Utata was traditional, cultural, patriarchal. A product of growing up in rural Alice in a rondavel, knobkerries to assist him and his older brothers in shepherding the cows, and a river down the way for his older sisters to fetch the water.
Given this, perhaps he should have married a milder woman than umama. For his own sake. Someone less liberal, less challenging, and less adaptable to changing times may have suited him better. Someone more placid. But instead he chose the woman who in 1974 with the country’s volatile and simmering tensions, decided to leave all she knew of her rural home eTshabho, near Berlin in the Eastern Cape to study a Diploma in Physiotherapy. This at the then Mmadikoti Technical College in Pretoria, Gauteng. She was 22.
The same woman who after marrying and bearing three children, would almost two decades later grab the opportunity to return to her alma mater which had been renamed the Medical University of South Africa (MEDUNSA) to upgrade her diploma to a degree. Leaving him at NU6 in Mdantsane to be mother and father to their children. Eighteen months of cooking, and feeding, and looking after.
It was then that the siblings and I tasted his specialty for the first time; scrambled eggs, wors, and ibisto. Ibisto was the weekend-after-pay-day-special growing up. Friends in primary school used to call it train smash which is self-explanatory and rather macabre. In its simplest form ibisto is fried onion with tomato, some salt, and some sugar. Depending on the way your home was set up all manner of other things from garlic to fresh herbs to spices requiring a mortar and pestle can find themselves joining the basic ingredients.
As umXhosa growing up in Mdantsane it was only years later that I noticed the jar on the condiments shelf with the “Bisto” label printed on it. A brown powder which felt like a lie. Completely foreign to how I’d come to understand the term.
Try as I may I could never get my bisto to taste as good as his. Umama, when she craved hearty warmth, would lean on him to make umngqusho. He – traditional, cultural, patriarchal – was always reluctant getting involved in kitchen things. When he spoke of those 18 months they were tantamount to a mirage. Far away. Out of grasp. Still, he would oblige begrudgingly resulting in a tender, creamy deliciousness regardless of his resistance.
Women have a way of speaking cuisine excellence into the hands of the men in their lives. I have an older sister and brother. We’ve all been tasked with kneading dough for oven-baked bread, steamed bread, pot bread, vetkoek, roosterkoek, and dumplings. There’s something about the way my brother does it though – maybe the instruction landed differently in his ears – that has mom preferring his hand over ours. We all do.
I host a food club and have had the joy of co-cooking with my older other brother aka cousin. When he matriculated from a high school in Port Elizabeth he moved to a commune in Johannesburg. There were maybe five, perhaps six other guys living there. And as cohabiters get into systems they soon came to prefer his cooking, opting to clean up and do the dishes as a trade exchange for his food.
Growing up, his mother, whose culinary expertise I’ve had the joy of experiencing on numerous occasions, would often entrust the managing of pots to him. Whether she was coming home late from work and needed him to pre-prep with peeling and chopping. Or she was visiting a neighbour and so required him to be mindful of temperature control and checking that the pots had enough moisture to keep from burning. Or she’d need to head out having guided the taste – leaving him to finish the meal off with a sprinkle, a drizzle, a toss.
The instruction came like diffusion resulting in his being one of the men whose food is on the list I’ve most enjoyed. Men who’ve inherited the craft from a woman they’ve loved.
Recipe for Ibisto (versatility that lends itself to preference)
1 onion, diced
2 large tomatoes, diced
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
2 t brown sugar
Salt and pepper to taste
Preferred oil for frying
Fry the onion until translucent. Add garlic, salt and pepper until fragrant. You can then go wild depending on the direction you want for the taste. You can add some chilli flakes, fresh chilli or cayenne pepper for some heat and some paprika (plain or smoked) for something peppery. Cinnamon, coriander, garum masala for something earthy – ground or whole depending on your preference. And because the tastes are so distinct you can chop in fresh thyme, rosemary, coriander, sage or even mint. If you want something more rounded the tastes are a little more subtle if dried so you can do a blend of thyme, oregano and rosemary. Whichever direction you lean into, stir to combine the flavours.
You may need to add some boiling water (half a cup) to keep the onion from sticking, unless, of course, you’re at the level of non-stick pans. At home we only cook with hot water, part of the prep of cooking is ensuring the kettle remains at the ready.
Add the tomato and more water, half a cup (maybe more). Add the sugar. Leave to simmer for at least 20 minutes. You want it to reduce. The less watery the more pungent the taste. You want it to be a little watery so that the onion and tomato are a little indistinguishable. Taste before serving.
If it counts for anything Nobhongo Gxolo has been writing since she was in Grade 6. Poor plots, worse dialogue, a magnificent imagination. Now freelance writing is a profession. That, and cooking – hosting a food club Third Culture Experiment. And doing media-based pro-LGBT+ and sex worker work at an NGO.