Sunday, July 1, 2007

Chakalaka: The Coolest-Named Soup I've Ever Had

To escape the cold and rainy summer weather in England, I left for sunny and warm(ish) winter weather in South Africa in mid-June. I wasn’t really sure of what to expect in the way of South African food and culinary experiences, but we found a pretty mixed bag – some interesting seasonal ingredients, geographically concentrated fine dining, a versatile collection of wine and spirits, and “native”, if not terribly unique or healthy, cuisine.

That said, peanut butter, banana and crackers were staples in the more remote and poor parts of the country that I traveled through. Our trip into Lesotho, where some 43% of the population lives on less than $1 a day, was a lesson in subsistence eating. Even grocery stores in Maseru, the kingdom’s capital, were short stocked with limited food options. In rural Malealea valley, where we stayed (see photo), the abundant and immense vistas almost compensated for meager dining. For most Basotho, fresh pears, oranges and bananas imported in from South Africa are luxuries in this winter season. Food is practical and hearty – simple, filling and drawing on limited available ingredients.

Soups and stews are aplenty at this chilly time of year, and one recipe that piqued my interest was Chakalaka, a spicy and tangy soup that’s almost thick enough to be a stew. It’s satisfying with a distinctive taste. That said, as Brian McCune blogged from Cape Town, there’s no definitive definition or recipe for the dish – Chakalakas across the country can be quite different! What’s constant is that it’s generally vegetarian, and has some combination of spices, peppers, tomatoes and onion.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to pry recipe secrets from the women who made it for us when we spent a night at Malealea Lodge in Lesotho. But I’m pretty sure the key is in the mix of spices, and in slow-cooking the stew. I tried recreating it when I got home this week by modifying a recipe I found online. Limited success. Something’s still missing. . . for the more “shortcut inclined” among us (permissible in the pursuit of authentic flavor, I say), Knorr makes Chakalaka instant flavor packets that you can order online. It’s pretty good, and tastes more like what I remember having in Southern Africa - it’s also got thickening agents for the soup’s trademark stew-like consistency.

Here’s the homemade recipe I tried – if you can think of additional modifications, please share them!

1.5 oz canola oil
2 ½ tbspn chopped fresh ginger
2 tbspn chopped fresh garlic
1 tbspn chopped chili peppers
1 cup chopped onions
2 cups chopped tomatoes
1/3 cup chopped green peppers
½ cup chopped red peppers
3 tbspn curry leaves
1 or 1.5 tbspn curry powder
1 cup grated carrots
2 cups baked beans (in tomato sauce)
½ or 1 tbspn fresh cilantro
3 cups water


  1. Heat oil in a soup pan and lightly fry ginger, garlic, chillis and onions.
  2. Add curry leaves and powder.
  3. Add the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often.
  4. Add peppers and carrots and cook for 10 minutes. Add baked beans and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring often.
  5. Add 3 cups water, allow to come to boil and then reduce heat and let simmer for 15 minutes.
  6. Remove from heat and add coriander. Check seasoning, add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with bread, pap (maize meal), or thick soured milk (if you want the real thing) - hot or cold.


Maya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maya said...

Boom chakalaka chakalaka chaka...boom!