Cooking has been an adventure through my time in South Africa as both of my living arrangements had electricity access problems (I need to head into Duke City for the latest repair this week). Since digging a hole in the middle of an amaZulu homestead and filling it with hot coals for a natural oven would not go over well, I had to be creative with my dietary choices. Even with these challenges, I have been able to maintain one of my main therapies in my life: baking. Back in the states, I would reward myself for completing a week of classes with a baking experiment. Throwing ingredients together in a bowl is a physically cathartic distraction so I stop perseverating on anxiety triggers. Plus sharing baked goods requires minimal social cues and provides great opportunities for cultural exchange in my current role.
Since being in South Africa I have made banana bread, tortillas, natural red velvet cake complete with cream cheese icing (with beetroot…that was for my supervisor’s birthday and I attempted a challenge for the occasion), funfetti cake, and sweet potato casserole just to provide an idea. The additional effort just makes the final products taste better (or maybe that is my sugar addition but still) and potential disasters edible. I once tried to make a literal coffee cake (not the breakfast entity but a cake flavored as coffee) for the social worker’s birthday celebration. I added the coffee to a flour mixture when it was too hot and it became more of a sticky coffee pudding. I hauled the item to Shopping Town 1.0 explaining my intentions. Surprisingly the Social Worker loved it, actually tried to recreate the mistake, and the indent established me as the primary baking consultant for our former cluster.
In terms of equipment, South Africa has most kitchen appliances and tools available, in the shopping towns. I inherited knives, pots, and measuring cups from the former roommate and buy additional tools as needed. At site 1.0 we had a gas stove (gas tank connected to hot plate) which worked great until it broke right before I left and permeated the smell of gas through the house every time it was used. The nice thing about gas stoves is that they do not require electricity and are less of a strain when the host family is on a metered electricity system.
Refrigerators are also widely available and in my experience most families have at least one. For site 1.0, I followed the precedent set by former roommate and used the host family’s refrigerator for minimal storage as it was always crammed to the brim. In Amajuba, I am borrowing the organization’s fridge/freezer (the deal we made was I would buy the wardrobe which is less expensive and they would let me borrow the fridge. Besides the fridge I have an electric kettle and hot plate. These kitchen appliances and also food processor (which former roommate found at a second hand store in Pretoria), stoven (combination of stove and oven), and hot plates take a significant amount of energy that can stress an already taxed power supply. With the exception of the refrigerator (which is always running) I try to use them sparingly.
I may not have a stoven, but host family 1.0 did and my Amajuba family has an oven. What I do is schedule “oven time” in advance, so the host families are aware that I will be using the equipment. To save time, I mix the ingredients up in advance so they are ready for the oven and kitchen space is available for my host sisters. In turn they get to eat the final product and have access to my refrigerator (I am currently hosting all the frozen chicken for the New Year’s Eve Extravaganza).
South Africa’s abundance of commercial grocery stores means that most ingredients are accessible. They even have mixes available for basic muffins, scones, and cakes if that is your style. I love cooking from scratch and the dry ingredients cost less in the long run. Sealed plastic containers are great for storing powdery ingredients (flours and sugars) and makes replacing stock less messy. If you are in an area with limited refrigeration options, long life milk is available in all the major grocery stores or since site 1.0 was an hour away from the shopping town (where perishable goods would be exposed to heat in the taxis), I used powered milk instead which is a sufficient substitute for basic recipes. The other ubiquitous baking element, eggs are often available in local tuck shops and a great way to support the community economy (without worrying about shell hazards in transport…trust me it is not fun to deal with yolk on the taxi).
The other aspect of obtaining ingredients is they can have a different appearance in South Africa. Speaking of eggs, all South Africans (including the stores) keep eggs at room temperature which does not automatically spoil them…they can last months in that state (raw and rotten eggs are damaging regardless of how they are stored, so just be careful). Or the time I searched for ricotta cheese all over Duke City and after 2 weeks found it not in a yogurt container but in plastic bags. Another example is sweet potatoes, and my North Carolinan parents are infamous for the sweet potato casserole that graces our Thanksgiving style. I made one for the host family this Christmas but the filling was not the familiar titan hue, but a creamy ecru. With snowy connotations of the holiday and the abundance of amafu/clouds over Amajuba, the white South African potatoes were more appropriate for Christmas.
Also, I bake on the Volunteer In-Country Allowance (VICA) and adapt recipes for the budget. Yebo, butter is available but it is 40 rand and a bar of margarine for the same amount is 8 rand. I do not have an animosity towards margarine and so far it does not affect the taste. Spices are also expensive and I only buy what I need and use often (for baking that is cinnamon and vanilla).
Finally there is the cultural shock in measurements, but that is shared in the next post. Baking is an excellent way to bond with host families and explore the Rainbow Nation’s cuisines. Even though it is more challenging to obtain the final project, the extra effort makes the baked goods taste better!
All the best,