Traditional South African steamed breads

When I was young my mother would make steamed bread in 1 lb (500g) baking powder tins prized for the purpose because they were rust-proofed, smooth sided and had tight-fitting screw on or slide on tops. She made boston bread (a raisin and molasses tea bread), ginger bread and mealie bread. She had three tins kept for the purpose and could always be relied on to whip up a tasty high tea treat in the late afternoon whether for guests or just her own hungry boys. If you don’t have any old baking powder tins (or old cocoa tins that also came with tin caps), you can buy similar-sized “steaming” tins from a

Baking powder tin with tight-fitting lid.

baking goods shop (shame on your mother for not passing on her old baking powder or cocoa tins. Today most brands of baking powder and cocoa come in useless plastic containers – absolutely not suitable for steaming bread!).

Later in life, when I began living with Zulu people, I was introduced to a completely different steamed bread, ujeqe (pronounced: u- ch- eh- tongue descending plosive click- soft, disappearing  uh). Recently a friend inaugurated me in the rites of making ujeqe.

So give tradition a go! A good ginger bread is made somewhat differently to these simple recipes. I will add it later (I need to do some experimenting!).


Zulu steamed bread (ujeqe)

No traditional feast or ceremony (umsebenzi) is complete without slices or hunks of freshly-made ujeqe, traditionally served on a wooden platter (ugqoko), alongside chunks of meat (usually the sacrificial goat) and small mounds of salt for dabbing the meat. There is a bit of controversy over the correct name of the wooden platter. Purists call it ugqoko, but current usage is to call wooden serving platters isithebe (traditionally a name reserved for the finely-woven small mats on which ground maize is collected, also used for serving vegetables).

This was the recipe given me by Khumbuzile, the other half of good friend and journalist, Sbu Mboto, and mother of his, at the time of writing, last born, Zander Satchmo. She made it for me on Christmas day 2011 when the three were around for lunch, along with Bam – Phumlani Hlatshwayo – Khaya Mwelase and his lively young brother, Sanele, Girlie Makhathini (Khaya’s grandmother and my vegetable gardening mentor),  and Senzo Khanyile and his fiancée Sle (short for Slender) Mthalane.

Traditionally ujeqe is made from crushed fresh mealies rather like the traditional South African steamed green mealie bread. The  recipe below, however, is the one all township folk use.

  •  2½ cups of cake flour
  • 1 dessert spoon sugar
  • 600 ml warm water
  • 2 teaspoons Anchor brand instant yeast
  • 1 pinch salt

Mix dough and knead lightly. Place in a covered glass dish in the sun to rise for an hour (or any other warm place).

The dough wrapped in an oiled plastic shopping bag and placed on a steaming rack inside a pot.

Oil (with olive oil or margarine) the inside of a plastic shopping bag (which you have wiped first – you never know what has been inside it, says Khumbuzile). Place the risen dough in the bag and tie the top to stop water getting in.

Place on a legged expandable vegetable steamer in a pot with boiling water up to the steamer platform. Lightly boil for an hour. By then the bread should be done. Check the pot from time to time to see that it has water (you are making steamed bread, not potjie roasted bread which is another recipe).

Opening ujeqe to check that it is cooked.

After an hour of boiling open up the bag and slip a wooden skewer into the middle of the bread. If it is done it will come out smooth. If still sticky with gunk then close up the bag and continue boiling for another 20 minutes. When done the steamed bread has a light tan “skin”. Allow to air on a rack for a few minutes before serving.

The result is a delicious, coarsely-textured, slightly chewy bread which is not wet (as you may have expected) but light and firm with a nutty aroma. Wonderful bread. I eat it with honey or fruit preserve. Or even with (to the horror of my friends) with my favourite full-cream maas (thickened sour milk) (amasi), traditionally prepared in an igula, a calabash (the dried outer husk of the fruit of iselwa, the squash family calabash gourd plant, Lagenaria siceria).

Traditional South African steamed green mealie bread

This is really a steamed soda bread, as opposed to a yeast bread. If you don’t have mealies then use most of two drained tins of corn (or sweetcorn emptied into a sieve so you can wash out all the creamy gunk).

  • 2 ½  cups minced or coarsely blended green mealies cut from the freshly-picked cob.
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 heaped teaspoon baking powder
  • 2 teaspoons butter
  • 1 beaten egg

Mix mealies, salt, sugar, baking powder in a bowl. Add beaten eggs mixed with the melted butter. Mix thoroughly. Pour the mixture into a greased 500g baking powder tin. Place a disc of greased waterproof paper a little larger than the tin diameter on the tin (also known as greaseproof paper) (if you don’t have any just grab a sheet of paper from your printer and rub butter on both sides – works even better!). Screw the lid down over the greased paper. Place on a trivet or pot stand inside a large pot and add water to reach two-thirds up the side of the tin. Lightly boil for 1 ½ to 2 hours.

Very nice with golden syrup, honey or just a dab of butter. A nice bready side-dish instead of boring rolls (rolls – yuk! Only plebs or fast-food joint habitués have rolls with a meal. Rolls and boerie  or chicken sausage on Friday night are acceptable. But not with a dinner – puhleeez!).

Traditional steamed Boston bread

A tea cake steamed soda bread.

  •  1 cup cake flour
  • 1 cup blended dry oats
  • 1 cup mealie meal
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 handful raisins (optional)
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 tablespoons golden syrup (I prefer molasses)
  • 1 ¼ cups of lukewarm milk

Mix dry ingredients. Blend the warmed milk and syrup and add to the dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly.

Makes enough batter for two tins. Fill each tin two-thirds with the mixture and cook as above for steamed mealie bread.

25 thoughts on “Traditional South African steamed breads

  1. I have made the pot bread many times, but am glad to find your recipe, as we now live in Ireland and my son has been asking me to make it again 🙂 Thank you

  2. Thanks for the recipe. I’ve been meaning to try make some since I moved to the States. Now I need to just find my grandmother’s recipe for bean stew to complete the meal 🙂

  3. Hi, I’ve been looking for a meilie bread recipe for the past 2 years. My mum would make it for us as kids and she has since passed on and all her recipes were in her head. This recipe is about the closest ive come to what she used to make except for one difference, she would put the mixture in a plastic jiffy bag and place the bag in the boiling water. I was just a kid when she did it so i could be wrong, maybe she steamed it. Is this someting i could try or am i bieng daft.

    • You can Wesley, and many do, place a well-sealed bag direct in the water, usually on a rack to prevent it touching the bottom of the pot. But it is easier to use a colander that will fit in the top of the pot and hold your bag suspended above the boiling water. That way you can have more water in the pot and reduce the chances of it boiling dry unnoticed. Works as well for mealie bread as for steamed flour bread. And you don’t have to seal the plastic bag, just fold it over on top.

      • Hi ! In France, in the South and in rural places, we also have similar recipes, where the bread is cooked in yhe water, wrapped in a kitchen towel. Actually it is cooked in a kind of soup mad with vegetables and meat, so it gets the flavour, but it is really boiled rather than steamed. Delicious too.

      • Most interesting, Agnes! Dumplings, large or small, boiled in a stew or soup are an ancient but wonderfully savoury way of extending a meal. Incorporating mince, or vegetables, or herbs in a dumpling, or in a small dough envelope (as in ravioli, kreplach or knaidelach), crops up in the favourite traditional recipes of most cultures.

  4. Hey

    When I made mine it came out flat and hard. I suspect it was because I left a lot of space in the packet (it was loose). Any advice on getting it right?

    • You must let the kneaded dough rise properly. Cover it lightly with an oiled torn-open plastic bag in the bowl and cover the bowl with a dark towel in a gently warm, but not hot, place for at least an hour (a couple of hours is not unusual). If it’s rising place is too hot you will kill the yeast and have flat bread. When it has doubled in size it is ready to be knocked down, re-shaped into a ball and steamed in another plastic bag in a colander over lightly boiling water in a large pot. Or you can put it in a greased bread pan and let it rise again before putting it into the oven at 220C for about 30 minutes.

  5. 600ml of water was far too much, it was so runny, it rose ok, but took ages to cook and was very wet??? are you sure 2.5 cups of flour to 600ml of water???

    • Sue, the township folk I know use a very wet mixture for their steamed bread. It does work. We prefer a dryer mix. We bake our own bread with white bread flour using just under two cups of water, a teaspoon of sugar, three teaspoons of salt, a packet of dried yeast and five and a half cups of flour. It also makes a good, drier, steamed bread. The most important part of both methods is kneading and rising. Knead the bread dough well, pulling and stretching and folding it back repeatedly for a good 10 to 15 minutes before covering it with an olive-oiled plastic bag (to stop the outside drying) and a towel on top (to keep it dark) to let it rise in a warm place. On a sunny afternoon we put the bowl and towel outside in a sunny spot for a good two hours to rise. If your dough is well kneaded and has risen well (doubled in size). the cooking does not take long. Thirty minutes in the oven at 210 to 220 C. Less than an hour over boiling water for steamed bread.

  6. But how was this bread made before there were plastic shopping bags? Sadly, there are chemicals leaching into the steaming water and then into the bread. Anybody know how this was done traditionally?

  7. The recipe sounds interesting. However, I am looking for a recipe where pot bread is made inside what we call a “potjie” (on fire and cooals). The bread is placed ontop of the boiling potjiekos inside the potjie. One of my colleagues who is a boer, told me that it is a boere tradition to place the bread ontop of th potjiekos, inside the potjie. In that way, the flavours from the potjiekos pull the pot bread and it creates a unique taste. Any help on how to ocook this bread in the potjie.

    • That sounds great. But if you want to avoid ending up with a large soggy dumpling I would find a pot that would fit inside the potjie and bake (steam) the bread in that. It would still pick up the aroma of the potjie contents but would be a proper bread.

  8. What a thrill to finally find a recipe this simple. I’ve tried different recipes and my steamed bread always came out chewy. Thank you! This is a definite throw back. Childhood memories.

  9. Thank you. Unfortunately my mom doesn’t know how to make dumbling, and she loves it. I will surprise her. I am definitely trying out your recipe. Quite simple hey!

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