/ 22 September 2023

No more seven-colour Sundays

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Feast: ‘Seven colour’ Sunday lunches are now a thing of the past for many households because of rising food prices.

Sundays in many South African households have followed the tradition of a vibrant feast after the church service, often called the “Sunday kos” or “seven colours” lunches.

The weekly ritual derives its name from the colours of the food on the table during the meals. 

The classic “seven colours” meal includes rice, accompanied by choices of chicken or beef, and complemented by sides like pumpkin, sweet potatoes, beetroot, cabbage, bean salad, potato salad, chakalaka and coleslaw.

Or rather, that’s how seven-colour Sundays used to be. 

Now, rising food prices are compromising this tradition; households are having to tighten their belts, leaving way fewer colours on their Sunday plates. 

One such household is that of Thembisile Mthembu, a resident of Mangweni in Tembisa, who graciously opened her home to the Mail & Guardian this past Sunday, sharing a poignant story of how her Sunday lunches have dwindled from seven colours to two, at most.

“It’s increasingly difficult to replicate the colourful meals we used to enjoy years ago. Food has become extremely expensive,” says Mthembu, who lives with her four children and five grandchildren.

“I’m reminiscing about the incredible women who raised me on the most diverse of ‘seven colours,’ and my heart aches when I consider what’s left for our Sunday meals.”

Mthembu’s recollections of her family’s culinary history shows the deep cultural significance of these Sunday feasts. Her grandmother in Bergville, KwaZulu-Natal, used to forage for mushrooms and prepared a meal that typically included phuthu (cooked maize meal), black-fleshed chicken, pumpkin and cabbage.

Mthembu’s mother blended her Zulu origins with the Tsonga heritage of her marital home in her cooking, resulting in a more varied Sunday plate consisting of rice, cabbage, pumpkin, beetroot, beef or lamb stew, mixed vegetables, lettuce, tomato and onion salsa, chicken, mopane worms as a snack and guxe (wild jute), a plant eaten by the Tsonga, Venda and Pedi.

Inspired by both her grandmother and mother, Mthembu crafted her own colourful plate, which featured fried fish, stewed beef, roast chicken, rice, dumplings, chakalaka, cabbage, butternut or pumpkin and beetroot, often accompanied by traditional dishes such as mopane worms and guxe.

But economic problems have forced her family, like many others, to simplify their Sunday meals to pap, cabbage and roast chicken.

“This is all we can afford now,” Mthembu says.

She says that to resurrect the Sunday meal her family would need to spend R10 000 on groceries each month, an amount far beyond their reach.

“I have done it before. I once went to Greenstone [shopping mall] where I bought food for R4 800 and I realised that what I had in my trolley was not enough.

“I then went to Makro where I spent over R5 000 on food,” she says.

Mthembu never did that again after the financial strain she experienced that month. 

She took the “executive” decision to cut several items from the family grocery list such as condiments, spices, spinach, squash, carrots, pepper and fruit. 

Mthembu says she is aware of the health implications of not having “several colours” on her family’s plates as regularly as she would like. Their health is something that worries her, but sadly, regular doctor visits are one of the things she cannot afford.

“The Sunday kos goes far beyond feasting, it has impilo [life/health],” she says.

“The less we have on our plates the less nutrients we receive, therefore our bodies are unable to fight simple things such as colds, let alone diseases such as diabetes.”