The search for Namibian cuisine – Part 1: Ingredients

This is not the first article I write about this, and it will not be the last one either. In fact, if I am honest, this is becoming the single focus of a mild obsession.

If we look at cuisine as a social concept, i.e. a theoretical construct with special and distinctive meaning we might adopt the following definition: “[It] is a style of cooking characterized by distinctive ingredients, techniques and dishes, and usually associated with a specific culture or geographic region.”

Furthermore we might accept that: “A cuisine is primarily influenced by the ingredients that are available locally or through trade.”

And most often it is at its most distinctive at a sub-national level: “Regional food preparation traditions, customs and ingredients often combine to create dishes unique to a particular region.”

With this definition we are able to identify the distinctive components of Namibian cuisine – the ingredients; the techniques; and the dishes – at both a national and regional level. In order to do so we need to establish the distinctiveness of the regions (where these exist) and of the country as a whole by comparing its distinctiveness with that of other regions or other countries.

Let us look at ingredients first. We have been importing ingredients from long before Namibia as an independent state existed. The colonial powers Germany and South Africa left their mark on our cuisine. So did the Portuguese via Angola; and neighboring states such as Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Both Kapenta and  Bacalhau are dried fish ingredients that originated elsewhere (Zambia and Portugal respectively). Likewise with almost all of our staple bread products: brötchen, rye bread, graubrot and so forth.

In today’s global world, supermarkets are importing more international ingredients than ever before. Local palates have become used to international ingredients. Think Parma ham, parmesan cheese, calamata olives, feta cheese – no name but a few salad ingredients- the list of these imported staples is long and ever growing.

Let us set beef aside for a moment, as together with lamb, chicken and goat, meat from domesticated animals are truly global products. Noting special or distinctive here.

Namibia is known for its venison as various antelopes such as Oryx, Kudu, Springbok, Eland and Gnu occur locally and have take a central stage in our national cuisine. But I would argue, even these, are not really uniquely or distinctive Namibian. We share these with almost all countries in southern and eastern Africa.

The same with our fish.

The only component that might be close to unique and distinctive is our local veldkos, i.e. the plants and insects that are indigenous to our country.

Not the cultivated plants however.

These wild foods are unique in that are shaped and formed by our local environments and climatic conditions and hence are regional specialties rather than national ones. They are highly seasonal and most often not available outside their natural habitat. Hence, they are not widely used or appreciated as part of our national cuisine, and hardly ever appear on restaurant menus. These are harvested by means of foraging, and are not cultivated or imported.

There are good reasons these foods have remained “obscure” and for most part unheard of and under-utilized by chefs and home cooks alike.

Some, such as our edible insects – Mopani worms, crickets and termites and ants – are deemed “gross” and unpalatable. The challenge would be ‘repackage’ them to make them more attractive or simply to hide them, or to reform and reshape them until they are beyond popular recognition.

Second, even though these products are deemed “free” harvesting and transporting them is by no means costless. Generally, yields on foraging and processing them is low thus making some of these products nearly too expensive to sell commercially.

Shelling !nara seeds –  for example – is extremely laborious and makes expensive demands of expensive human resources in any commercial kitchen and does juicing marula or maguni. Most commercial chefs would not be willing to take the risk of incurring these costs to put these ingredients on the menu only to find that the paying public has no interest in them. Few home cooks are willing to invest the required amount of time, as they are already stressed to make ends meet time wise.

Thirdly, most cooks and chefs do not know how to prepare and cook these ingredients. They are not part of our formal culinary education, and where such knowledge is present at community levels, it is often unappreciated and on the verge of dying out. Like most nations in the developing world we are embracing the international fast food culture rather than embracing and developing our own. Speaking to the young chefs in the industry, I detect a near “inferiority complex” about our local cuisine. I am often surprised that they show no real willingness to develop local ingredients and or dishes with the modern tools and education to their disposal. Maybe it is because they grow up in an industry that appears to be quite cold toward anything local.

This comes at a time when local cuisines have been made popular almost in a militant fashion by international culinary heavy weights such as Rene Redzepi, Alex Atala and a daily growing legion of others the world over.

Maybe the time is here for us to stop selling identity-less dishes to the eating world. As chefs and home cooks let us say we are proud to cook with distinctly Namibian ingredients. And let us use these ingredients along with those we have imported to create our own unique flavour profiles. Let us talk to old folks and ask them about our food, and let us write it all down and let us conserve it for the new generations to come. Let us not neglect our past and our future, let us eat and cook proudly Namibian.

Next week I’ll write about unique and distinctive techniques and the week after that about uniquely Namibian dishes.

Skilpaadjies with salt-baked carrots, red cabbage puree and muskadel sauce

carrots

Ingredients:

  • 8 Skilpaadjies , Liver wrapped in caul fat
  • 16 Baby Carrots
  • 700 grams Coarse sea salt
  • 3 Egg whites
  • Olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons Chives
  • 350 grams Ready-made German-style braised red cabbage with apple
  • 3.5 grams Xanthan gum
  • 1 Potato, Peeled and sliced into 8 thin slices
  • Oil for frying
  • 300 grams Chicken stock
  • 20 grams Muscadel wine
  • Fresh figs (optional)
  • Pomogranade seeds (optional)
  • Micro herbs (optional)
Skilpadjies with saltbaked carrots
Skilpadjies with saltbaked carrots

Directions:

  1. Place the skilpaadjies into a frying pan with a little vegetable oil over medium heat and cook until the caul fat has became a dark golden brown. Transfer the pan to an oven pre-heated to 180℃, until the liver is cooked through but still pink. Set aside and keep warm. Leave the oven heated to 180℃. or you can put them on the BBQ over medium coals and cook them until they are done to you liking.
  2. Mix the coarse salt with the egg whites. Place half the salt mixture at the bottom of an oven pan or sheet. Mix the carrots with the olive oil and chives. Lay the oiled carrots on top of the layer of salt. Then cover the carrots with the remainder of the salt. Make sure the carrots are covered evenly. Then place them in the oven set at 180℃ and cook for about 30 to 35 minutes depending on the size of your carrots. Remove the carrots from the salt crust and set aside and keep warm.
  3. Heat enough vegetable oil in a small pot to deep fry your potato slices. Heat the oil to about 180℃ then add the potato slices. Cook until crispy and golden brown. Drain on kitchen paper and season with salt.
  4. Add the muscadel wine and chicken stock to a pan over medium heat and reduce until the mixture is like thick syrup. Keep warm.
  5. Add the red cabbage and apple to a blender and blend until smooth. Add the xanthan gum and blend for a few minutes more until the texture is smooth and silky. Place in a little pot or pan and heat until just warm.

6. To Plate: Add one-eighth of the puree to the bottom of a large plate. Repeat with the remaining 7 plates. Add a slice of warm potato to the plate, on the puree, then place the skilpaadjie on top of the potato slice. Add slices of fig and some pomegranade seeds if you have some and top with the muscadel sauce. Garnish with 2 carrots, and some micro herbs if you

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