Centuries-Old and Steeped in Tradition, Umqombothi Joins the Ark

Arca_gusto_birra_xhosa_4The 4,000th passenger on the Ark of TasteSlow Food’s international catalog of food products, has arrived from the Xhosa people of South Africa. A handcrafted beer called Umqombothi, marks an important milestone for Slow Food’s project.

Hundreds of years before handcrafted artisan beers became fashionable, the Xhosa people had been brewing their own home made beer from ingredients and tools produced in the region where they lived.

The Xhosa settled in the region of the Eastern Cape after migrating Southward from the Great Lakes regions of Central Africa. They were primarily cattle farmers, but also had goats, sheep, and poultry. Their main crops were sorghum, millet, pumpkins, beans, and maize.

When European farmer settlers arrived in the region in the late 18th Century, wars broke out between the two groups who were competing for agricultural land and water. These wars lasted about 100 years, gradually the Xhosa people became impoverished, and migrated to urban areas in search of work. As a result, younger generations of Xhosa people have lost touch with their pastoral roots, and are developing a preference for fast food, and urban lifestyle resulting in health problems like obesity and diabetes.

Arca_gusto_birra_xhosa_3Umqombothi is a traditional Xhosa beer made from a combination of maize meal, crushed corn malt, crushed sorghum malt, yeast (traditionally made from the foraged root of the moerwortel plant, Glia gummifera) and water. In appearance, the beer is opaque and light tan in color. It has a thick, creamy, gritty consistency from the maize, and is known for having a heavy and distinctly sour aroma.

Umqombothi is brewed following traditional customs and these vary slightly between regions. Xhosa people filter the fermented mash through a tube-shaped, woven grass strainer called intluzo.

The strainers are made by sewing together many strands of carefully-prepared, twisted, grass-like sedge stems. They are only made by elderly people, using a centuries-old technique. It is a complicated and time consuming technique that takes great patience to learn and pass along to others. Younger generations are not always willing to learn this art, meaning that it is in danger of dying out, which could contribute to a loss of knowledge in brewing beer the traditional way. Symbolically, the intluzo was a very important item in a traditional Xhosa household. For example, it was given as a wedding gift to a newly married couple. Unfortunately, metal factory-made strainers are more commonly used today.

Umqombothi plays a very important cultural, social and spiritual role. It is used to celebrate the homecoming of young men known as abakwetha in Xhosa culture, after initiation and ritual circumcision. But it is also part of the process of contacting the ancestors (amadlozi) and plays a central role in many celebrations or life events like weddings, funerals, and imbizos (traditional meetings).

Other Xhosa products already on board the Ark of Taste are the Eastern Cape Xhosa goat, Nguni Cattle, and a regional variety of the Amakhowe mushroom. There will be more to follow.

It is hoped that through the Slow Food Ark of Taste drawing attention to traditional food products, all South Africans can be inspired to renew interest and pride in their traditional food cultures.

To learn more about the Ark of Taste or nominate a product, click here.

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