It seems rather far-fetched but in a culturally authentic Setswana household, a plate of food tells you an awful lot about botho – Botswana’s fifth national principle.
A Gaborone man recounts an altercation that nearly became physical because he had neglected to smooth down a chunk of starch on the plate of his new housemate’s supper. Arriving back home from a Sunday drinking spree and lurching into the kitchen, the housemate lifted the plate covering his supper only to find that his pap resembled a heap of rubbish on a construction site.
“That guy went berserk. He was advancing menacingly, poking me in the chest with his finger, all the while saying that ke a mo tlwaela [I am getting too familiar with him],” the man remembers.
At first, he thought that the housemate wanted to pick a fight but later when tempers had cooled down, got to learn an important lesson on Setswana culture: food plating (the arrangement of food on a plate) matters enormously and is one of the most important aspects of botho.
An improperly-presented plate of food is not always going to provoke physical violence but some people, especially the elderly, would choose not to eat such food how ever hungry they may be. Others would go a step further and assess the quality of the presenter’s character on the basis of their non-adherence to this culinary art and behaviour standard.
It really does not take much to smoothe a portion of mabele or pap on a plate. Depending on its thickness you can either use a tablespoon to gently tamp down the starch or flip it twice or thrice with the aid of the plate. That way no housemate returning home from a weekend of binge drinking would poke you in the chest and threaten to beat you up.
In a month or so, the ‘cultural day’ season gets underway and it will be heartrending to watch how events that supposedly celebrate the best of Setswana culture overlook food plating. There is not one cultural day event that offers traditional food plating education and that is not surprising.
Officially, these shindigs are physical evidence of nostalgic ache for good old Setswana food culture that has ridden off into the sunset. In reality though, they are just another capitalist strategy of making money. In broad agreement with the latter assertion, Dr. Alinah Segobye told an Intangible Cultural Heritage workshop held in Gaborone last year that “there is nothing cultural about some of the cultural villages” that have mushroomed all over the country.
Just how should a plate of food look like? Simple: like a work of art. Food plating is, in a literal sense, a culinary art that incorporates all the relevant architectural elements like mass, space, form, volume and structure.
Assuming one is fully-abled, the sensory experience of eating begins not with the mouth but with the eyes. Actually, the mouth comes third in the process – after the nose. Therefore, in order that food is favourably anticipated, it has to make good visual impact.
The main elements of plating are the plate, the food and the arrangement. The cultural value (botho in this particular case) is reflected by the amount and quality of the aesthetic engineering that goes into plate design.
In addition to starch, which has not been smoothened down, food that is piled high on a plate conveys a certain lack of respect for the intended recipient.
It is thus important that food should be of agreeable height and have perfect symmetric design. Generally, the presentation should begin low at the front of the plate and grow taller at the rear, leaving a symmetric crescent space for veggies, proteins and soup.
There are instances when the ‘damming’ of the soup is influenced by how much of it is available for people at a particular meal. When there isn’t enough soup to go round, it helps to tamp down harder on the starch at the edge of the soup dam to close crevices that could otherwise allow the soup to seep underneath and get soaked up.
The steel bowl with handles and lid (‘ntichi’), long a permanent fixture in Botswana homes, is being replaced by larger china plates as society becomes more affluent and meal portions more plentiful. Large plates make it possible to leave enough space between the portions and obviates need to deconstruct food before eating it.
Professional food stylists recommend that when one is working with a large plate, they should ‘clock it’ ÔÇô arrange the food according to the face of a clock: vegetables at 10, starch at 2 and proteins at 6.
Legislating on food plating for children seems a bridge too far for parliament to get to but in the current meeting, MPs have debated a bill that seeks to promote “the physical, emotional, intellectual and social development and well-being of children.” One of the ways that noble goal can be attained is to treat children with respect because in as far as food plating for them goes, they get very little respect.
In one too many households and institutions like schools and hospitals not much care, if any, goes into arranging food for vulnerable groups of people such as children (especially step and foster children as well as those of servants) servants, the elderly and those with disability. The practice is to plonk down portions on a plate, paying little attention to the aesthetics of the food structure and then tossing the plate to them.
As often happens, this attitude would be replicated in other aspects of interaction, thereby undermining botho.
If architectural designs ever deceive clients, the same deception occurs in food plating. A good example is when veggies are spread too thin to give an appearance of being plentiful or when salty accompaniments to food are crammed into a small space to create the same illusion. Food plating deception can also come in the form of covering an ugly chip in a plate with a pile of starch. Botho this is not.