There can be no debate about why Setswana dish sits at the apex of the traditional food chain and, as she tucks into a rainbow-coloured plate of food at Tlotlo Hotel and Conference Centre, a South African delegate attending a Southern African Trade Union Coordinating Council seminar provides a little-known detail that can be distilled into high-value business intelligence.
“Botswana’s seswaa is much more delicious than ours. People here really know how to prepare it,” the delegate – a South African Motswana – says to a fellow South African, a Zulu woman whose appetite has also been inflamed by the brownish mound of pounded beef she is eating for the first time.
What is so special about seswaa that makes it so extraordinarily appealing even to those eating it for the first time or, as in the case of a former temporary teacher in Mahalapye, that she would sacrifice the future of children entrusted to her care?
The latter relates to the writer’s own childhood experience at Tamocha Primary School.
To better manage the large herd of stray cattle that it had to look after, the Central District Council would occasionally kill off part of the herd and distribute the meat around primary schools under its jurisdiction. The meat was cooked on Fridays and pounded into seswaa. Officially this food was meant for students but for purposes of enjoying this traditional delicacy, teachers also became students.
In the morning, the teacher in question would bring a large lidded enamel dish into which she would heap spoonfuls of seswaa. She would then have the dish smuggled out of the school premises (during class time, no less) to her house which was on the other side of the village. This military-like operation was undertaken by two male students whose roles evolved with the progress of the journey.
At the start, one acted as a reconnaissance officer, walking a few steps ahead of the contraband carrier to literally clear the way. Stealthily craning his neck from behind the corners of classrooms along the escape route, the former scanned the surroundings for the principal and other authority figures, all the while maintaining constant whispered communication with his accomplice.
Once out in neutral territory, the students took turns carrying the dish while, back at the school, the teacher would be beating the hell out of fellow classmates who failed to solve difficult Mathematics problems. When you take this into account, being a seswaacourier was, in one very important respect, a pretty sweet gig.
Pilfering out of the dish was out because part of the reason two students were deployed on this mission was to have them keep an eye on each other. The seswaacouriers had to be back at school at a given time and risked incurring the teacher’s wrath if they delayed. Yes, there used to be a time when there was no gap between what one learned in school and what the workplace required because back then, government schools imparted such useful vocational skills as smuggling, spying, transport management, time management and team work.
Over the years, seswaa preparation has been reduced to knowable culinary science. McJon Mosenene, a chef with special inclination to traditional African cooking, says that other than salt, no condiments are added to this delicacy and that it just has to be boiled in water. The person preparing it must have special skill to turn out a dish similar to the one that South Africans rhapsodise about.
Mosenene explains that the pounded meat has to reach a certain thread stage and that moistening the meat (which is done with the meat’s own soup) has to be done to such consistency that the seswaa is a perfect balance between dry and soggy.
“The meat itself has to be cooked to the right consistency,” says Mosenene, who also writes a food column for two newspapers.
Keineetse Sebele, a Bakwena royal family member who served a stint as deputy to Kgosi Kgari Sechele, says that when the main kgotla in Molepolole hosts special occasions, the task of preparing this dish falls to an elite corps of select seswaa chefs who have perfected this particular culinary skill over decades. This is scarce-skill personnel you would definitely need when you offer a special menu item called “Botswana seswaa” at a restaurant in downtown Johannesburg.