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Umngqusho, putu pap, marhewu, ting, paptert, imifino, stywe pap, umphokoqo, stampmielies, umqombothi, phuzamandla, krummelpap, inconco, umbhako, mealie bread, isopho, slappap, umvubo, isijeza. South Africa might be a rainbow nation but we are certainly united in our appreciation of mealies, says Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen.

South Africa’s most important staple originated in ancient Mexico and despite all the traditional recipes it is actually a fairly recent addition to our cuisine. Zea Mais spread to the rest of the world only after the discovery of the Americas, but there is fairly little recorded about how this foreign grain replaced sorghum and millet as staple in so many parts of Africa.

Jan van Riebeeck apparently did not find it in the Cape when he arrived in 1652 but by 1840 the French Missionary Thomas Arbousset mentioned that he was served roast corn cobs and bread made from half ripe corn and pumpkin when visiting a chief in an isolated village in the Maluti Mountains of Lesotho.

James McCann writes in Maize and Grace: History, Corn and Africa’s new Landscapes 1500-1999 that the first reference to maize’s introduction to Africa is that of an anonymous Portuguese pilot, who described that corn was already well-established by 1540 on the Cape Verde Islands.

Portuguese trade also seem to have provided the earliest introduction of corn to Southern Africa as the Afrikaans word mealies and Mozambican word zaburro are both derived from the Portuguese word for maize milho zaburro. Most of Southern Africa enjoy maize cooked as a stiff porridge, but this giant tropical grass is one of the most versatile grains in the world. Not only can it be consumed both as grain and vegetable but as Michael Pollan explains in Omnivores Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, once processed this ingredient finds its way into a surprising number of preparations. Apart from corn starch, corn syrup (glucose) and corn oil one can also read corn in products like lecithin, malto dextrin, xanthan gum, ascorbic acid and citric acid. Bourbon and even some beers start out as corn. And as most of the maize in the world is actually grown to feed livestock, the steak, chicken breast, slice of ham and even fish fillet is likely to contain corn.

The plant also contributes to the production of biofuel, disposable diapers, toothpaste, cosmetics, plastic, matches, batteries, charcoal briquettes and even the glossy finish of magazines to name a few. “There are some forty five thousand items in the average American supermarket and more than a quarter of them now contain corn,” writes Pollan.

Mayan descendants sometimes refer to themselves as “the corn people” to acknowledge their dependence on the grass. But in reality North Americans are the true corn people as carbon tests reveal that they are “walking corn” thanks to a highly processed diet that contains so many forms of maize.

The same can probably be said of South Africans as 40% of the calories in our diet is said to come from corn. Nutritionists will be concerned about malnutrition and rightly so as pellagra was originally a major problem in communities outside Mesoamerica that embraced maize as a staple because they did not soak the maize in ashes and lime to liberate the B-vitamins as the Mexicans had done for years before.

Today staples can be fortified to help fight malnutrition, but this human interference poses another problem. South Africa is the only country in the world that plants Genetically Modified staple food.  the Mail & Guardian newspaper reported earlier this year that the majority of soya and maize in South Africa is from genetically modified seeds. Debates are raging about the effect of GM crops on public health. Those in support of it, claim it crucial for food security and explain it is a perfectly safe scientific process, while those against GM crops use ‘evidence’ like a recent French study, in which rats were fed a GM corn diet and developed large tumours, to prove that it is harmful.

In our democratic country our right to choose has been recognised and new legislation now requires GM products to be labelled. But one wonders, considering corn’s presence in so many processed products, how easy is it to have a GM free meal in South Africa? Do we really have the right to choose, or has our government made that decision for us?

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