Makataan (Citrullus lanatus, from the cucurbitaceae family) are edible wild watermelons indigenous to the Southern African region. The watermelons as a species originate from the South of the African continent. The Makataan wild watermelons have been cultivated in South Africa since pre-colonial times, in companionship with sorghum and maize, in some regions like KwaZulu-Natal.
It grows wild in grassland and bushland, mostly in sandy soils of the Kgalagadi region of the Northern Cape, and under cultivation Mpumalanga, North West, Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal, Free State, Western Cape and Eastern Cape.
The plant is a creeping melon vine that can grow up to 10 m long. It has deeper roots than the more commonly known commercial watermelons, therefore can hold water for longer periods, and survive better in times of drought.
The fruits of wild plants can grow up to about 20 cm in diameter, they are usually greenish, mottled with darker green. The fruits of cultivated plants are usually bigger, rounded or oval with yellow to dark green skin that is mottled or striped. The flesh is white to yellow, and juicy, and contains up to 90% water. It is a source of water for the San and Khoe people, because it grows well in dry areas.
It is also a valuable stock feed, especially in times of drought.
The tender young leaves and young fruit can be cooked and eaten like any other green vegetable, particularly by the Zulu people, who serve it with maize porridge. The seeds can be dried, roasted and eaten, or ground into flour and cooked as porridge or baked into bread. The seeds are rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, minerals, fats, starch and riboflavin.
Makataan Konfyt (jam) is a well known preserve, but is rare to find, because of the preparation effort and time involved, and because the fruits are not available on the market, and are generally only grown by home gardeners, or in the wild.
Preparation of Maketaan Konfyt involves peeling the hard outer skin off, removing the soft inner flesh where the seeds are, which leaves one with the hard rind that is then chopped into 2-3cm cubes. The pieces are pricked with a fork, and left to soak in chalk water for 2 days which adds a crunchy texture to the melon pieces. The chalk water is rinsed off, and the cubes are then soaked in cold water for 2 hours, to cleanse the chalk off. The pieces are then cooked slowly for a few hours in syrup, sometimes with a bit of lemon juice, ginger and salt.