At some point I mentioned to Kamaijanda that I have an interest in veldkos; the real traditional foods that grows wild and free.
I have not known him for very long, but Kamaijanda is quite an exceptional man with a quiet, gentle demeanor, great knowledge and great patience.
For a few weeks now, we have discussed the fate of the ever-growing wasp nest near the front door. We have not yet reached consensus as to the best way to encourage them to move without us having to resort to some type of fatal method. I suspect it is because neither of us have the heart to apply force.
I have watched him closely as he tends to the garden. He understands the difference between good and bad. The good stays and the bad goes.
Sick plants are nurtured and earthworms are gently relocated. After a long day, he leaves with a bag full of stems and tubers to plant at home.
Early last week, he notified me that he had brought some “wild potatoes” from the farm that he would like me to try.
“We call them Otjihakautu”, he said as he handed me the bag. “There are two types”, he continued, “and I have left the stems and leaves on, so that you can tell them apart”.
Upon hearing that I was going to do an Internet search to learn more about these tubers, he got quite excited. Just like so many others of his generation, I do not think Kamaijanda has ever used the Internet, although he might have heard about this great modern resource. Besides, I am sure he wanted to know as much as possible about the food that he grew up with.
Our great modern resource turned out less than useful – nothing but a scant reference to “wild potatoes” or “aartappels”. Very early translations such as the one from a German-Herero dictionary of 1897 (G Viehe, Grammatik des Otjiherero nebst Wörterbuch, W. Spemann: Stuttgart and Berlin) simply equated it to its most comparable western equivalent (“Otjihakautu – Kartoffel”).
I paged through some plant reference books, but failed there too.
I clearly suck at botany and Latin at the same time.
Kamajanda explained that he does not cook his Ovihakautu (plural of Otjihakautu – dictionaries have their use) but just cleans them, rubs the skin off, then eats it raw. So I cleaned one, rubbed the skin off and ate it. Gave him some too. Tastes just like raw potatoes only milder and somewhat sweeter. And here is the bonus: I am happy to report that we are both still alive and without ailments other than those caused by growing older.
I accepted that my quick foray on the Internet came nowhere near proper research. So I took some photographs of my samples and send them off to the Namibia Botanical Research Institute (NBRI) for help. As it turns out, our object of interest is not a potato at all. Instead it is one of the Brachystelma species of which there are a few: B. arnotti, B.circinatum, B. cupulatum and B. dinteri to name just a few. They are part of Oleander family locally known as hoodia. Most members of the hoodia family contain milky latex in their stems and are poisonous. The Brachystelma species’ on the other hand, all have tubers that are safe to eat. Traditionally, these are eaten either raw or baked in hot ash.
Ovihakautu is one of our forgotten foods. Like with so many others, we seem to have turned our backs on veldkos, and hence it remains unutilized by our home or professional cooks. It remains stuck in the realm of the “traditional” – the forgotten.
If it can be cultivated, or explored safely and sustainably, I can see no reason why Ovihakautu cannot grace our contemporary tables. They are easy enough to cook, and taste great, so with the necessary care I see no reason why we cannot use them as an occasional substitute for potatoes. Besides it would be a great homage to our indigenous food culture and praise for our ancestors.
I have cooked them first in butter, then in a little chicken stock. In French cuisine this is known as fondant potatoes. These tubers are less starchy than potatoes and far juicier. After cooking they do not have the soft flowery core of potatoes, but they are delicious in their own way.
As a side dish with good lamb and some asparagus, this dish is as Namibian as it gets. Something for all to be proud of – and that is a good thing, isn’t it?