Africa is filled with “super foods” that have been used as sustenance and medicine by generations across history, believes Mpho Tshukudu, a Johannesburg-born registered dietician who dreams of a day when people will, once again, consume the delicacies of their ancestors.
Tshukudu tells Food For Mzansi this could be the answer to various lifestyle ailments, such as diabetes, hypertension and cancers. “I have seen the magic of what is possible. This is why I have dedicated my career to honouring our cultures.”
Her firm belief in the power of African foods does not come unwarranted. For years Tshukudu herself suffered from various food allergies. “(Historically) there was a systemic effort… to make it known that African food was not good enough.”
This, however, simply is not true. Africa is filled with ample nutritional knowledge and resources that have been used by our ancestors, she says. “In moving away from those age-old practices taught by our ancestors we have put ourselves at risk. If we can go back to those elements and embrace our heritage it could improve our health.”
Early relationship with food
Our culture has a huge impact on our taste preferences as we grow up, Tshukudu says. She was born to a family of home cooks who also influenced her love and passion for healthy foods. Her mother would give her the task of peeling and chopping vegetables for family lunches at their home in Rustenburg, North West.
“My mother really encouraged me to build a relationship with food. In fact, cooking was the only household chore that I enjoyed. I was also encouraged to eat healthy from a young age and this fostered my relationship with food.”
Her avid interest in all things food were furthered in high school. Tshukudu admittedly says that she has always been a bit of a “science nerd” and was so amazed by the science and biology behind food that she built a career around it.
She recalls, “I was really good at sciences in school and when I discovered the multiple benefits of the vitamins in food, for instance… Some foods have the ability to make you grow and others are really good for the skin.”
Her fondest memories of the kitchen are filled with the colourful dishes her mother would present for Sunday lunches. “I am so obsessed with colour in my food!”
While assisting her in the kitchen, Tshukudu says her mother would insist that she add colour to every dish. “She would always say, ‘Add colour, Mpho! You must add colour. Put some carrots in your cabbage. Add some parsley there!’”
Scientifically speaking, the colours in food represent different phytonutrients which are known to contain a multitude of benefits and even help with the functioning of the brain, gut and immune system, Tshukudu says.
“One of the things I do today with my clients is encourage a wide variety of colours we find in our foods that are beneficial to our health,” she says.
The ingredients, recipes and food-related behaviours that we grew up experiencing as normal stays with us until our adult years, though. From a young age she learned that African food is healthy and delicious. “If we are what we eat, and ignore our familial taste then we become someone else.”
‘When the world talks about gluten free grains, they are talking about African grains.’
This is culminated into Eat Ting: Lose Weight, Gain Health, Find Yourself, a book that she co-authored with Anna Trapido, a well-known food commentator, anthropologist and critic. Eat Ting explores the intricate history of African food and its multiple benefits. It is described as a funny health, weight-loss and self-discovery book rooted in South Africa’s rich food history.
Foods from rural areas reign supreme
The book is also an ode to their respective ancestors, Tshukudu says. “It is about honouring our grandmothers. Even though they had no formal education, big words like antioxidants and minerals were never thrown around in their conversations about food, those foods that they ate were healthy.”
Historically, African food was labelled as “poverty food.” But the world has grown more aware of the healing properties in foods from the continent, Tshukudu adds.
“When the world talks about gluten free grains, they are talking about African grains. These are sorghum, teff, millet and fonio. We need to understand, as Africans, that the whole world is looking at our resources. If we don’t take advantage of them, innovate and do interesting things with them, we will lose them,” she warns.
You are what you eat
One of the reasons in the spike in obesity and lifestyle diseases among South Africans can be linked to our relationship with and dependence on fast foods, she says. “Foods from rural areas are not relatable to those living in urban areas. Historically African food has been labelled as poverty food.”
She adds that black people who were left with what little land they could get their hands on at the were encouraged to not plant “that” food because it was not economically viable. “Too many times we associate rural food with poverty and there was no education about indigenous products, and the nutrition education was euro-centric.”
Tshukudu dreams of establishing a formal education campaign centred around African food. She believes that there are plenty of ingredients that we can substitute to make a dish more South African.
“African, indigenous food should be celebrated. Pine nuts (or example) are pricey and we should be looking at alternatives within our own country. We do not have to be narrow-minded in our cooking,” she says.