5 THINGS THAT ILLUSTRATE THE UNIFYING POWER OF FOOD
Although no country is perfect, South Africa has endured more than its fair share of struggles. But through thick and thin, we’ve always managed to rise to the challenge, pull together, and find a way through hard times. The most beautiful story we’ve run on the topic was in JAN the Journal Volume 7. In We All Eat the Same, Zola Nene, one of South Africa’s most beloved foodies, takes us on a journey through her childhood, reminiscing about her most memorable meals and how she discovered later in life just how similar they were to dishes from other cultures. Food is one of the most powerful unifying forces, because in the most beautifully simple way, it speaks to our souls.
“I was not born with a hunger to be free. I was born free. Free in every way that I could know. Free to run in the fields near my mother’s hut, free to swim in the clear stream that ran through my village, free to roast mealies [corn] under the stars … It was only when I learnt that my boyhood freedom was an illusion … that I began to hunger for it.”
IT TELLS OUR STORY
As Zola muses in her article, ask someone what they eat and you’ll learn a great deal about who they are. When you think about it, if someone tells you they used to drink milk straight from the udder, you know exactly where they come from. Now, if someone of the same age told you they used to love drinking bubblegum milkshake with vermicelli sprinkles on top, although the base ingredient is exactly the same, it sketches a very different picture of their childhood. But even though either’s choice might repulse the other, it was milk that brought them together.
IT’S AN EMOTIONAL ANCHOR
Stress eating aside, we all got first-hand experience of just how comforting food was to us when the pandemic hit. Whether we were scrolling through Instagram in search of recipes to try out, or simply wanted to watch a Japanese chef chop 200 carrots as a form of therapy, food content went viral. Closer to home, when I reached out on social media to find out what South Africa’s favourite pap dishes were, the responses were overwhelming, and prompted me to make the twelve most popular (get the 12 pap recipes here). Zola was similarly overwhelmed when she posted a simple bowl of iphalisi on social media and witnessed a deluge of emotion from her followers fondly remembering this childhood treat.
IT’S FROM A PERFECT WORLD
Whether we grew up in a palace or a peanut factory, we tend to paint over the imperfections of our past – and even more so when it comes to food. No matter what was going on around you, your most memorable childhood food memories always seem perfect. For this reason, when we reconnect with those dishes later, it takes us back to utopia, and when we discover that other people remember them as fondly as we do, we feel closer to them somehow.
I SAY MIELIEBROOD, YOU SAY ISINKWA SOMBILA
Corn bread, mieliebrood, isinkwa sombila… call it what you will, these cultural staples have a lot in common. Zola, originally from Kwazulu-Natal, remembers discovering isinkwa sombona (a Xhosa mealie bread) for the first time and thinking how similar it is to the version her Zulu grandmother had taught her to bake. The key difference, however, was that her grandmother would wrap the bread in mealie leaves, which locked in the moisture, resulting in a less crispy crust. Her German-Afrikaans mother-in-law (are you keeping up?), on the other hand, takes the same ingredients, but prepares it as something resembling a soft pudding to serve as a braai side. Three very different breads, but each so familiar at the same time.
In all the infinite ways that food continues to enrich our lives, its power to bring us together – whether around a table or as a culture – must be its greatest feat. Food doesn’t ask what drives us apart, but rather what brings us together.