My first memory of okra is from my childhood on a Saturday night in Fordsburg Square, Johannesburg.
I might not have looked twice at the mounds of green, fuzzy, cone-shaped vegetables had it not been for my mother’s audible enthusiasm. Amid the sizzling of kebabs and tikka chicken, and the din of prices being negotiated over the latest Bollywood ballads, the sound of my mother’s voice interrogating the vegetable dealer was a sound my younger sister and I could not unhear.
Where, exactly, were these vegetables from? When did they arrive? What type of vehicle did they arrive on? What else is in season now? Would those be available next week?
“Lady fingers,” she said, beaming a childlike smile of her own as she pointed to the green, fuzzy cone-shaped things she was about to buy. “That’s what we used to call them.” Partly because we had been forced to leave the stall with the five-in-one DVDs, and partly because we had to bypass the baked goods stand with the coconut ice and naan khatai (almond biscuits), we did not share my mother’s enthusiasm.
After the okra discovery, the weekend jaunts to Fordsburg Square for food and festivities would now also include a rare groceries expedition. Had it not been for the supply of groundnuts and madumbis that my parents would boil in salt water and serve as a succulent winter snack, I might have resented the day my mother spotted her long-lost okra.
I did not yet know the feeling of finding something that filled the hole created by homesickness. I did not yet appreciate how much the foods with which we grow up bond us to those who prepare it, those with whom we eat it, and to a sense of time and rootedness. At the time, I was focused on rainbow-nation goals, like achieving my dream of owning the entire Kellogg’s mini-cereal collection.
The okra episode was not the first time we’d been conscripted into the “good food” matriarchy. Many Saturday and Sunday mornings were spent caddying shopping trolleys for my mother through her preferred meat market, Akhalwayas on Dolly Rathebe Road in Fordsburg, where I learned that giblets and offal were also chicken, or her preferred fish shop, the Mediterranean on Jules Street in Malvern, where I was taught how to look a fish in the eye to determine its fitness for consumption while my mother interrogated the king prawns fresh from Mozambique.
In what I imagine to be my family’s matriarchal lexicon, “good food” has little to do with brand or price. It is almost devoutly anti-packaging. If the produce cannot be held, lightly squeezed, smelled or weighed by hand, it almost certainly cannot be trusted. If the spices are sitting uncovered or were packaged a little too long ago, their pungency has definitely been compromised.
These rules are part science, part generational wisdom.
When my parents moved, with their jobs, further away from Johannesburg’s city centre, trips to individual meat, fish, spice and produce grocers became less frequent as fuel and food prices rose. Large shopping malls were sprouting in every direction, drawing most economic activities into suburban, brand-conscious bubbles.
My adulthood has involved me confusing employees in big retail outlets with my requests for jam tomatoes and dhania (coriander). I’ve found myself seeking out sellers at farmers’ markets to discuss the price of nuts and flours, pausing to share the distress about the latest price and tips on local substitute products. In these moments, I have never imagined myself more like my mother.
Most recently, my mother responded compassionately to these coming-of-age melodramas by producing a box of okra from a market close to her home. She had the same proud smile I recalled from her Fordsburg Square days. Curious, I joined her on one of her Saturday market missions.
Past the Mall of Africa, into Midrand’s Vorna Valley and past the new complex with yet another big supermarket, we find ourselves outside Aandal Foods. My mother wastes no time. She’s on the hunt for curry leaves, but gets sidetracked by fresh watercress. I am assigned my old duty of shopping trolley caddy. We bump into family friends we haven’t seen in years. They, too, were drawn to the watercress. Inquiries after our health and wellbeing happen in between exchanges on how best to clean and prepare watercress.
I wander off to meet the owner of the store, Sashnee Naicker. She tells me — between “hellos” and “how-are-yous” to customers — about how the store was opened by her father in 2016 and has grown to service both a growing Indian expat community and the existing diverse population of the area.
Aandal’s products look like this: “Indian veg” sit alongside “Durban wild herbs” (greens, not cannabis), while families of all ethnicities huddle to discuss the curiosities of their grocery expeditions. The store is filled with the buzz of suburban hunting and gathering.
“I love the way food can bring people together,” Naicker says. “I love the fact that no two days are the same. I love the diversity of customers, and the amount I learn every day about the products we stock. What’s nice is building the bridge between diverse people through food.”
Observing the commotion of Saturday mornings at Aandal’s, with my mother somewhere in the thick of it, I can see now what I couldn’t see in my younger, sulkier days. Food brings people together long before it is prepared or eaten. It allows people to share parts of themselves on their own terms.
Acknowledging this brings to mind questions about the cultures represented in the city’s food economy. I wonder whether this is what a Saturday at Newtown’s Market Building (today’s Market Theatre), with its food and vegetable traders, would have been like.
I start to think about food security, land and ghettos, while other thoughts about cultural exchange, social agency and the joy of belonging linger, begging to be addressed with the knowledge that food cannot be divorced from land, no matter how catchy the slogan or pretty the packaging.
Small grocers offer a window into the tangible and intangible joys of local food markets, but they cannot be so few and far between. Our retail food landscape does not yet adequately reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of who we are and where we come from. Who gets to be the arbiter of food access? The cultural authority? The mega-retail dependency complex?
My Kellogg’s mini-cereal kingdom can wait.