Ting ya mabele is a traditional fermented sorghum product from the Tswana community of Botswana and the northern parts of South Africa (especially North West province). “Ting” refers to fermented porridge, while “mabele” refers to sorghum meal, which is traditionally the most common raw material for making ting. The practice of fermenting sorghum meal before cooking it as a porridge stretches back at least 4,000 years in Tswana culture, and was an important preservation method before refrigerators were invented. To prepare ting ya mabele, sorghum meal is mixed with warm water (i.e. boiled water that has partially cooled) and then allowed to ferment in a sealed container for 2-3 days. Lactic acid bacteria are primarily responsible for the fermentation. The presence of bubbles in the mixture indicates that fermentation has begun, and the ting is ready once its aroma becomes “bitter.” At this point, the ting is cooked with water and some salt (and occasionally also a small quantity of maize meal) to make porridge. The porridge must be stirred regularly as it cooks to prevent the formation of lumps. To obtain a thick porridge, called bogobe, the ting is cooked longer and with less water. To make a thin porridge, called motogo (which is especially popular among children), the ting is more heavily diluted and cooked only for a short period. Both bogobe and motogo can be eaten at any time of the day. To keep leftover ting from over-fermenting and spoiling, it can be mixed with a new batch, in the same bucket. Ting ya mabele is served with various meat, fish, and vegetable dishes. It is highly nutritious and rich in antioxidants, and it improves digestive health. It is also an excellent staple for people with gluten intolerance.
Traditional ting ya mabele has become less common among the Tswana of South Africa over the past 30 years or so, mainly due to the presence and easy accessibility of alternatives that require much less time to prepare. Although it is possible to find pre-made sorghum ting, it is predominantly maize porridges that have replaced ting ya mabele, as many people prefer their texture and white color. This is especially problematic given that much of South Africa’s maize (up to 80%) is genetically modified. In an attempt to reproduce the sour taste of traditional ting, some people add vinegar or lemon juice to non-fermented maize porridges, but these actually bear little resemblance to the original product. Even among those people who continue to use sorghum meal, most no longer grind it themselves (this practice persists only in some rural communities) and some, in order to avoid having to wait 2-3 days for fermentation to occur, add tartaric acid.
In Tswana communities in South Africa today, ting ya mabele is no longer consumed on a daily basis, as it was traditionally: It has become ceremonial food, reserved for funerals, weddings, and other special occasions. In these contexts, ting ya mabele is use to honor the ancestors, who rarely ate white maize meal, and to let them know that they are remembered and a part of the ceremony taking place.