Tuesday, September 29, 2020

‘Lesuhu’: the disappearing cultural delicacy

From a couple of casual verbal exchanges with acquaintances and professional colleagues, it soon becomes apparent that the disappearance of lesuhu as an aspect of traditional food culture is occurring at three levels.

There is not a single butchery kitchen in Gaborone that sells lesuhu and that is why it took a month to get a photograph of one to illustrate this article. At the physical level, that traditional meat cut has literally disappeared from kitchens.

Younger people, one a Sunday Standard staffer, do not even know what lesuhu is. In a brief monologue, the latter has to repeat ‘Lesuhu? What is it?’ a couple of times. Nothing in his mental photo archive matches the verbal description of that traditional meat cut. At a semantic level, the word ‘lesuhu’ has fallen into disuse because fewer and fewer people eat lesuhu nowadays.

It takes those who have encountered lesuhu quite a while before they can remember what it actually is. Because the sight, smell and taste of lesuhu are fast disappearing, memory no longer serves.
To illustrate the extent of the problem, lesuhu does not feature on the menu of Letlhafula Culture Day, Botswana’s premier traditional food festival, which draws tourists from as far away as overseas.

Nicola Hart of Botswana Craftmarketing, which organises Letlhafula, says that they don’t have lesuhu on the menu because they buy ready-cut meat for the festival.

“If we slaughtered animals for ourselves we would have lesuhu but that is not the case. The other problem is that lesuhu, which is mostly bones, would require a lot of pot space which we don’t have. Remember our festival caters for some 500 people,” Hart says.

Lesuhu is a generous layer of cooked meat on a bone. Shank, which is flavourful and has high collagen content, makes very good lesuhu but this traditional delicacy can also be made from rump, silverside and topside cuts.

Traditionally, a beast’s slaughter is followed by partial deboning of all the legs of beef. The deboned meat is cut into thin strips with the grain, cured and hung up on a wire to dry on a wire to make biltong. Children would introduce themselves to petty theft by stealing the biltong and if that habit continues into adulthood, the culprit would most likely become a career cattle rustler.

The left-over meaty bones are cross-cut into large bite-size pieces with a sharp axe. These pieces are then cooked in a large round bottomed cast-iron pot over an open fire and will be attended by a cook with a large double-pronged wooden fork. To optimise tenderness and flavour and make the meat easy to carve, the cooking of lesuhu necessarily has to take quite a while. In some cases the meat would rest overnight and meet its fate the next day.

To the extent that it has been professionalised in the west, food styling is not a big part of our food culture but those food-servers here at home are conscious of the architectural elements of presenting a meal ÔÇô like height. From a food-plating point of view, lesuhu’s aesthetic appeal is that it creates height. It also has texture and character you won’t find in kidneys for example.
But what really killed lesuhu that its obituary has to be written at this stage of our cultural evolution? The list is quite long and at the top of it is modernisation.

On the basis that capitalism is an inherently exploitative economic order, butcheries have decided that they are going to sell as much bone as they do meat because they can make more money that way. What happens nowadays is that what should be lesuhu is cut up into small pieces and sold ÔÇô in some instances the almost bare bones are sold separately.

‘Mokwetjepe’ would seem to disqualify itself as edible food solely on the basis of its rather unsavoury name but at the butchery kitchen, that dish (a mixture of intestines, tripe and meat) has replaced lesuhu as a traditional delicacy.

Lesuhu cooks well in cast-iron pots. The round bottom of the pots makes it easy to turn the meat while it is cooking. Add to that the uniqueness of cast-iron pots. Generally, such cookware evenly distributes and retains heat over the cooking surface and its properties affect the texture of the food. On the downside, cast-iron pots are very expensive nowadays and a majority of households use flat-bottomed aluminium cookware. While not as expensive, the latter is not as good as cast-iron pots. Equally expensive is firewood hewn from the forest.

Lesuhu’s demise as a traditional delicacy will have an adverse ripple effect on other aspects of Setswana culture. There is quite elaborate cultural choreography and protocol that follow the slaughter of an animal. The post-slaughter food ritual essentially serves to strengthen familial and communal bonds. Family members, neighbours and other people in the ward or village get together to make merry after a kill.

The meat is cooked in an open fire that brings everybody else together – something that does not happen with a western-style kitchen. Usually, there is a second get-together the following day that is dedicated to the eating of lesuhu.

This sort of communal eating is opportune for the socialisation of the young into cultural food etiquette, the role-modelling of table manners by adults as well as the inculcation of healthy eating habits in children. In countries like Gambia it is expected that one should belch to show appreciation for the meal they just had but in a Setswana mealtime environment that is a definite no-no. Other no-nos are talking, spitting and smelling food before eating it.

When the benefactor family does not have the necessary kitchen utensils, it would borrow from the neighbourhood. Social protocol is that when those utensils are returned they should have some meat in them ÔÇô lesuhu pieces usually. This has to be the most eloquent illustration of scratch-mine-I’ll-scratch-yours traditional culinary sub-culture.

When George Bush visited Botswana in 2003 and was treated to a luncheon at the Gaborone International Convention Centre, Kgosi Moshibidu Gaborone was manhandled by the secret service as he passed through a metal detector installed at the door. The metal he was carrying was a sheathed jack knife. Among a good many Batswana males of a certain age and locale, carrying a knife is fairly common and is motivated not by desire to behead visiting American presidents in front of TV cameras. Rather this practice is an expression of hope that one may chance upon a meat feast and when that happens, not have to borrow a knife. Often than not, lesuhu is the centrepiece of that feast.

To be fair, lesuhu has not completely disappeared from sight. In some parts of Botswana, lesuhu is still eaten at funerals, weddings and other communal events. Genderwise, the physical space around the lesuhu bowl has not been fully liberated as it is mostly men who would be partaking in the meal.

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The Telegraph September 30

Digital edition of The Telegraph, September 30, 2020.