shot by Claire Gunn

Mealie Pap. A South African Breakfast For All (@IshayGovender), For Extra Crispy My Recipes, April 2018

On cold mornings, I recall my mother bustling about in our suburban South African kitchen, ladling out bowls of creamy mealie meal pap or porridge. Hot from the saucepan, she’d stir in a little more milk and sugar, and occasionally, a cube of cold, unsalted butter and a tablespoonful of tinned golden syrup. A quintessential South African breakfast, pap is made from milled white maize and enjoyed across demographics. If not prepared as a slow-cooked sweet porridge then maize meal flour is stirred with water until stiff and crumbly (called phutu in Zulu) and eaten as a starch with savory meals and with tomato and onion smoor — a thick braised sauce. When you consider South Africa’s past, a system of extreme racial segregation, and my reality until I was 13, it’s pretty remarkable that maize porridge, in both the stiff and spoonable preparations, is loved by Afrikaners, Zulus and everyone in between.

We grew up as a fragmented society, but somehow, several food traditions like braai (barbeque) and our morning bowls of pap, seemed to have transcended the divide. As romantic as the notion sounds that the humblest of foods has the power to unite in this way, the truth is that mealie pap, an austere breakfast, was often made by Black housekeepers for their families, with a posh version (with butter and syrup) made for the children of the households they served. In a modern context (because the history of pap goes way back), this resulted in culinary crossovers that, at a stage, became openly accepted as something enjoyed across racial lines. In a way, pap has become the glorified poster child breakfast for Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation.

I was curious if the Voortrekkers – the Afrikaner boers (farmers who descended from the Dutch settlers) who traversed the difficult terrain from the Cape in the west to Kwa-Zulu Natal in the east by ox-wagon – were indeed the first to introduce maize meal porridge to South Africa, as suggested by some online sources. Both dried maize and millet, being easy to store with an ample shelf life, are said to have contributed to their survival. I made a note of a few dates – the Voortrekkers commenced their journey in 1830. Prior to the arrival of maize (introduced by the Portuguese, first to western Africa in 1502) drought-resistant wild cereal grains like millet and sorghum were stamped and ground through the millennia, and across the continent’s ancient grasslands. This was made into flour for porridge and other staples. Thus, a long Southern African porridge-making tradition was in place before the arrival of Europeans. I consulted with South African heritage food writer Errieda du Toit who mentioned that while the Dutch, who settled in 1652, failed to cultivate the crop in the Cape, many of the Voortrekkers met with indigenous farmers who were successfully growing maize for generations in other parts of the country further east. Black farmers must have had contact with the Portuguese or perhaps Africans from further north. When the British arrived in 1820, they cultivated maize on a larger scale in the Eastern Cape and possibly brought their porridge-making skills with them; but this isn’t to say a unique pap tradition hadn’t already taken root and was being shared between groups. “I’m convinced the Voortrekkers acquired their pap-making skills from the indigenous people along the route to Natal,” du Toit concluded.

Relishing the opportunity to chat about the foods that have had a formative influence on our memories and inherited histories, I took to Twitter, tagging friends and food professionals. American-style cereals became part of our weekday breakfasts in the 80s, and I wondered who was still preparing pap or if it has been relegated to the memory bank, to be drawn out and savored in the reminiscing. After all, it can take up to an hour to make, with constant stirring. The responses, across cultural groups were overwhelmingly in favor of pap, with someone saying she prepared it for her toddler in the same manner as her mother, who insists it’s the most nourishing breakfast – with milk, cinnamon and sugar, to a chef sharing that in her family the daily leftover pap is always used to make the fermented drink, amahewu. There are memories of fresh, warm farm milk used in sweetened pap with butter and crumbled bacon to one with peanut butter and sugar but not milk.

When I served a group of friends large bowls of pap recently, simmered in a cast-iron potjie (a three-legged pot) on the braai and sprinkled with brown sugar and maple butter, I was reminded how the richest of joy can be found in the simplest of meals – the ones we treasure from our childhoods.