Home Lifestyle Why little-understood indigenous foods are great for your health

Why little-understood indigenous foods are great for your health

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South Africa has a diverse range of indigenous food crops which are not only a rich source of nutrition, but also good for preventing chronic illnesses. Because they are mostly found growing in the wild, in your back yard or on a local farm, they are often overlooked, which of course makes no sense.

If they are indigenous or naturalised, they’re easy to grow and get hold of, and if they contain loads of wonderful nutrition, we should be eating more of them, right? It’s a no-brainer. So, let’s get back to eating some traditional crops…

Everything you need to know about grain crops

Indigenous grain crops can be divided into cereals and pulses.

Let’s discover cereals first…

Pearl Millet Seeds. Photo: Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries

Pearl Millet is consumed as cracked or ground flour, dough or grain-like rice. These are made into fermented breads, foods and thick porridge, steam-cooked dishes, non-alcoholic beverages and snacks. Besides being gluten-free, it’s an excellent source of magnesium, making it good for reducing blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Grain sorghum can be used for making porridge, unleavened bread, couscous and malted beverages. It is great for people with wheat intolerances and Celiac disease, and one of the best sources of fibre you can find. Also, sorghum can actually help regulate sugar levels in the body, thus making it a good dietary option for people who have diabetes.

Grain Sorghum. Photo: Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries

Pulses are very high in protein and fibre  

Cowpeas are versatile as you are able to eat the actual pea or pod, as well as the leaves – either fresh or dried.

It is rich in fibre and vitamin B1, which is excellent for healthy heart functioning.

It also contains tryptophan, which can help with insomnia.

Cowpea Seed. Photo: Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries

Bambara groundnuts are another versatile crop as the immature seeds can be eaten boiled or grilled, while mature ones can be roasted in oil, or ground to make flour. They can also be boiled and mixed with maize kernels, and the roasted ground meal can be used as a substitute for coffee. They pack a huge punch when it comes to amino acids, which are essential for repairing our bodies and reducing inflammation.

Do you really know your veggies?

Vegetable crops are defined as “crops from which tender leaves, stems and petioles are harvested and used in the preparation of vegetables.” They can be further subdivided into leafy veggies and roots or tubers.

Leafy vegetables are super healthy

Cleome Plant. Photo: Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries

Cleome is also known as African cabbage. The tender leaves or young shoots, and often the flowers, are boiled in stews or as a side dish. The leaves are bitter, and for this reason are cooked with other leafy vegetables or combined with other ingredients in stews. It is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, both of which are great for maintaining a healthy immune system to fight off any illnesses.

Amaranth or umfino is a grain, but the leaves can be consumed as well. It is the largest source of nutrients of all the vegetables that can be grown in Africa, making it the most important one to eat. It can be cooked in stews or made into soups or a sauce. It reduces inflammation, which means it can help arthritis and digestive disorders like leaky gut syndrome and irritable bowel disease. It also has been shown to lower cholesterol, which impacts heart health.

Black Jack. Photo: Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries

The Black Jack plant is more than just the annoying seeds that stick to your socks. The leaves and shoots are an excellent source of nutrition and can be eaten raw or cooked. Sun-dried, powdered leaves can also be preserved to use during winter or made into a tea. This is an all-round power veg that has been known to fight inflammation associated with heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It is also a natural antiseptic and antibiotic and is used traditionally as a salve for sores, cuts, mouth ulcers and other external flare ups.

Understanding roots (or tuber veggies)

Cassava Tuber. Photo: Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries

Cassava is well-known across the continent as a rich source of starch, often as a substitute for rice or maize meal. It can be ground to create flour, and the leaves and tender shoots can be consumed in stews, soups and sauces. Brewing cassava leaves has been said to reduce a fever, but the main benefits are its rich source of fibre, calcium and iron, which can help with arthritis and hair loss. It is another gluten-free carbohydrate, so suitable for gluten intolerant people.

Amadume. Photo: Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries
Amadume. Photo: Department of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries

Amadumbe is a root vegetable that can be boiled, roasted, baked or fried. They can also be processed into flour, which is used to prepare ‘fufu’ that is commonly eaten in Nigeria with stew. The leaves can be consumed like spinach and used in stews, curries and sauces. Known to regulate insulin and glucose, amadumbe are a good food for diabetics. They are also high in potassium, which relieves blood pressure and strain on the heart.

Lastly, yummy fruit crops

Indigenous fruit crops are ones that grow wild in South Africa and include Marula, Red Milkwood, Mobola Plum, Wild Medlar, Num-num or noemnoem, Kei Apple and Monkey orange. All of these can be eaten as any other fruit when ripe, but many are processed into beverages, jams, jellies and pickles or fermented for alcoholic beverages. Most are naturally sweet, so should be eaten in moderation, but they all contain specific nutritional values. For more info, check out the links below.

Sources and links:
Siyabonga Mngoma
Siyabonga Mngomahttp://www.abundancewholesomefoods.co.za./
Siyabonga Mngoma is the owner of Abundance Wholesome Foods. She is passionate about global food systems and promoting organically grown foods as she believes we can tackle lifestyle diseases through diet. See more of her work on www.abundancewholesomefoods.co.za. You can follow her @abundance_wf on Instagram and Twitter.
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