I love food. A large part of my time in South Africa has been spent eating. Lately, I have been thinking more about what I am eating. I have never had the greatest of habits when it comes to food, most notably my addiction to peanut butter. I love the stuff and have learned since having a solo food budget that I eat a ridiculous amount. Peanut butter m+m’s are a particular point of weakness and I am embarrassed to admit how many of the bags are left of the 10 that were delivered to me in December as part of a Christmas present. However, living and cooking on my own and being in a new food culture has made me step back and take a look at the food around me and what I am eating and most importantly why this food is important. I knew that in South Africa I would most likely have less processed foods and was excited about some healthier eating. I was warned that my vegetarian eating habits would be doable but hard to maintain, I decided to go back to my meat eating ways because I knew that it was more important to me to eat everything that was served to me while I am a guest here in South Africa. However the focus on what I am eating that started when I became a vegetarian has remained with me and for that I am grateful.
That is how I came into this year, ready to eat. I was confident that I could maintain a healthy diet with a manageable amount of my favorite comfort food, peanut butter. The first thing was finding that the generic peanut butter is delicious, priced right for my volunteer budget and that it would in-fact sustain me for many breakfasts and lunches. My first weeks here, I loved discovering the traditional South Africa dishes. Most meals featured meat as the main dish with a carb, a starch, and some sort of vegetable as side dishes. The most common and popular meal involves a piece meat and a side of pap (pronounced pop). Pap is made from maize meal (corn) and has the consistency of a mix between mashed potatoes and couscous. Along with these traditional family style meals I have also explored the fast food options. One of the biggest surprises I have found again and again in South Africa was KFC. The chain KFC is everywhere, even in the smallest towns I have seen the red and white sign. It has been a challenge to explain that even though I come from the same country as KFC, that it does not mean that I enjoy buckets of chicken. Along with the KFC there are more local fast food options. I have found that different areas of South Africa have different ideas of local fast food. The Soweto classic is the kota, slang for quarter. This popular lunch item consists of a quarter of a loaf of bread, chips (thanks to the British influence we don’t say fries!) a type of meat or two, cheese, archer (pickled mangos) and a fried egg. The bread is hollowed out to fit everything in then the extra bread that has been taken out is placed on top to make it sort of resemble a sandwich. I love these. My favorite spot to get one is at Aggie’s. Aggie is an amazing woman who runs a food shop from her home. Where there would be a garage there are tables and a counter to order at. Aggie now knows my order by heart and loves when I bring people who are visiting Soweto by for a true “taste of Soweto” as she says.
Kotas are extremely popular for everyone in Soweto. The price is right they average in price from 7 to 10 Rands or about 1 US Dollar to at most a dollar fifty. In theory, it would be possible for me to stay within my modest budget and still eat a kota everyday. It is very common for kids to take kotas to school for lunch. Now I am not a nutritional expert but a kota seems like a good treat once in awhile but even as I am eating them about once or twice a month I think about how unhealthy they are. But they are so cheap and filling. You aren’t hungry for days after eating a kota. But at what price? A cheap meal to satisfy a hunger but that will hurt your overall health.
While cooking for myself I like to stick to a vegetarian diet here. I find that the money I save on not buying meat products can be used to buy fresh vegetables. Other staff members laugh at me because it is very rarely that I am cooking something that does not have at least one green veggie in it. But this is not cheap and does not fill you up in the same way a kota does. So is it that practical for life in Soweto? It is for me, I budget and have a priority to eat healthy although I do enjoy my kota once in awhile. But what about my hosts, my neighbors, the majority of the 4 million people who call Soweto home? There are necessities in the budget that need to be covered long before fresh vegetables can be made a priority.
Thinking like this brings the kota in a whole new light. It fills you up. You don’t feel hungry. You can trick your body into thinking that it is satisfied with this amount of food that has very little nutritional value. This makes sense if you can only afford 10 rand a day on food, a kota is all you need. Like almost every part of my experience in South Africa this has a history and its roots in the Apartheid history. When there is no money and no work and there are many concerns bigger than what you are eating the focus becomes feeling full, masking your hunger so that you can focus on other issues. Hunger is still a enormous issue in South Africa. People go hungry everyday in South Africa according to ELCA World Hunger 963 million people are hungry in the world and 947 million people are undernourished. This is a global issue. Hunger and malnourishment is something that will continue to be a vital issue in our ever connected world. I know that it is something that I will carry with me when I travel back to the United States and now each time I enjoy my Soweto treat of a kota.