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Many Windhoek residents, especially those living in the eastern part of town, would never dream of visiting Katutura’s food markets. Let alone buy, cook or eat the produce from those markets.
No doubt, colonial policies of racial segregation are to blame. But to me it also suggests that we have no defined, unified Namibian food culture, and more serious even, that we are doing little to create or build such a culture.
Authentic and commonly used Namibian produce and ingredients such as maguni (monkey orange), makwevo (Kavango lichi), mahangu (pearl millet), and marula fruit
and nuts have yet to find their way onto local restaurant menus and into our home kitchens.
One almost gets the idea that we do not value our local food culture and would rather aspire to the “high cultures” of international cuisine.
The recently held Namibia Chef of the Year competition did nothing to convince me of the contrary. Just consider the menus and the ingredients for Junior Chefs:
- Starters: “Duo of salmon, poached with beurre blanc and ceviche”
- Main: “Oryx fillet medium/rare, potato and butternut dauphinoise with green beans and a red wine jus”.
- Dessert: “Gooseberry panna cotta”.
Do not know about you, but I find very little local in this menu other than the oryx.
Please let me made this clear. I have nothing against French or Italian or any other international cuisine for that matter. And I have no problem with the techniques or ingredients that define these culinary traditions per se. But am I unfair in saying that the organisers could have done just a little bit more in promoting Namibian produce? After all, it is our national chef’s event and for the winner, an opportunity to showcase Namibian cuisine.
Maybe we do not attach sufficient value to our own food and food traditions. Maybe, we regard them as too ‘common’ and not worthy of serious culinary attention.
Or, dare I say it, we’re not proud enough of who we are and what we eat.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I enlisted colleague and friend Veikko as my wingman and guide for a trip to a few of Katutura’s markets. I wanted to explore the ingredients and try some of the local produce.
Let me say this, unlike many of the African markets I have visited before, Windhoek’s markets are well regulated and as a result quite clean.
It is the complete opposite of the wet market in Hellville, capital city of Nosy Be Island just of the coast of Madagascar. This was the worst market I have ever been to. It had meat, fish, guts, gore, flies, reptiles, insects and various unidentified items, all in advanced stages of decomposition.
They say travel opens the mind and loosens the bowels, but this was just too much. Disgusting.
The first market was located in Okuryangava. Here I met Amelia who makes and sells
the traditional drink Oshikundu, as well as, the dry ingredients that are used to make this nutritious drink – sorgum, mahangu (millet), mahangu husks. She also has dried Ombidi a type of wild spinach that grows around the fields in northern Namibia. Amelia says she only stocks traditional mahangu, which she obtains from suppliers in the North, some 800 kms away.
I ask her for her Oshikundu recipe, which she is happy to share and I buy the ingredients from her. She also gives me a small container with Oshikundu to use as a starter.
On the way back to the car, I notice a young man at the kapana sellers. He dips his meat into a little bowl with a greenish fluid before eating it. I got interested. “What is that?” I asked Veikko. “Its bile”, he smiled. “But why?” I’d never seen this anywhere
before. Ever. “Why would anyone in his or her right mind dip perfectly good meat into bile?” I could Veikko was enjoying my perplexity. “They say it is a good cure for a hangover”, Veikko said. I was dumbstruck to say the least.
I can’t vouch for the benefits of bile over aspirin for a hangover, but if you are brave enough, try it and let me know. I am not, that’s all I know.
The next market Tukondjeny (meaning “lets work hard”) is slightly larger and has a few more vendors. We skip the kapana sellers’ section and head over the ladies selling vegetables and dried ingredients.
More millet and sorgum. Neatly piled in heaps and sold by the scoopful. One young lady walked over and starts talking to me. I immediately notice that her accent is not Namibian. And she speaks no Namlish.
Turns out she’s from Central Africa. She takes me to her friend’s table, which does not stock anything I am familiar with. Green leafy vegetables I have never seen. “Its Kovi”
she said. More commonly known in the USA as collard greens the Brassica oleracea plant is related to cabbage and broccoli. Turns out these young ladies grow these in their backyard garden. They sell these freshly picked leaves for N$5 per bunch. A real bargain.
Great if you boil them first for a few minutes in chicken stock. Then fry them with tomatoes, onions and garlic in a little oil. Or as I prefer them, fry them with onions and garlic and a little cream.
They also show me dried cassava. Not grown locally, these they obtain from ‘back home’. It is not amazing just how resourceful people can be when it gets to food? I asked how they source these. She just smiles and showed me the fufu they make from the dried cassava. The dried cassava is pounded to a fine powder to which water is added to form a stiff porridge. In Ghana, where fufu is a staple, they pound plantains with the cassava.
I buy two sticks fufu from her. Neatly rolled into elongated shapes some 20 cms long and wrapped in plastic. Ready for eating – as is or as a porridge.
I cut mine into little 3cm circles and deep-fry them just a little to give them a more crunch texture. With it, I make a sauce of tomatoes, onions, garlic, olives and chili flakes. I cook it right down until the sauce is thick and flavorful. Scoop this over your fufu and give it to your friends at your next braai instead of pap and you will be a food hero. Guaranteed.
Veikko wanted me to try grilled tripe or as it is known locally as ‘matangala’ (although some pronounce it matangara).
Given that tripe is quite tough it has to be cooked for quite a long time before it makes its way over to the grill. We had no luck thus far. It was only mid-morning and the tripe was not ready.
By lunchtime we hit the last market on our list. The Oshetu Community Open Market (Oshetu meaning “its ours”) at the old Single Quarters. It was clear from the queues at the kapana sellers that Namibians are meat eaters. Period.
And that the kapana sellers are the real hard men of the markets. Operating in teams of two or more, one is responsible for cutting and chopping the meat, whist the other does the grilling and selling. In empty beer cartons, salt and chilli spice is provided for the customer to dip his or her meat into. Do not ask these guys for extra meat or discounts. They can kill by mere looking at you.
We finally found our tripe and bought a few pieces. It is good, really good especially with the chilli spice.
After sampling a “Wambo cake” made from sweet dough and baked in a tuna can, it is time to dodge the bullets of fat and splinters of bone flying from the meat cutters’ tables and go home. Reflect. Take a nap.
A while ago, I asked Cynthia Tjongarero for her Herero-bread recipe and here it is. I baked mine in an empty jam tin and made it two ways: the plain, traditional way, and a pimped-up version with raisins and marula nuts.
Thank you Veikko, Amelia, Miss Anonymous from the DRC , and the various others who
answered my questions, posed for the camera and give us bits and pieces to taste. Namibia, we have so much to be proud of.