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160 years of indentured labour: the kitchen culture

A display of an indentured labourer’s kitchen in the early days of Indian people in South Africa. This is an exhibit by the 1860 Heritage Centre curated by Selvan Naidoo in Durban. Picture: Jehran Daniel Naidoo/African News Agency (ANA)

A display of an indentured labourer’s kitchen in the early days of Indian people in South Africa. This is an exhibit by the 1860 Heritage Centre curated by Selvan Naidoo in Durban. Picture: Jehran Daniel Naidoo/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 18, 2020

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DURBAN – The importance of a tidy and efficient kitchen in an Indian home cannot be put into words.

To the Indian householder, the kitchen is a reflection of their personality, as well as their virtues.

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It always has to be clean, even when you are using it, and the sink always has to be dry, even though water goes in it.

In effect, the kitchen is a place of worship to the Indian householder.

This “kitchen culture” is, without a doubt, derived from the religious practices or dharma, which the Indian householder has undertaken since the dawn of time.

These practices have translated into a vast cooking knowledge that has given the world hundreds of delectable meals.

After the arrival of the indentured labourers in South Africa, these kitchens were often found in homes along the KwaZulu-Natal coastline.

Approximately 200 000 Indians were shipped to the Natal colony over the course of five decades.

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But what made the Indian kitchen so fluid in the early days of indentured labourers was its simplicity, its ease and yet, somehow, its elegance. Everything flowed meticulously despite the owners being overwhelmed by poverty.

A typical example a kitchen inside the home of an indentured labourer. This is an exhibit by the 1860 Heritage Centre in Durban, curated by Selvan Naidoo. Picture: Jehran Daniel Naidoo/African News Agency (ANA)

The British Empire and the East India Trading Company had an uncanny ability to view humans as chattel. But despite the horrific conditions the first group of Indians in South Africa had to endure, they managed to rise up above their adversity and whip up wholesome meals for the entire family (which was on average around 12 members).

These were often curries made from herbs found along river banks or other vegetables they would gather. Some of these curries, like the one made with the watercress plant, are still eaten today.

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A prime example of this is a watercress and scrambled egg curry. While it may sound like an odd combination, this is a truly mouth-watering dish.

Bananas were also plentiful in the Natal colony, which brought about several creative recipes, ranging from curries to deep-fried snacks.

Stoves are a relatively modern feature in the Indian kitchen. Since the arrival of the indentured labourer, a home-made stove was the go-to option for cooking.

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A stove inside the kitchen of an indentured labourer was often made up of bricks and a cast-iron pot. This is an exhibit by the 1860 Heritage Centre curated by Selvan Naidoo in the Durban CBD. Picture: Jehran Daniel Naidoo/African News Agency (ANA)

An old-school wok-looking pot upon a bed of bricks did the trick. This was heated up by a fire using wood that had been gathered.

Kitchen utensils were scarce in the early days of indentured labourers, so people had to make do with what they had, which, to no surprise, turned out to be all they needed.

There were no cutting boards, no granite tops and no sculleries to rinse off freshly cut vegetables.

Some of the basic utensils found in the home of an indentured labourer. This is an exhibit by the 1860 Heritage Centre curated by Selvan Naidoo in Durban. Picture: Jehran Daniel Naidoo/African News Agency (ANA)

Some of the basic utensils found in the home of an indentured labourer. This is an exhibit by the 1860 Heritage Centre curated by Selvan Naidoo in Durban. Picture: Jehran Daniel Naidoo/African News Agency (ANA)

Every so often, at the head of this poorly constructed yet soulful kitchen, was the woman of the house.

Attired in her traditional sari, an indentured woman would start off her day in the kitchen as early as possible and end it after every member of the household had been properly fed.

If there was anything left over, the woman of the house would partake. This was done out of respect for her family and her husband.

The men typically spent their days doing whatever they could to earn a living, which in the early days consisted of working the sugar cane fields or fishing along the Natal coastline.

If you would like to see the epitomé of an authentic Indian kitchen, please have a look at Village Cookings, a Facebook channel which features a native Indian woman and her expert hands in the kitchen.

You would often find large glass or ceramic jars in the kitchen.

These were used to store pickles, spices and sometimes to hide money from the men.

Ceramic jars were often kept in the kitchen to store pickles. This is an exhibit by the 1860 Heritage Centre curated by Selvan Naidoo in Durban. Picture: Jehran Daniel Naidoo/African News Agency (ANA)

Over the years, however, this tradition has slowly dissipated as men grew into more domesticated roles within the Indian household.

Now, 160 years later, we find Indian men at the head of some kitchens, spending their days cooking for the kids while the woman of the house brings home the bread.

African News Agency (ANA)

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