The “African” vegetable that lifts the weak

I had never really taken any conscious notice of this ubiquitous Southern and Central African vegetable until I came to Cape Town in 1990 and, like many African foods (and cultural!) ingredients, just couldn't find it. I am talking about a member of the cabbage family that I grew up growing, eati


ng , selling and taking for granted as an “African” vegetable – the hardy, resilient and delicious umbhida (Ndebele/Nguni languages), muriwo (Shona), sukuma wiki (Swahili) or any of a number of other names depending on who you talk to from Johannesburg to Nairobi. Varieties and related cultivars come by several names kale, choumoellier, rape. Don’t ask me why although I suspect this name shares the same origin as kohl rabe, raab rapine or rappone as the vegetable and its variants are known in parts of Europe), tsunga and, doubtless, others.
I thought it was a traditional African native, until a little research showed this leafy vegetable whose Latin (and scientific) name is Brassica oleracea, variety acephala (meaning without a head) is a descendent of the wild cabbage. A native of the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor. The Greeks and Romans cultivated it (and collards). In the Middle Ages it was, reportedly, a popular vegetable eaten by peasants. Travellers and migrants through the ages from Romans to Celtic wanderers and, latterly, American settlers from across the Atlantic, all helped to disperse it.
The word kale itself is of Scottish origin, derived from coles or caulus, the terms used by Greeks and Romans in referring to the whole cabbage-like group of vegetables. Germans call it kohl. The University of Nebraska’s Institute of Agriculture & Natural Resources has done some research on this vegetable’s nutritional properties. The kale is described as a ‘nutritional superstar’, loaded with calcium, potassium, indoles (cancer fighting substances) beta carotenes and other anti oxidants. It is an excellent source of Vitamin A (courtesy mainly of its beta carotene content),which is particularly important in boosting eye health. Kales are also excellent sources of Vitamin C. Pound for pound, it is regarded as one of the most nutritious foods around.
When my friends eventually talked me into opening an African food eatery in Cape Town, I offered the vegetable under the more cross culturally palatable “wild spinach” label. I suddenly had many Cape Town based Africans (from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Angola and even Congo) all ordering it. All calling it their vegetable!! I even got two explanations for the Swahili name sukuma wiki both of which seemed to underscore the value of the vegetable to Africa’s poor. One was that it means the one that “lifts up the spirit of the weak/poor” and the other was that it makes the weeks connect (food budget-wise) for those whose wages do not go far enough!
Virtually every township house in Zimbabwe has a small vegetable patch in the yard on which one of a variety of umbhida/muriwo is grown. Virtually every township street corner has a vendor selling tomatoes and bundles of the vegetable. Even the poorest family in the worst grip of any hardship has this hardy kale to fall back on. A plate of stiff maize porridge (aka pap, lipapa, lipalisha, isitshwala, sadza or ugali) accompanied by umbhida/muriwo is the ultimate insurance against famine, unemployment and , yes, dictators.
It is no coincidence that a primary tactic of Robert Mugabe’s onslaught on (opposition party supporting) township dwellers was the destruction of family and communal vegetable gardens. Without these, the folk would have to come begging for government handouts – which were of course being dished out on production of ruling party cards!
With millions of immigrants (many of them from Zimbabwe) in Johannesburg’s Hillbrow and Berea inner city slum suburbs the vegetable is now, by far, the biggest seller in the streets.
There are many kale recipes from around the world that I came across including some pretty interesting ones such as using them in bakes and soups! Being firmer and crunchier than spinach, it also holds its own as a vegetarian filling in samoosas, pies and other pastries. In Zimbabwe and Zambia they frequently add peanut sauce to make a delicious relish, which Zimbabweans call dovi/idobi.
Who cares if its roots are elsewhere? They also said Kenneth Kaunda (KK) was not a Zambian! This vegetable has proved its commitment to the African continent. More than that, the lives of millions of Africans might depend on it. How much more African can it get? – Babusi Sibanda ( [email protected]) is a Zimbabwean born, Cape Town based freelance writer, columnist , food researcher and chef. Member of SAFREA, the Southern African Freelancers Association. This article is an extract from a forthcoming book.

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