Preserving Our Cooking Culture In The Modern World

Cooking is a tradition to many cultures and often regarded as the thread binding together Zimbabwean homes. I was initiated into cooking by my mother but she never knew until later that my friends and I used our mother’s lessons to coach each other during “mahumbwe”- a traditional Shona game where children take on adult roles and pretend to run a household. Of course, we also used our mothers’ kitchen ingredients, often without their consent. It was excellent fun. I was in grade two when my mother, who was then my school teacher, took us all to an exciting cooking class on campus. All pupils in my class participated, boys helped light the fire while the girls prepared, cooked and served the food.

Food preparation – a subject of national interest

Food preparation is a significant element of food utilization, a dimension of food security. The Zimbabwe National Nutrition Strategy of 2015 lists school cooking demonstrations amongst approaches to reduce malnutrition. Since Zimbabwe was blessed with a rich harvest this past season, it makes sense to remind each other of the best ways to prepare the food to bring out its best flavor while preserving its nutritional value. Cooking is a vital nutrition intervention whose impact on nutrition status is under-researched and underrated. Cooking usually improves the flavor, texture, safety and palatability of food, however some preparation methods can render food more harmful and or less nutritious. Overcooking vegetables significantly reduces their nutritive value while smoke grilled meat can be carcinogenic.

My paternal grandmother was a brilliant cook, so is my mother and maternal grandmother. I am still trying to absorb some of their culinary prowess and that brings us to the next issue: Cooking indigenous Zimbabwean food can be a challenge to many men and women born after independence or even before. The challenge actually begins with knowing what is indigenous to Zimbabwe and what is not. Post-independence, we were ushered into a cooking culture that was mostly adopted and foreign, thus our concept of good tasting food got somewhat distorted. I do not remember if our school text books had any traditional foods as reference. In terms of fruits and vegetables, I recall mostly the exotic ones such as bananas, oranges, cabbages, rape and carrots. I am challenging to this generation in partnership with our elders, to restore our true traditional cooking culture, preserve its uniqueness and wholesomeness and proudly pass it on to the next generation.

Women, men, boys and girls need to be confident cooks however this may not come naturally to all. The ability to prepare healthy, delicious and diverse traditional meals can be acquired through various means. Most culinary schools in Zimbabwe produce cooks/chefs who are attracted to the hotel and catering industry. Even the institutional food service personnel trained by the Ministry of Health and Child Care are fixated by the hospital much of the time and have very little opportunity to reach out to the community. Who then is expected to stimulate mutual knowledge sharing of traditional foods and how to cook them?  Most traditional Zimbabwean food possesses a unique and very rich taste/flavor and no generation should be denied the privilege of knowing what this food is and how to prepare it. Today’s generation has the responsibility to preserve our good food heritage and culture and pass it on to the next. Our food is our identity!

Passing on our cooking skills can be done in various ways and I am inviting each reader to actively partake on this important health and nutrition matter.

What can you and I do?

While parents continue to teach their children, nephews, nieces and maids. Schools should introduce cooking clubs that prepare a variety of dishes with strong reinforcement of our traditional foods. When I studied home economics in high school, we did not prepare any single traditional dish and that, once again, distorted my perception of what is good food and we got socially conditioned against traditional foods. God gave Zimbabwe a rich and diverse traditional diet, we should be extremely proud of it and trust his wisdom to give it to us as food.

I have seen cooking competitions on local television, however, the recipes are more exotic than traditional and a balance is needed. Cooking competitions and classes should also be expanded to the rural population. This interaction with rural communities requires the local nutritionist to be humble, learn from the community and document as much as possible as this knowledge is rapidly disappearing. Communities are highly likely to know more about indigenous foods. Community and church-related women’s, men’s and youth clubs are an easy target. In my local church I once asked all congregants what they wanted the health team to teach them for that year. The greatest need identified was cooking classes and it was suggested by both men and women.

Our colleges and universities should include indigenous foods in their curricula including the training of local nutritionists to plan meals, formulate recipes and prepare wholesome dishes. Researchers should not shy from investigating the impact of traditional and exotic cooking knowledge, practice and individual efficacy on the nutrition status of individuals and populations. The government can also promote innovation by deliberately funding ideas that encourage preservation of traditional culinary skills and knowledge of foods.

As Zimbabwe progresses towards fulfilling the sustainable development goals, improving the traditional culinary skills of the masses could be a relevant strategy, it has the potential to increase diversity of traditional foods consumed and break the monotony of sadza with meat and green leafy vegetables and foreign foods. Our relationship with the environment can be strengthened by our knowledge of traditional foods. Authentic taste comes from a tradition of food choice and preparation. Food interacts with our genes and we are probably safer eating what our ancestors ate, after all they were stronger, healthier and better nourished than most of us as documented in research journals. Ancient ways should reign supreme!!

One of my favourite traditional dishes.

Green vegetables with peanut butter

Ingredients:

  • Fresh amaranth leaves
  • Fresh pumpkin leaves
  • Young pumpkin pod with yellow flowers
  • Peanut butter
  • Pinch of salt and ash
  • Chopped tomatoes
  • Water

Method:

  • Boil the water, salt and ash.
  • Break the pumpkin leaves with your hands or use knife.
  • Chop the pumpkin and flowers pod into tiny pieces
  • Add the pumpkin leaves, amaranth leaves, chopped pod and flowers and tomatoes.
  • Cook until soft, avoid browning the leaves.
  • Add peanut butter.
  • Leave for a few minutes before serving with sadza remapfunde.

This recipe is rich in fibre mostly from amaranth and pumpkin leaves. Pumpkin and amaranth leaves are rich in calcium, beta carotene (vitamin A), vitamin C and iron.

A recipe children can try at school

Nhopi

Ingredients

  • Pumpkin (Manhanga or mashamba)
  • Sweet potato
  • peanut butter
  • Water
  • salt

Method

  • Wash and peel the pumpkin and sweet potatoes.
  • Cut into cubes.
  • Boil until both are soft.
  • If the mixture is too watery, thicken with sorghum or millet meal.
  • Add peanut butter.
  • Add a pinch of salt to taste.
  • Simmer for a few minutes.
  • Serve as dessert.

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Natsayi Nembaware
Natsayi Nembaware is Zimbabwean nutritionist who was raised in a village in Manicaland. She has 15 years of experience as a nutritionist, five of which she worked for the Ministry of Health and Child Care at district, province and headquarters in Zimbabwe. She has been an active member of various taskforces and committees that develop national policies, strategies and guidelines for health and nutrition. Her interests are preservation of nature, indigenous/traditional diets, sustainable nutrition solutions, disease prevention and interplay between nutrition, agriculture, water and health. She believes in the creator and finds enrichment from the perfection, purity and peacefulness of creation including humanity. She follows closely international and national events and how these influence nutrition choices of individuals and populations. Natsayi delights in nature walks, gardening, knitting, sewing.

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