It is the beginning of the dry season and the low bushveld in western Botswana is a soft green underneath a clear blue sky. Strong rays of sunlight break easily through the foliage. To the untrained eye, it’s but beautiful nature. To Kaoga, Qamxho and Khamxae, the wild bush is rich and abundant with food.
“The lions or snakes might kill us, but never hunger or thirst. We have everything,” says Kaoga.
We start out early in the morning to forage for the delicacies of the semi-arid Kalahari Desert. This is what the San people traditionally would do more or less every day of the season. It is what they have done for thousands of years. The hunter-gatherer culture of southern Africa is the oldest living cuisine of the world.
Within just a short walk Kaoga has shown us the small berries of the brandy bush, the wild coffee plant, wild sour plums, bushman’s cabbage and various plants that you use for medicinal purposes. There are spiky, wild cucumbers that taste fresh and tangy, and wild melons that you use to play ball with but don’t eat.
“The bush is our super market, our workshop, our hospital,” says Kaoga.
We are focused on the gemsbok beans, a staple of the cuisine of the Naro people, the local community of the San. The beans, also known as morama beans, grow along vines on top of the sandy ground. You can cook them fresh, or store them dry for several years. They are said to be high in nutrients such as calcium and vitamin B, and very rich in protein. Similar in shape to the leaves of the plant, the pods can be difficult to spot to start with.
When I was little my family would go foraging in the Swedish forest, and as soon as we now spread out across the low bush to scour the ground for gemsbok beans I get the same sense of excitement as when I was little and would pick young nettle shoots for soup in springtime or chanterelles and forest blueberries in the autumn back home. I also suffer the same beginner’s frustration as when my parents first taught me what to look for.
At first, there’s just a confusion of sand, thorny bushes and vines of leaves by my feet. When I spot my first beans and pull them off the ground, it feels like I have found a treasure. Towards the end of the day, with my eyes guided only by the last soft rays of the sun, I find a small wild cucumber and become completely elated. There are few things as exciting and rewarding as searching our nature for food.
“Once you get used to the taste, anyone can survive in the bush,” Kaoga assures us.
This isn’t hard labour. We meander around the bush for hours, chatting, stopping to sing and play games, and snacking on various finds. When we get thirsty, Kaoga lies down on the ground next to a bush and digs deep into the ground with a stick, then pulls out a long root that is cut into pieces and shared among us. Beneath the rough, sandy skin of the root is a crisp, translucent white inner bursting with liquid. It tastes very much like water chestnut. Once we’ve finish our feasting, Kaoga replants a part of the root in the hole before we move on.
“We always do this. This way, a new root will grow here in three to four years,” he says.
The San values include to be responsible, to heal, to give, to have courage, to enable, to have integrity, to know the face of God as represented by the sky, to have respect, to seek wisdom, and to take custodianship of the Earth.
The Naro people hunt during the height of the dry season. The men gather together and track down a giraffe, oryx or eland to fell with their poisoned arrows. They will butcher the animal and dry the meat in the sun, so that it keeps for a long time. If you hunt during the rainy season you won’t be able to dry the meat, and it will rot. The Kalahari kitchen is completely seasonal, dictated by the sun, the rain, and the soil.
“The giraffe, you would like it. It tastes a little bit salty,” says Kaoga.
The most well-known delicacy of the region is the Kalahari truffle. It doesn’t appear every year – only after late rain followed immediately by cold. There haven’t been any truffles in this area for the past few years, but this year’s weather gives rise to some hope. Still, we don’t find any. Kaoga shows us what to look out for though, should we come back in a good year for truffles. He pokes a stick deep into the sand and bends it a little upwards so that there’s a crack on top of the ground.
“That’s what the truffle looks like. There you can dig it up,” he explains.
We’ll have to make do with the staple beans. Once we have a decent load, Qamxho and Khamxae bite open the strong pods to bring out the beans inside. There are generally two beans per pod, and three if you are lucky. The actual beans are still shielded by a thick skin that we only break off once they have been cooked in the sand.
There’s only little water in the Kalahari desert, so cooking is done directly in the sand. To demonstrate how it is traditionally done, Kaoga and Khamxae make fire using sticks, dry zebra dung and soft grass from the bushveld. Once the sand underneath the fire is judged hot enough, the fire is pushed to the side and the beans are submerged in the hot sand.
When ready, we peel them. Then they are pounded together with fresh bushman’s cabbage until it becomes a juicy, richly green mash that we eat directly from the large wooden mortar. Once cooked and peeled, the naked beans look a bit like edamame beans and they taste quite similar too. With a hint of bitterness.
Once back home, I cook some of the gemsbok beans in water instead of sand and add them whole to a green salad. They are delicious. Fresh and complex in taste. Perhaps the gemsbok bean is something we will one day be buying in our supermarkets in the cities. There are people looking into growing them commercially, not least because of the high protein value.
It wouldn’t taste the same though. Nothing beats the taste of food you have searched for with eager eyes and picked with your hands.
The Dqae Qare San Lodge is owned and run by the Naro community near Ghanzi in western Botswana. It is a social enterprise that supports the San people through employment and is an important project in the San’s quest for cultural survival. http://www.dqae.org