My basic cooking and food choices are largely influenced by my English and Scottish background and living in South Africa. Over the last 20 or so years, as ethnic foods have become both more fashionable and available, it has become easier to experiment with flavours and different ingredients. My mother cooked “English” food and through a woman who looked after our house, and then later at boarding school, I was introduced to samp (dried, de-husked corn) and beans, and morogo (wild greens/spinach). Patience and I would go into the vegetable garden and pick “weeds” and turnip leaves which were then added to the warm umgqusho (as she called it in isiXhosa), or to the mealie rice or pap (porridge). These memories of the warm, bubbling pot, the vegetable garden, and the stories my Dad used to tell about the family allotment in Glasgow, are the roots of my interest in edible plants. An opportunity to learn about veld kos – edible indigenous plants – was not one to be missed.
Last weekend we joined friends at Loubie Rusch‘s talk on Veld Kos (field food) at the Pink Geranium. The Pink Geranium is a wonderful nursery not far from Stellenbosch (but more of that, another time). Loubie is a landscaper by profession, and passionate about the potential of indigenous plants for food and food security. There was a great deal to absorb, and I have come home to look at some of the plants in our garden with a new, and adult eye.
Why, “adult” eye? Well, as a child, we ate the flowers and leaves of a plant that appeared every spring, Oxalis corniculata, also known as wild sorrel, suurings in Afrikaans (suur is sour in Afrikaans) – it does taste a lot like sorrel. These are yellow ones in our garden, but the ones that we ate growing up in Grahamstown, were purple. I now know that the entire plant – flowers, leaves, stems and corm – is edible, but that it must be treated with respect because of the oxalic acid content (spinach and rhubarb also contain oxalic acid). We used to nibble Elephant’s Food – the fleshy, sour leaves of the Portulacaria afra or spekboom which hedged the property on which we lived, and past which I used to walked to primary school; in those dry, drought years, this hedge was the greenest thing in sight.
Before this weekend, I had also partaken of wild garlic (Tulbagia) . In addition to having a strong (very) garlic smell and flavour and, like the conventional garlic, it is a great companion plant for roses and an essential addition to home-made insect repellents. Again, we have the purple variety in the garden – Loubie introduced me to the white ones.
Loubie used leaves from the first three of these plants to make the most delicious tzatziki-type dip, which we tasted with carrot sticks. The sweetness of the carrots was beautifully juxtaposed with the sourness of the yoghurt, oxalis and spekboom.
She also introduced us to dune spinach, which she stir-fried with some oyster mushrooms. She had made a pesto, which which she combined with cherry tomatoes, but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you (because I can’t remember) what went into it! It all looked and tasted delicious.
I have come home inspired, and in addition to the first three plants I discussed, all of which grow abundantly in our garden, I will be experimenting with two other plants that grow there, in equal profusion: the wild rosemary, Eriocephalus africanus (Kapokbos in Afrikaans), and the sour fig, Carpobrotus edulis, a member of the Mesembryanthem family, and which has a long and rich culinary history in the Western Cape.
The wild rosemary grows in the same, neglected corner of our plot as the nasturtiums of which I spoke a while ago, and has a more peppery but less strong aroma than the conventional rosemary that I already use quite a lot. As you see, the leaves are similar.
Coming back to the sour figs – a friend in Cape Town was very excited when she saw sour figs growing in our garden. I knew about sour fig jam and dried sour figs, but I hadn’t known what they tasted like, or how to go about using them, green and/or fresh, in a salad, let alone in a stir fry. We have loads of these in our garden because they are a great, drought resistant ground cover that helps to stabilise banks, so I will soon be experimenting with them.
The plants I’ve mentioned are just some of the plants Loubie told us about. Wild asparagus we also have in the garden – I’ve been pulling it out – now I shall be giving it TLC. I’ll keep you posted about this new aspect of my culinary journey…