This porridge is loved by Afrikaners, Zulus and everyone in between
On cold mornings, I recall my mother bustling about in our suburban South African kitchen, ladling out bowls of creamy mealie pap. She’d stir in a little more milk and sugar, and occasionally, a cube of cold, unsalted butter and a tablespoonful of tinned golden syrup into the porridge, hot from the saucepan. A quintessential South African breakfast, pap is made from milled white maize and enjoyed across demographics. If it's not prepared as a slow-cooked sweet porridge, then maize meal flour is stirred with water until stiff and crumbly (called phutu in Zulu) and eaten as a starch with savory meals and with tomato and onion smoor—a thick braised sauce.
When you consider South Africa’s past, a system of extreme racial segregation, and my reality until I was 13, it’s pretty remarkable that maize porridge—in both the stiff and spoonable preparations—is loved by Afrikaners, Zulus and everyone in between. We grew up as a fragmented society, but somehow, several food traditions like braai (barbecue) and our morning bowls of pap, seemed to have transcended the divide. As romantic as the notion might be that the humblest of foods has the power to unite in this way, the truth is that mealie pap, an austere breakfast, was often made by Black housekeepers for their families, with a posh version (with butter and syrup) made for the children of the households they served. In a modern context (because the history of pap goes way back), this resulted in culinary crossovers that, at a stage, became openly accepted as something enjoyed across racial lines. In a way, pap has become the glorified poster child breakfast for Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation.
I was curious if the Voortrekkers—the Afrikaner boers (farmers who descended from the Dutch settlers) who traversed the difficult terrain from the Cape in the west to Kwa-Zulu Natal in the east by ox-wagon—were indeed the first to introduce maize meal porridge to South Africa, as suggested by some online sources. Both dried maize and millet, being easy to store with an ample shelf life, are said to have contributed to their survival.
A long Southern African porridge-making tradition was in place before the arrival of Europeans. Across the continent’s ancient grasslands, drought-resistant wild cereal grains like millet and sorghum were stamped and ground to make flour for porridge and other staples. Maize arrived later, introduced by the Portuguese first to western Africa in 1502. The Voortrekkers commenced their journey in 1830.
I consulted with South African heritage food writer Errieda du Toit who mentioned that while the Dutch, who settled in 1652, failed to cultivate the crop in the Cape, many of the Voortrekkers met with indigenous farmers who had been successfully growing maize for generations in other parts of the country further east. Black farmers must have had contact with the Portuguese or perhaps Africans from further north.
When the British arrived in 1820, they cultivated maize on a larger scale in the eastern Cape and possibly brought their porridge-making skills with them—but this isn’t to say a unique pap tradition hadn’t already taken root and was being shared between groups. “I’m convinced the Voortrekkers acquired their pap-making skills from the indigenous people along the route to Natal,” du Toit concluded.
Relishing the opportunity to chat about the foods that have had a formative influence on our memories and inherited histories, I took to Twitter, tagging friends and food professionals.
American-style cereals became part of our weekday breakfasts in the '80s, and I wondered who was still preparing pap or if it has been relegated to memory to be drawn out and savored in the reminiscing. After all, it can take up to an hour to make, with constant stirring.
The responses, across cultural groups were overwhelmingly in favor of pap, with someone saying she prepared it for her toddler in the same manner as her mother, who insists it’s the most nourishing breakfast when served with milk, cinnamon and sugar, and a chef sharing that in her family the daily leftover pap is always used to make the fermented drink, amahewu. There were memories of fresh, warm farm milk used in sweetened pap with butter and crumbled bacon to one with peanut butter and sugar but not milk.
When I served a group of friends large bowls of pap recently, simmered in a cast-iron potjie (a three-legged pot) on the braai and sprinkled with brown sugar and maple butter, I was reminded how the richest of joy can be found in the simplest of meals—the ones we treasure from our childhoods.
Mealie meal pap or porridge is a breakfast dish of milled white maize enjoyed across demographics in South Africa. It’s eaten simply with sugar and milk or with golden syrup and butter when the household can afford it. This is a childhood classic, tweaked ever so slightly with a luscious maple butter sauce to drizzle over, taking nursery food to a slightly new level. This porridge can also be served savory, like congee with chopped spring onions and sliced boiled eggs. Grits will give you a similar result but won’t be as silky-smooth.
1 liter water
1 cup white maize meal (Tip: You can find maize or mealie meal at South African stores, or you can substitute with grits, cornmeal or polenta.)
½ teaspoon sea salt
1 cup whole or low fat milk, warm, plus extra if needed
Brown sugar, to taste
For the maple butter sauce
You can prepare this a day or a few days in advance – it become lighter in color and the butterfat will rise to the top. Store in the refrigerator. Remove a few hours before serving, and stir well before you drizzle it over the porridge.
1 cup maple syrup (Tip: golden syrup is traditionally used to sweeten this porridge. You can substitute the maple syrup if you wish)
120 grams (4.2 ounces) cold unsalted butter, cubed
Boil the water in a kettle. Add the water and maize meal to a large cast iron or heavy-bottomed pot, and heat slowly bringing to the boil while stirring continuously with a wooden spoon so no lumps form, for about 10 minutes. It will make little “plop” sounds as it thickens and cooks. The porridge should be smooth.
Lower the heat and cover the pot with a lid and allow the porridge to simmer for 40 minutes. You’ll need to lift the lid and stir frequently to ensure it doesn’t catch or burn at the bottom.
While the porridge is cooking, add maple syrup to a small saucepan and heat on medium. It will immediately start to bubble. Be careful not to let it burn. Once it starts to bubble a little, remove from the heat. Add the butter and stir slowly with a spatula until it melts. Set aside.
The porridge should be very smooth and thick now, but not stiff (expect a “gloopy” consistency). Grits, if using, will retain a characteristic grainy feel, but should also be plump and smooth. Stir in the milk. The consistency will depend on your preference—some prefer a thicker porridge and others a runnier version.
Serve hot with sprinkle of sugar and a drizzle of maple butter syrup.