‘White gold’ in Zim

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BOILED unrefined whole meal sadza repachoto nehodzeko, mukaka wakaodzekwa was an energising, wholesome meal after a hard day of pastoral labour.
In pre-historic times, the same meal spread with wild honey on sadza rezviyo – huchi wemusango nemukaka wengombe wakaodzekwa – fermented and cured in a clay pot, was a delicacy even for the Khoisan people of pre-historic Zimbabwe.
Already then, the benefits of hodzeko or mukaka wakaodzekwa was well-known to the early indigenous Zimbabweans for its wholesome nourishment and health benefits.
Some of us may recall the English nursery rhyme: “Little Jack Horner, sat in the corner, eating his curds and whey…” — Uyu, mwana wemurungu achidya hake hodzeko!
Today, Zimbabwe has re-packaged this ever-popular product, resurgent from ancient times.
With their domestication around 10 000 years ago, cattle and its by-products have been part of man’s food security and sustainable development.
Originally used for draught power, cattle were then raised for meat and hides; milk being added later to the benefits from cattle; sour milk (hodzeko) was undoubtedly the first dairy product in the history of mankind.
Since traditional societies had no refrigeration for the preservation of their milk, they learned to preserve it by fermentation; which unquestionably occurred quite by accident in the beginning.
Once people made the simple but important observations — that fresh milk fermented and was still good to eat, various fermentation ‘starters’ were created, either by accident or by informed choices, by different societies that promoted the fermentation process.
It was then discovered that fresh milk fermented faster and better if some fermented milk was added to it.
Thus setting the foundation for the creation of the innumerable fermented milk products that we are all familiar with today — from yogurt to cheese and other refreshing, nutritious beverages.
In time, different societies adapted and used special fermentation ‘containers’ in which to ferment their milk.
In Africa, gourds were initially used for this process, until the development of earthen ware pottery known in indigenous Shona material culture as ‘hari’, ‘mbiya’, ‘hadyana’; denoting the various Shona serving and curing clayware.
Once the milk was fermented, it would be poured out of the respected container into a serving receptacle and replaced with fresh milk to begin the fermentation process again; often without first cleaning the container.
This tradition was also practised by people across Africa, who have traditionally placed their fresh milk in cleaned-out gourds, pumpkin or calabash shells or clay pots, then added a little from a previous batch to allow the milk to ferment.
The practice of not thoroughly clean procedures encourages the growth of new bacteria, leading to more fermentation and variation in dairy culture strains.
In Africa, some communities smoke the inside of the gourd or clay pot to kill off pathogenic bacteria, others rinse with wood ash, still others simply rinse the fermentation gourd or clay pot with hot water.
Fermentation is an age-old technique of preserving food in many communities.
A wide range of fermented products are prepared by varying the types of raw materials, utensils and fermentation times with several fermented foods being consumed worldwide.
In parts of southern Africa, where milk was traditionally put into calabash or gourd shells, it was left to ferment under a tree.
Since it was nourishing as well as refreshing, it would be the first thing offered to a visitor or traveller.
Historically, although not necessarily knowing why, its bacteria fighting properties would protect the traveller and the local community from any foreign bacteria brought into the village by the traveller on his journey.
The Kalenjin community of Kenya, East Africa, make a traditional type of fermented milk they call ‘mursik’ – which is made from fermented milk and charcoal.
For the Maasai people, milk is believed to be the gift of ngai’s cattle, symbolised on ceremonial occasions by the application of a mixture of white chalk and water to the bodies of participants.
Traditionally, the Maasai eat neither fruit nor grain; fresh or curdled milk is their staple food, often drunk mixed with ox blood – called ‘nailang’a’, especially in the dry season when milk yields are low.
Once a month, blood is taken from living animals to be mixed with milk.
Curdled blood, called ‘osaroi’, is believed to make them very strong.
This is generally stored and carried in decorated long gourds which are washed with urine, which when fresh, is totally sterile and thus acts as a mild antiseptic.
Worldwide, fermented milk or sour milk, known as hodzeko or amasi in Zimbabwe, has been used as food in a variety of ways by different societies.
The most common way was to drink the nutritional milk when eating porridge or bread.
In Zimbabwe, it is typically served with sadza for a light nutritional meal at lunchtime.
It is a great way to kill any hunger pangs!
As the milk ferments and separates, the ‘whey’ is drained off and the ‘curds’ remain; leaving a thick fermented mass betwixt soft cheese and yogurt in resemblance.
It has traditionally been eaten with cereals or consumed as a beverage around the globe and in many African societies.
The product is generally regarded as a protein supplement and widely used as a condiment for various foods.
It also provides important beneficial fats.
The whey is a great source of protein.
It can be used as an additive to a ‘smoothie’ or drunk straight.
Since milk was limited – usually available only during the short lactating period of cows – milk was precious and uncommon in many societies, until the advent of fermentation, where sour milk would usually be mixed with water to dilute it.
Fermented foods have been common for centuries in Africa, and are a necessary dairy product in most indigenous societies where several fermented foods are consumed, with grains or as a beverage, as part of one’s daily diet throughout the continent.
In some societies, it was believed to provide strength and protection to children, especially against bouts of diarrheoa, since the high levels of lactic acid contained in hodzeko/amasi protected their children from illness caused by pathogenic bacteria.
Fresh or raw milk contains little lactic acid, but when it is cultured or fermented with a high lactic acid bacteria culture such as in hodzeko/amasi, the culture can protect against the growth of pathogens.
Currently it is recognised as a high-probiotic food by the scientific community.
Lactic acid bacteria, including lactobacillus, is recognised as an important probiotic in human health.
Hodzeko/amasi is recognised as being laden with beneficial strains of ‘lactobacillus’ that has helped traditional African people maintain their health and also protect their milk from the growth of harmful bacteria.
There are many benefits to high lactic acid foods such as contained in hodzeko/amasi. Some of the recognised benefits of probiotics are:
– Improved absorption of vitamins and minerals.
– Reduced cellular-level inflammation.
– Improved digestion.
– Better recovery after the use of antibiotics.
– Reduced rates of diarrheoa.
– Improved immune response.
– The lactic acid bacteria contained in hodzeko/amasi can also help to protect your gut should you ingest pathogenic bacteria during a meal.
In Estonia, unlike Zimbabwe, where dairy farming is not currently popular among indigenous cattle producers, milk is considered to be ‘white gold’.
Here, the dairy sector forms the basis of Estonia’s centuries-old agricultural tradition, where sour milk is usually served in a separate bowl and eaten by dipping spoonfuls of porridge into it, very similar to traditional Zimbabwean eating practices.
For a sub-tropical country such as our own, dairy farmers without refrigeration equipment can capitalise on the commercial production of an age-old culinary heritage of mukaka wakaodzekwa (cured milk).
Under the Government’s current Command Livestock Programme could hodzeko/amasi be another ‘white gold’ for Zimbabwe?
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, post-colonial scholar, Zimbabwean socio-economic analyst and researcher. For views and comments, email: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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