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.