This past weekend I had dinner with two warm and very friendly people from Europe. This is their first visit to Namibia, and they wanted to eat typical Namibian food. This, as it always does, presented me with a conundrum: just what is typical Namibian food? What dish is uniquely ours?
Consider this: much of what we eat on a daily basis is found just about anywhere else: cheese, tomato, beef, pork, mutton, maize, green beans, onions, garlic, chilies, fish – you name it, someone else somewhere else in the world eats it too.
The food writer C. Louis Leipoldt in his book “Kos vir die kenner” said the following about Afrikaans food: “[…] wat die meeste van ons as eg Afrikaans beskou, is maar net dieselfde geregte, onder ‘n ander naam, as wat in ander lande gebruik word.” […] what most of us consider to be genuine Afrikaans [food] is the same dishes, but with a different name, than what is used in other countries” [my translation].
I believe the same applies to “Namibian” food. There is nothing uniquely Namibian about our staple proteins. Even oryx, kudu, eland and zebra are common fare in our neighbouring countries, and so are our most common species of fish and staple starches, maize and millet. So where will we find our uniqueness?
I believe Leipoldt is right when he said we should go to the veld. What nature produce -our veldkos – is what sets us apart from others, not what humans produce. Unfortunately, no-one really cooks with veldkos anymore.
A nation’s food culture incorporates many variables: production and distribution, the ritualistic, spiritual, cultural and medical applications of food, the conflict over food and the environmental and labour issues associated with food.
The act of getting food on a plate is thus imbued in political, economic, environmental and social choices, whether we like it or not.
A nation’s food culture is a road map telling us where we came from, where we are and where we’re going. It is a dynamic entity that changes as it evolves. Change might be slow, but it should never become static.
Traditional food cultures are firmly rooted in what is local. Modern ones are often based on the fusion of several traditional ones with a good dose of global influences added for good measure.
But, back to my dilemma of last weekend: where do I take foreign visitors to taste Namibia on a plate? Don’t get me wrong; there is no shortage of fine restaurants in the national capital city – Windhoek. They offer Italian, French, International, German and African fare with a little of Namibia on the side. Or so it appears to me.
Let me make it clear: a European dish made with Namibian venison, does not automatically become a “Namibian dish”.
To merely substitute or swap ingredients, does not change the cultural gist and spirit of a dish. Thus, a bœuf bourguignon will always be French even if you make it with oryx cheeks.
If a nation’s cuisine is defined as a characteristic style of cooking practices and traditions associated with that specific culture, what is the current state of Namibian cuisine?
In my personal view, we are in deep trouble. Our cuisine is shamelessly European.
Consider this: what does Trio a la Mare de Namibe (A delicious seafood trio incorporating a mouth-watering Thai horse mackerel wrap, gratinated oyster and a crispy pilchard fish-cake), Ragout le Conquilages en Poisson avec Quenelles de Pesto (Mussel ragout crowned by grilled hake fillet, accompanied by maize pesto gnocchi and vegetable kebabs on fresh Namibian rocket), Souflé en Complétée Namballs de Chocolat, avec Caramelises de Mango (Buttermilk soufflé complimented by chocolate Nam-balls served with caramelised Namibian mango filets) have to do with Namibian cuisine?
A lot it seems, as these three dishes were judged the winning dishes at the recent Plate of Namibia competition.
Even the English descriptions of these dishes make little sense to me.
Subterfuge aside, why would anyone choose a French name for a dish that is supposedly representative of Namibia? On face value, the winning contestants were inspired by Thai, French and Italian cuisine and to represent Namibia they offered “chocolate Nam-balls” and “Namibian mango” and “fresh Namibian rocket”.
I can only think the “Namibia” part was sprinkled over in random fashion to relate to the objective of the competition.
Let me be honest: I have not tasted the dishes. I am not saying they were no good, and I do not say the actual cooking was not of a high standard. I accept that the cooking was good and that the food tasted great.
What I do have a gripe with, however, is that we try and emulate European food and cuisine. Food-wise we are not at ease with our identity as Namibians. Giving a dish an over-elaborate French name does not make it taste better, nor does it make us better cooks.
I do not think we as Namibian cooks and chefs apply ourselves fully to our own ingredients. Truly local ingredients hardly ever make it onto our home or restaurant tables. Why do we not explore the culinary potential of Baobab fruit? Or !Naras? Or !Nabbas? How often have I eaten at a lodge when the maguni or marula fruits were in season, only to be served a pathetic attempt at a Tiramisu?
Why are we so hell-bend on serving visitors food that they could find at home? Schnitzel anyone? Sure, you are spoilt for choice. Gemsbok komkommer (Acanthosicyos naudinianus)? Forget it.
Dare I say it: we have an inferiority complex when it comes to our own food. That which is given to us by the very land we live on. Instead, we assign higher culinary value to food and techniques from elsewhere, particularly Europe.
But, I am glad to say; the Namibian culinary scene is not all dreary and bleak. There is a new generation of artisan food producers who are slowly but surely starting to make a culinary mark.
These include cheese makers, ice cream makers, bakers and pie makers, wine makers, vegetable growers and charcutiers (pardon my French). They deserve our support so let us use what they produce.
Would it not be nice if the next Plate of Namibia competition challenge contestants to showcase their produce? Should our chefs and cooks not meet with botanists and traditional foragers to explore the culinary potential of our indigenous plants?
Should culinary schools and top chefs not lead the way – the Namibian way with new culinary innovations rooted in our local food traditions? Should we all not make a better effort toward promoting our local cuisine at home?
My recipe this week pays homage to the food I grew up with down south: sheep’s tails, samp, !nabas (Terfezia pfeilii) and beetroot. S
imple ingredients with but with modern twist. The beetroot is presented as a fluid gel with the aid of gellan and xanthan gum. If you can’t find gellan gum, use agar-agar. Both xanthan gum and agar-agar is available locally from Maerua Lifestyle Spar and Pick-and-Pay.