Since his passing last week, Nelson Mandela has been described as a father, fighter, rebel, resister, amateur boxer and a champion of freedom, human dignity, peace and reconciliation. Along with all those things, he might also be remembered as a champion eater. Proud of his edible achievements, Mandela wrote to his wife Winnie from Robben Island: “You know darling there is one respect in which I dwarf all my contemporaries or at least about which I can confidently claim to be second to none – healthy appetite." In Hunger for Freedom--The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela, chef and anthropologist Anna Trapido presents a gastro-political biography of Nelson Mandela.

At first, the concept may seem a bit odd, especially for someone as accomplished as Mandela. It’s something Trapido acknowledges and explains, “We all reveal our most elementary social, economic and emotional truths in the ways that we cook, eat and serve food.” Trapido believes the approach also humanizes Mandela. She says, "To look at an epic life through food cuts past the God mirage into the daily existence of a very real man: a man who has nourished South Africa and the world with his unstinting appetite for freedom."

Through interviews with Mandela himself, his family, friends, staff and others, the book recounts his life through meals and explores how apartheid manifested even in the foods black South African consumed. The intertwining of food and politics is demonstrated in stories such as Mandela’s marriage proposal to Winnie--he proposed to her over a lunch of rotis and fiery hot curry in an Indian restaurant--one of only two restaurants in Johannesburg where black South Africans were permitted to eat. They married a year later and Winnie kept a portion of the wedding cake for over 30 years, until their house in Soweto burned down. Since Nelson Mandela spent most of their married life in prison, for Winnie, the cake became a symbol of their love. She said, “I kept it in memory of our wedding and in hopes of a life that never was. There I was, the most unmarried married woman...I clung to the cake because it was a memory of a life I still dared to hope would happen when he came out of prison.”

Food, as well as the absence of it, also played a role during the 27 years Mandela spent in prison. Mandela and other prisoners would go on hunger strikes to protest the conditions at Robben Island--these conditions included distributing food according to ethnicity, with black South Africans receiving the smallest quantity and lowest quality food.

Although their foods eventually became de-racialized, it was still nutritionally inadequate and bland. Prisoners tried to deal with this in various ways--once, a Hindu priest smuggled chillies and the seeds were planted in a hidden location and grown for use as a spice. And religious festivities became a way to break up culinary monotony. Fellow prisoner Laloo Chiba recalled, “The authorities would come around and say, “How many people are observing Eid” Or “How many are celebrating Diwali?” And hell, everybody was suddenly converted to Hinduism or Islam or whatever it was, including Madiba and Walter Sisulu!”

Once Mandela was released from prison, food became part of the reconciliation process. The ending of apartheid brought about many feelings, and for some white South Africans, it was a time of tension and fear. To avoid potential political turmoil and move the country forward, Mandela addressed this, in part, with a series of dinner parties. On one occasion, Mandela had tea and koeksisters with Betsie Verwoerd, the widow of apartheid’s architect, Hendrik Verwoerd. Political activist Amina Cachalia accompanied Mandela to the visit, and remembered, "I mean, it was just the craziest place one could think of going. We were the first blacks to go there in any case…we had a lovely tea time with them…and Mrs Verwoerd sat there, quite comfortably, and there was lots of communication."

In addition to stories, there are recipes throughout the book, especially useful for those who love to cook and learn through food. One of the recipes included is for umphokoqo, a traditional South African dish that was one of Mandela’s favorites. His assistant recalled a time when Mandela was in London; although he was in a city filled with some of the most acclaimed restaurants, he asked her to bring some umphokoqo with her from South Africa. In a time of festivities and celebrations honoring Mandela, here’s a dish to accompany them:

Xoliswa Ndoyiya’s Umphokoqo

(from Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela)

2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups mealie meal*

1 liter amasi**

Bring the salted water to a boil. Add mealie meal, stirring constantly. Lower the heat and, stirring throughout, cook until the porridge is soft, approximately 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, stop stirring.

Reduce the heat to an absolute minimum and cover the pot with a lid for 15 minutes or until the texture is totally soft (if there are still granules, the mixture is not yet cooked). Remove from the heat, turn the contents of the pot into a large bowl and allow it to cool completely.

Serve with soured milk on the side so that each diner can determine how sour they would like their umphokoqo to be. The soured milk is then stirred into the porridge.

*Mealie meal is similar to corn meal. **Amasi is a soured milk--buttermilk could be used as a substitute.

Image Credits:, Thomas Berg, author.