Food bytes: reflections from South Africa


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Food is memory, desire, and dream. Food conjures us smells and aromas of days gone by. Food, no matter how simple, connects us with our kith and kin who have long passed on…

Food is slavery. My grandmother came from India to South Africa at the turn of the 20th century, and worked for a shilling a month, tilling the tea fields of Kearsney, a rural village 50 miles from Durban, the main seaport town and gateway for indentured labourers coming from India. She was thus a small cog in the larger wheel of colonial enterprise and domination.

Food is friendship. While I was a university student in the mid-1960s (in one of apartheid’s racially separate institutions), living in residence and being subjected to plain fare at the hostel, I remember the absolute delight of sharing the wonderful chevda and carrot halwa that my friend Rashida Jamaloodien brought from Ladysmith. Even the canned curried ‘baked beans’ that we prepared in our rooms was a treat fit for a queen!

Food is class consciousness. Food, like speech, immediately classifies you. Do you like caviar or curry? My friends at university would look askance when I told them that I actually relished samp and beans, putu, tripe and trotters (dishes that were enjoyed by local Africans), sour porridge and pickled mango (enjoyed in the early days by Indian coolies in the cane fields in Natal). And of course, sangiti with curried fish. Such plebeian fare! My dignity was only restored when I scored good marks for essays on D.H. Lawrence and Shakespeare. (It is interesting that some of these dishes are now served as haute cuisine in the top hotels in South Africa, in settings often with lovely Indian or African décor, as the case may be. The same is true of the humble banana leaf, now used to create the ambience of nouvelle cuisine. Democracy in South Africa has many unintended effects!)

Food is invention. Bunny chow (Bania food) is the signature dish of Durban, and the original ‘take away’. A loaf of bread is cut in half, hollowed out, filled with delicious curried dried beans and the soft inner bread replaced as a cover. Wrapped in newspaper, this compact all-in-one food parcel can be eaten at any time, anywhere. It was created mainly by Gujarati (referred to as Bania) entrepreneurs as a ‘convenience food’ for poor urban workers who took their bunny chows to their different places of work.

Food is gendered. The Durban Women’s Cultural Group, with Fatima Mayat as editor, compiled the well-known Indian Delights, which provides valuable information on Indian cuisine in South Africa. What is interesting here is that the editor takes on the persona of a matriarchal figure, giving advice on culinary skills to novices, presumed inevitably to be women, who needed grooming for domesticity:

‘Dear Beginner, Welcome to the club of homemakers. Yours will be a great responsibility for in your hands rests the health and welfare of the persons for whom you will be preparing meals. For the Indian daughter, cooking is not a chore, it is a labour of love and if this attitude is maintained you will find half the battle already won’ (Mayat 1961:20).

Food is tradition. The ‘Art of Indian Cooking’ among Indians in South Africa is seen as a highly valued and natural element in the adherence to Indian cultural traditions. It must be seen, together with the oral tradition and the perpetuation of family organisation and community patterns, as reflecting the important role that women especially played in providing continuity during migration to a new land (see Wilentz 1992:xxxi).

Food is woman.

I am woman

preserving the ancient hearth

with laddoos and rasgoolas.

Food is power. Good cooks, especially those renowned for mass cooking (Dekchi or cauldron cooking), are usually male, as this work is seen as more strenuous and is positioned in the public space. In the city of Durban (which has the largest percentage of Indians in the Indian diaspora), cooks such as Manjira Mota are commended as ‘great culinary giants’ who provide an important service during communal functions (Mayat 1961:177). Some women, such as Essop Paruk and Ebrahim Mayat, have earned this ‘honorary’ status.

Food is mirror. Interwoven with the recipes in the book Indian Delights are numerous vignettes, nostalgic family anecdotes, convalescence remedies, and this gives the book an invaluable intertextual and social character. The legendary folk tales, mainly about emperors and moghuls (from India and Pakistan), reveal a degree of self-exoticisation or orientalising. These are matched, however, by narratives of stark survival among the early immigrants to the country, as in the following cameo entitled ‘Paper Tablecloths’:

‘Harsh and rough were the times, when our great-grandparents arrived from India. With prayerful hearts and sweating brows they tilled the soil or hawked the streets as vendors.

‘Long and lean were the years when our grandparents tried to strike new shoots around the parental trees. Of hardships there was no dearth but firm in their Faith they rather counted their blessings. When the homespun cottons they had brought from India wore out and few had the money to buy new tablecloths, mothers substituted these with something for free.

‘Armed with a pair of scissors and dextrously folding old newspapers, beautiful repeat designs soon emerged. Shelves and tables were covered with these and it is in memory of those days that we present this menu on our newspaper cover with its pretty crepe flowers for decoration.

‘Wholesome and simple was the food of those days. The platter of rice, dhal or spiced yoghurt, curried potato slices, onion and tomato relish, quarters of oranges sprinkled with salt and roasted cummin seeds for dessert and a jug of iced water was sufficient for the most fastidious to exclaim, Shukar Alhamdolillah (God be Praised for this Bounty)’ (Mayat 1961:40).

Food is poetry. A recipe book is not likely to be considered as ‘literature’, but when one pages through Indian Delights which continues to be a bestseller in South Africa (a new revised version appeared in 1999), one begins to appreciate its evocative and engaging style. It projects a fascinating dimension of cultural history, with a strong appeal to narratives of the early indentured Indians who ‘alongside their sleeping quarters in the little apron gardens…sowed the precious seeds of vegetables and herbs that they had brought with them from home’ (18).

Food is camouflage. Food, with its saffron, cardamom and ghee aromas, dispelled the ugliness and stench of a life of slavery in cramped compounds and barracks. It provided much-needed respite from gruelling days on the sugarcane plantations.

Food is nostalgia. It was food that linked (and continues to link) South African Indians with their motherland, India. Interestingly, Rushdie uses pickling in Midnight’s Children as a symbol of recuperating and preserving history. Cuisine is an important way of preserving cultural identity in a strange land. In her novel, The Mistress of Spices (1997) Chitra Divakaruni writes, with sensual descriptiveness, if not melodramatic overtones, of the ‘longing’ that diasporic Indians feel in America for Indian food and delicacies. The narrator, Tilo, the spice-girl living in Oakland, California, tries to understand the feelings of transplanted, and now overworked and exploited, compatriots: ‘Emerald-green burfis, rasogollahs white as dawn and, made from lentil flour, laddus like nuggets of gold. It seems right that I should have been here always, that I should understand without words their longing for the ways they chose to leave behind when they chose America’ (Divakaruni 1997:5).

Food is racist. Food, like dress, is seen as a marker of difference between Self and Other, West and East. The general critical issues of ‘culinary imperialism’ in colonial and post-colonial contexts (see Narayan 1995), are worth pondering over. I find it irksome that some supermarkets in Durban carry the sign, ‘ethnic mint’, simply because this herb is used mainly in Indian cuisine. The term ‘ethnic food’ in reference to Indian cuisine is also quite common here. All food is ethnic, strictly speaking.

Food is identity. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has stated tellingly that ‘[w]e continually devise ways to feed for social effect: to bond with the like-minded, who eat alike; to differentiate ourselves from the outsiders who ignore our food taboos; to recraft ourselves, reshape our bodies, recast our relations with people, nature, gods’ (Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe 2001:62).

Food makes mother-tongue speakers of us all. Food also connects us in wonderful and unexpected ways. It is the alchemy of deep hospitality. Speaking about his autobiographical novel, All Under Heaven – The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa (2004a), Darryl Accone, a fourth generation Chinese in South Africa, noted eloquently: ‘Food makes mother-tongue speakers of us all. Through it, we converse with other cultures in a dialogue both fundamental and profound’ (Accone 2004b:1).


Accone recalls that it was food that reminded them in South Africa that they were Chinese. Food was, in fact, that red silken thread that his great, great grandfather, Tian, gave to his great grandfather, Langshi, when he set out to strange South Africa to work as a coolie in the gold mines in Johannesburg. Accone notes that, ‘It was food prepared in the Chinese way that kept me connected to my roots through the many years that I struggled with questions of belonging and identity. Always, though I did not realise it, it was the whispering and murmuring of my first language, rising over time to a fully articulated voice’ (2004b:2).

Food is money. It is not surprising that the family shop and restaurant is a familiar sight and is recounted in Indian and other diasporic literatures. Fernandez-Armesto notes that the ‘spread of Chinese cooking around the world has…been colonial but not imperial, carried by peaceful migrants in self-imposed "economic exile"’ (2001:167). Accone also points out lyrically that the Chinese restaurants ‘are representations of home, microcosms of the real and mythical worlds left behind. Their voices soar collectively into song, the song of remembrance, oftentimes the song of exile, most often the song of celebration’ (2004b: 2).

Food is memory. Accone recalls that, ‘Food is among the most abiding memories of my childhood. When I think of my maternal grandfather – the young boy Ah Kwok in the book – I remember immediately our trips to Chinatown, and his food. It was Jo’burg’s original Chinatown in Commissioner Street, now a fleeting image of its heyday, that I saw while accompanying Kong Kong on his regular shopping trips’ (Accone 2004d:4).

Food is family. Accone recalls the Sunday meals they would all share together in ‘working class Westdene’ in Johannesburg, with his grandparents Kongkong and Bobo presiding over the family feasts. He sees these happenings as an important ‘affirmation of family, tradition and culture as well as a never ending journey into the gourmet delights my grandparents would prepare with such generosity and facility’ (Accone 2004b:5).


It is interesting that here it was his grandfather who played an important role in these culinary ceremonies and events (in other diasporic narratives it is usually women who play this role; see Govinden 2000), and Accone ‘realised all too belatedly his subtle way of reminding us that we were Chinese’ (Accone 2004b:5). These may be seen as small acts of heroism, but no less slight in the face of exile and loneliness, given negative experiences in an alienating society.

Food is healing. Convalescent food is comforting. Chicken soup is good for the soul and for the bones. My mother would insist on making ‘proper’ soup with ‘live’ chicken (frozen chicken was seen as anathema, and in any case, did not exist in the old days), spiced with sprinklings of ground black pepper, garlic and roasted jeera. Comforting and uplifting! Rusum was a perennial favourite to ward off colds, and was music to our ears. Mulligatawny? Ugh. That sound’s awful.

Food is hospitality. It is not unusual to have ‘unexpected’ visitors, who might stay for a meal. Even a casual visitor is given something to eat and drink. Sharing a meal is Eucharistic, giving and receiving life and love. This is something that the film, ‘Babette’s Feast’, portrayed in a deep way.

Food is restorative. Funerals are rounded off by a meal. At Indian funerals this is usually a vegetarian meal, though in recent times I have noticed that chicken and mutton may be served.

Food is sensual. There is something about eating with your fingers! To touch the food, to mix it delicately in anticipation of savouring it in your mouth is a sensory delight. Indian fingers are imbued with taste buds! While many of us have learnt to use a knife and fork elegantly, it is interesting to see that the traditional practice of eating with your fingers endures, and is also practised to give an air of informality.

Food is hard work. Indian women spend hours and hours standing over hot stoves and steaming pots. An old Gujarati friend of mine would spend a week making huge tins of ghee. She also made her own papad, which would take days. In the old days stamping and winnowing of grain was meticulously done.

Food is creative. Indians curry every variety of vegetable under the sun. Green bananas, papaya, spinach, cucumber, carrot, yoghurt – nothing escapes the curry pot.

Food is celebration. In South Africa the food at Christmas, Eid and Diwali is sumptuous. There is a blending of Indian, Malay, Dutch, Chinese, European and other influences, and the mingling of aromas is truly cosmopolitan. No ‘clash of civilizations’ here!

Food is fast food. Eating out has become a frequent occurrence now, with young parents taking their children to eateries in the shopping malls. Pizza Hut, McDonalds and Burger King are the places to die for.

Food is good food. The signature of Indian food is biryani. (Samosas are a close second). It remains the piece de resistance. No celebratory meal is celebratory without it.

Food is death. Food causes many of the world’s sicknesses. Diabetes and high blood pressure are common among South African Indians and this is directly linked to food habits and some types of Indian cuisine.

Food is faith. Fasting during Ramadan and Lent is common, if not obligatory. Among Hindus, individual days are set aside for abstinence from food, and fasting (which is also defined as refraining from meat consumption) is obligatory before rituals such as a wedding.

Food is green. Vegetarianism is more widespread in South Africa now than before and not looked at as deviance. It is becoming more mainstream, and not just related to religion and caste as in previous days.

Food is shame. There are many derogatory terms that are used because Indians eat curry. ‘Curry muncher’ is one of them. Yet Durban (like London) now has an accepted and revered curry ethos.

Food is elemental. It is the air we breathe. It is the umbilical cord to our past and to our future. It is corporeal and spiritual. It is manna from heaven. But it goes rancid if we hoard it. What a parable against (half) the world’s gluttony.

Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof… Food is conscience…Food is compassion… Food is love. Food is the first milk of sustenance and last act of self-giving



Accone, Darryl. 2004a. All Under Heaven – The Story of a Chinese Family in South Africa. David Philip, Cape Town.

Accone, Darryl. 2004b. ‘Red Chamber Speech’. Speech for the launch of All Under Heaven, 4 May 2004.

Govinden, Devarakshanam. 2000. ‘Sister Outsiders’: The Representation of Identity and Difference in Selected Writings by South African Indian Women. PhD Dissertation. University of Natal, Durban. Unisa Press Publication (forthcoming).

Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. 1997. The Mistress of Spices. Anchor Books, New York/London.

Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe 2001. Food – A History. Pan Books/Macmillan, London.

Mackie, Cristine. 1991. Life and Food in the Caribbean. New Amsterdam Books, New York.

Mayat, Zuleikha M. (ed). 1961. Indian Delights – A Book on Indian Cookery. Women’s Cultural Group, Durban.

Narayan, Uma. 1995. ‘Eating Cultures : Incorporation, Identity and Indian Food’, Social Identities 1(1), pp. 63-86.

Wilentz, Gay. 1992. Binding Cultures – Black Women Writers in Africa and the Diaspora. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.