MEALIE – the rice substitute
TRADITIONAL INDIAN RECIPES ARE not written down but are rather passed down verbally from generation to generation. Over the centuries, the cuisine has evolved to include pungent spices and rich flavours, and can be quite different depending on the region from where our ancestors came from.
There is a common thread that weaves all the types of Indian foods together. This ancient science system is a comprehensive set of principles that integrates health, diet, wellness and balance to support the mind, body and spirit. Most Indian food is based on Ayurvedic principles and is made to support the body nutritionally and spiritually. It includes six basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent.
The indentured labourers in South Africa worked by planting, digging, breaking new soil, cutting, harvesting, carrying and building until the sun set. There was a brief break for lunch and it was dark by the time they reached their homes, where they managed another brief meal before falling into exhausted sleep. Part of the every week earnings was mealie flour. Not only did this satisfy the kids cheaply but it tasted great as well! It was traditionally eaten for breakfast, with milk, butter and sugar. It was also eaten at dinner and served with chutney. Though never an essential item of food, as rice is, it has nevertheless been a forced stand-by for rice, which did not grow in South Africa. For economic reasons it became a main item of food of the indentured labourers.
Mealie pap is a thick white porridge produced from maize meal and is the main staple of the majority of the people of South Africa. This is especially true of poorer rural people who might aspire to bread and rice but need to rely on maize because of its low price and the fact that they are able to produce and process maize in the household. The dominance of maize in the diet of South Africans is reflected by the fact that on average one third of South African’s calorie intake is supplied by maize.
All the cooking lore of the early Indian immigrants found ready expressions in preparing dishes using fresh green mealies and its stamped, riced and floured by-products. Some of the Indian immigrants were from Gujarat and were used to dealing with coarser grains, like bajra and jowar, and they were soon making mealie rotis. But most Indians were indentured labourers from South India who found it harder. They could make a mealie pancake like a dosa, and a dry porridge which they called putu, like the crumbly rice cakes of the same name in India, but they couldn’t make idlies, since mealie batter presumably wouldn’t ferment and produce a thick foam that could be steamed in that way. But innovations have occurred that add an African slant to our cooking. The popular mealie lagan and mealie meal roti are all African in spirit.