Religion as food

There are plenty of us who make a religion of food, sighing with rapture at a perfect sauce, denouncing heresies of classic style, treating a trip to the odd good restaurant as a pilgrimage.

A new food programme which launches on Sunday evening makes the link officially—but it focuses on the real thing.

Paul and the Menu: Cooking with Spirit features theologian Paul Germond in a red-striped apron and actor Maqhawe Khathide with camera and notebook invading kitchens around the country as, week by week, they prepare for religious festivals.

Let’s be clear from the outset: Germond is no Jamie Oliver. Neither is Khathide, although he comes a bit closer. But they make a good team—Khathide as Germond’s enthusiastic, entertaining amanuensis, and the good-hearted, bear-like Germond, asking his hosts questions both religious and culinary as he grates tomatoes or washes rice or stirs the pottage.

Judging by the episode I’ve seen—number two, to be flighted on November 11—the hosts are only too glad to give him the answers.

Because Germond is stuck in the kitchen, it’s Khathide who gets out and about. In episode two, devoted to an Ayurvedic meal for Diwali—kitcheree, vegetable makhnee, and sweetmeats penda and kudumula—Khathide takes us through a fireworks shop and the Hari Krishna temple in Chatsworth, asking a few religious questions of his own.

Meanwhile, back at the stove, Germond is cooking up a storm with Rajen Cooppan and Nita Maharaj of the Centre for Natural Medicine and, inter alia, getting answers to such frequently asked questions (well, I, for one, have often wondered) as “why must one add hing [also known as asafoetida] to a lentil dish?” and “what’s the difference between jaggery and other sorts of sweeteners?” Along the way we learn the six tastes that must be in a balanced Ayurvedic meal. (I’d only ever heard of five.)

We won’t see that on Sunday, however. The series begins in Cape Town with a merang, a spiritual/social gathering, to celebrate the birthday of the son of spice manufacturers Shamilah and Shreef Abass. It’s a uniquely Cape Malay tradition, say series producers Curious Pictures.

The merang dates back about 300 years, when slaves not otherwise occupied gathered to pray, to recite the Quran and to celebrate being together. What was cooked was largely offal—and the programme on Sunday features Germond and Shamilah Abass whipping up penslawer (tripe curry), tamatie pootjies (tomato trotters), chicken wings and butterbeans and potato pudding, while Khathide goes from a halaal butchery to an ancient mosque.

According to a particularly cynical but well-read colleague, there’s a clear link between religion and food. A man given to sweeping statements, he claims religion began with human sacrifice and cannibalism, and he cites Origins of the Sacred and other tomes to back it up.

Thankfully, we won’t see any of that sort of thing on Cooking with Spirit, a distinctly South African series covering South African religious festivals, thank you.

Directed by Theo Antoniou, the series will cover food for a Xhosa thanksgiving, Epiphany, Hannukah, Christmas and Ramadaan—a strange choice of holiday for a food programme—and other religious events.

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