Our Food Heritage

Seasonal eating is not a new concept, although it is trendy right now. Our ancestors foraged and hunted – following the rains, the fruiting trees and the animal migrations. The first agriculturalists to settle in one place and cultivate crops, ate what was in season too.

r picking imbuya - amaranthus

Culture and food are interwoven across the world, with locally abundant ingredients determining the tastes that we prefer.  In South Africa, where only recently many people have become urbanised, food memories are largely influenced by rural life – hearty, satisfying food.  Mostly home grown, but including easy to store staples enhanced by an array of cultivated and wild greens.  Urbanisation and new wealth have caused many to abandon the simple nutritious food of our childhoods in favour of the artificially flavoured ‘modern’ food.

In the process of abandoning foraged ingredients, our diets have become impoverished. There is a perception that wild greens are ‘poor people’s food’ – around here we call them imifino, while in other places around South Africa, marogo is the common word to describe all manner of leafy greens. They are, in fact, jam packed with nutrients, often far surpassing that of more commonly eaten leafy greens like Swiss Chard and cabbage.

r leaf selection

Across the globe, many communities seek out the new growth of wild greens in Spring and Summer – a delicacy long awaited through the colder months in Europe. There is a great revival of the popularity of indigenous greens in East Africa. Now sold in large supermarkets, served in restaurants in Nairobi, and Kenyan farmers have increased the area planted with these greens by 25% since 2011.

Amaranthus is one of the most common greens and grows profusely in poor soils requiring little watering or attention. There are many varieties – green or red, tall or creeping.  It is versatile and can be used wherever greens are called for in a recipe.   Amaranthus leaves have heaps more Vitamin C than cabbage or chard – just 50g contains 100% of our daily needs.  The leaves are rich in protein, beta-carotene, iron, calcium, carbohydrates and fibre. Leaves are frequently dried and stored for winter use.  Seeds contain more protein than most other grains. Amaranthus is most often eaten with mielie meal, as a relish, but young leaves are great in salads, perfect to add to soups and stews or blend into your favourite juice mix.

amaranthus in sack

Isijabane is a great way to use imfino and a clever way of including greens in a dish for children who are picky eaters. While people usually use easy to find imbuya (or spinach), according to the community elders the very best imifino to use for isijabane is msobo (Solanum nigrum) and intshungu (Momordica balsamina) Pictured belowThese add a bitter taste and are perfect.  

  • 500g mixed greens
  • 1 or 2 chopped shallots or spring onions
  • 500g maize meal
  • ½ tsp salt

Cook the greens, chopped shallots and salt in a little water.

Once the greens are cooked (5-7 minutes) sprinkle dry maize meal into the pot and stir as it absorbs the water. Add a little more maize meal and keep stirring for ten minutes over a low heat.

The finished dish should be very green and have a soft porridge consistency.

If you really don’t like the idea of all that stirring you can cheat by cooking a soft maize meal separately and then adding it to the cooked imifino.  Or even using instant mealie meal or polenta.

This recipe is included in Mnandi – a taste of Mpophomeni, along with many other varieties of imifino and ideas on how to use them.

What memories do you have of your grandmother cooking wild greens and weeds?

flower intshungu.JPG
intshungu – Momordica balsamina