says changed her perception of the indigenous vegetable.


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A post shared by Mokgadi Itsweng (@mokgadiitsweng)

When speaking about mung beans, she highlights the impending chickpea shortage due to the Russian war in Ukraine.

“We don’t grow chickpeas here in South Africa. We import them. Chickpeas are grown in Russia and Ukraine. We’re going to have a problem with hummus soon. So why not use what’s already ours? Mung beans were indigenised here from India. They grow and are eaten mostly in Limpopo and Mpumalanga and are packed with protein, fibre and B vitamins.

“I put them in soups, and I like to make dhal curries with them.  You can make falafel, little veggie burgers or mung bean cakes with them. Mung bean hummus sounds delicious.” You can find dried mung beans at select Woolworths.

In conclusion, Mokgadi emphasises her excitement around chefs who are now getting into and experimenting with indigenous ingredients.

“Chefs contribute to changing people’s eating habits. They make everything look cool and trendy. A lot of chefs are awake now and they want to have a stamp on their food system. They also want to be different. This means going more local and indigenous, which is fantastic,” she beams.

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