The indigenous South African Khoi and San drank it as tea, now the world slathers it on their faces. But who will credit the primary knowledge-holders?
An elderly Khoi woman follows a trail of ants, watching them roll miniscule rooibos seeds into a nest underground. She stoops to her knees. Inside these anthills, she discovers Lilliputian granaries of seeds. Returning with a matchbox full, the doctor hands her a shilling. She will return to him several times, opening her palm to trade seeds for silver.
You are 10 years old when you first taste black tea and honey, only the tea is a rich amber hue and the honey is tempered with a slice of gnarly-skinned Eureka lemon from the backyard. Your grandma and aunties drink milky Ceylon tea—fancy Five Roses when there are guests or Trinco for daily consumption—with three teaspoons of white sugar, and buttered Marie biscuits on the side. So does your father. No masala chai in this family. The tea in your cup, made by your mother who favors honey and unrefined brown sugar, algae-green spirulina powder in the mornings, stubbly brown rice when everyone else cooks short-grain or basmati (things you don’t see in your friends’ kitchens) smells of sweet, buttery caramels. And a there's a whisper-swirl of smoke in the air—your grandpa’s cigarettes. You take a careful sniff of the aroma wafting from the cup while the teabag sits in hot water, brewing.
Until 1920, the rooibos (African red bush) plant could not be successfully harvested. This changed only when Tryntjie Swarts and her neighbors brought the seeds to Dr. Pieter le Fras Nortier and Benjamin Ginsberg, a settler who was keen on cultivating rooibos for sale. Prior to this, the teeny seeds within the pods were at the mercy of the wind.
Your mum will remove the bag, stir in a squeeze of honey from a bottle shaped like a cartoon bear, plop in a slice of lemon and invite you to sit down at the kitchen counter. She’s sipping her tea while tidying up, she never sits, your mother. She tears up the damp tea bags and releases the soggy spiny leaves into a potted plant near the windowsill. Few things go to waste in her kitchen and most of her recycling is done by instinct. Her ferns, roses and pots of orchids thrive, so you figure the red needles must be nutritious. Drinking rooibos with your mother will be your introduction to herbal tea in a community of South African Indians whose standby is the enamel cup of spiced chai or the English cuppa served in porcelain. Funny how colonial habits pass down to the servants’ children too.
For centuries the Khoi and San inhabitants, assisted by mules, carried bundles of rooibos down the mountainside of the Cederburg, the only region in the world where it grows. They bruised the green leaves of the leguminous fynbos plant with axes and in the process it oxidized, releasing enzymes and turning earthy-red. It was left to dry and ferment in the sun. The needles of this “tea” were used to create a quenching brew and a health-giving elixir.
It was my mother’s ritual of serving rooibos with our breakfasts and then bringing us cups of the tea while she monitored our homework or when we studied late into the night, that planted this life-long habit. I find it hard to reconcile the mornings in front of the computer and the evenings when my brother visits and heads straight for the kettle, without a steaming cup of rooibos tea. I'm on the road for several months at a time sometimes and a faithful stash travels with me. Nowadays, you can find rooibos tea in supermarkets around the world in the most obscure cities and towns. Try your local Starbucks, for a start. Even when I’m after a flat white or macchiato, my eye roves through the menu, searching for that familiar name.
In 2010 the Council of San would approach the government to acknowledge their rights as primary knowledge holders of rooibos’ health benefits. The Khoi and others would join their appeal.
No caffeine, low in tannins and with a sweet aroma that minimizes the need for sugar, rooibos tea is also in high demand by international cosmetic houses that distil the proven antioxidant properties into pricey anti-ageing elixirs. Numerous patents have been filed by Japanese, Korean and German beauty houses over the years for the process of producing the vital extracts and the pharmacological and cosmetic uses of the tea.
Descendants of the San and Khoi are asking ask for reparations. They fall within the paltry seven percent of Black people who own land on which the rooibos grows. Will there be justice for them in the face of the biopiracy and bioprospecting by multinationals like Nestlé of late? While the fate of the seeds themselves had long been subject to the will of the wind, the legacy of this tea must not be left to chance.
We couldn’t afford the pricey rooibos-enriched Annique beauty products we read about in South African glossies when I was a teen, so instead, I used the cooled tea as a toner, saturated in cotton wool balls and waited for my reward of blemish-free, glowy skin. It was a good few years before we learned about iced tea and how the very same brew when chilled and dolled up with fruit slices and ice cubes could bring refreshment of a different kind. Between sipping and slathering I was tapping into the ancient wisdom that the First Peoples have always possessed. I wonder now, if that was how I first learned that I truly am what I eat—or drink—and that in some ways this gift from our land lives within me, too.
Rooibos White Chocolate Panna Cotta with Gooseberry Sauce
For the rooibos tea infusion:
200 milliliters boiling water
2 rooibos tea bags or 2 tablespoons loose leaves
For the panna cotta:
500 milliliters double cream (use single if you prefer)
1 rooibos tea bag
100 grams white chocolate, broken up into small pieces
10 milligrams white sugar (optional, as the chocolate is quite sweet)
4 gelatin leaves, soaked in room temperature water to cover for 5 minutes. Squeeze out excess water.
For the tea:
Let the boiling water cool for a minute or two and then steep the bags or leaves in it. Allow to cool. Strain and measure out 150 milliliters.
For the panna cotta:
Heat the cream and tea in a pan on the stove over medium heat with the extra tea bag until almost simmering. Remove the bag. Be careful not to let the bag rip while the tea infuses in the cream.
Reduce the heat and add the white chocolate and sugar and stir well with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon to melt. A low heat is advisable here.
Remove pot from heat and add squeezed out gelatin leaves. You might find it helpful to use a small whisk to aid the procedure.
Set aside to cool and pour into ramekins (4 medium servings or 6 smallish ones).
Chill in the fridge for 4-5 hours or overnight. Serve as is or with gooseberry sauce spooned over.