Growing Wild Food in a South African Township
Unlike most white people in Cape Town, wild food advocate Loubie Rusch regularly drives the sand swept streets of Khayelitsha, the vast township on the city’s crime-ridden Cape Flats. She does it without fear. With Rusch at the wheel, we drive into Khayelitsha’s Section A, passing corrugated tin and wood shacks occupied by families, hair salons and butchers. We’re just a few minutes from the coastline, yet I’m struggling to marry her claim that “we live in a bloody gastronomic landscape” with the immediate surroundings.
Rusch is a landscape designer and gifted networker turned activist. Our destination: The Cape Wild Food Garden, her pilot project at community urban garden Moya we Khaya. We’re miles from Cape Town’s colonial-era oaks and plein trees, and the wealth of biodiverse plant life on Table Mountain.
Fynbos, or ‘fine bush’, is the colorful plant life that most equate with the Cape Floral Kingdom, one of the richest regions in the world for flora, yet, the Cape Flats, with its ecologically sensitive sand dunes areas (and poverty), also belongs to this Kingdom. Here in Khayelitsha, where most see only weeds and sandy, infertile soil, Rusch sees a budding local economy, on a landscape that was once well foraged.
foodies, as well as being as old as the hills”, Rusch says. “In modern terms we might well be stretching the conventional understanding of soil as terroir by suggesting the local sand as an example, but for foragers of old they would have known precisely what juicy and flavorful delicacies they would find there after the rains!”
We turn down Qandani Street, where homes are modest but permanent structures. A neighbor winks at us as we pull into Moya, next to Manyanani Peace Park, Khayelitsha’s first community managed park.
The sudden sight of emerald plots of vegetables sparkling with irrigation droplets makes me blink twice. It’s quiet on this cooperative farm, where a few farmers tend their plots and the calls of wild birds called dikkop reverberate, as they protect their nearby eggs. Behind neat rows of spinach, broad beans, lettuces and other spring crops, is the Cape Wild Food Garden. In contrast, its plants look much like weeds and shrubbery, but they are part of a controlled experiment to gauge the viability of cultivating indigenous plants.
Rusch’s desire is to see wild foods brought into the Cape’s economy. She has a hand in wild food projects in vastly different landscapes of the Western Cape: from urban gardens to a coastal private nature reserve to a project in the Cederberg mountains, working jointly with conservationists and archaeologists. She believes “that if we eat our biodiversity it will help to protect our biodiversity.”
Here at Moya, she’s growing “resilient crops that belong to this place.” She had the opportunity to establish this garden in the nearby Winelands, but Moya — an established farm already supplying restaurants and hotels as well as the community, and a frequent stop for township visitors — “felt right.” She is the only noncommunity member to be farming here. Funding from the Sustainability Institute will carry her through this initial growing phase, but she will need more for nutritional testing of the plants, an expensive process. Eight plants have been selected for the “terroir.” They also have what Rusch considers the most accessible flavors.
There is demand for “foraged” foods in Cape Town’s flourishing foodie scene, with high profile chefs among the biggest potential buyers, but key to the garden’s success is creating both sustainable crops and what Rusch calls a circular economy, which also connects with community members.
But while these plants were once eaten by Western Cape ancestors, today’s Khayelitsha residents, who mostly have Eastern Cape roots, are unaware of them as food sources. The project will need to incorporate talks and cooking demonstrations within the community. It will take work to create a taste for the largely sour and salty flavors of these plants in an area where meat, sugar and fried food are prized.
In the garden, rows of wild plants are subjected to variables: irrigated, unirrigated, composted, uncomposted, and combinations thereof. Around them is a U-shape planted with a few other plants with potential like spekboom, (a succulent evergreen shrub with juicy, sour leaves) sour figs and num num, a tangy fruit whose flavor reminds me of cranberries. All will remain unharvested this year to track their growth and the spread of their seed.
Dune spinach is a favorite of Rusch’s, and one you see growing rampantly along the nearby coastline. Its leaves and soft stems can be used likespinach, in salads or stir-fried, or fermented and pickled, and is similar to another garden crop, kinkelbossie. Veldkool is a plant whose young buds make a substantial vegetable that can be cooked in many ways. Decades ago, culinary scholar Louis Leipoldt wrote about its potential as a commercial crop, which remains untapped. Like sandkool, it produces asparagus-like buds with an earthy flavor that marry well with wild sage or rosemary.
There is sout slaai, which Rusch says is great in a green gazpacho, salsa or tempura, and dune celery, also known as sea parsley, with a bold flavour that does well in soups, stews or pickles.
These plants and their tastes will need acceptance, but Rusch, who is closely involved with the Slow Food Youth Movement in South Africa, is an ardent believer in young people and their ability to just “get up and do things, as well as try new things.” It’s clear that commercialization of these plants could contribute towards creating more sustainable South African communities.
“I really hope that ordinary people like you and me will one day be dropping a bunch of locally grown wild vegetables into our shopping bags to serve to our family at dinner,” she says. “It really isn’t too farfetched an idea, I don’t think. The climate for this kind of shift in habits is right.”
Ilana Sharlin Stone is an American freelance writer and former chef who has lived in Cape Town, South Africa since 1994. She writes about food and drink people, culture and origins for US and South African publications and for her blog, www.findingumami.capetown. Follow Ilana on Facebook: Finding Umami in Cape Town, and Instagram: @findingumami_capetown