While the primary purpose of food is singular – nourishment, serving as the fuel that powers cells and systems for optimal function, it goes beyond mere sustenance.
Across the globe, countless restaurants showcase the cuisines of countries like China, India, France, Thailand, Italy, and Mexico, providing patrons with a culinary journey that transports them beyond borders. This captivating aspect has served as the starting point for Chef Ednah Rosen’s innovative culinary creations, as seen in her cookbook series: Taste of Botswana.
Much like culinary icons Julia Child or Nigella Lawson, Ednah Rosen’s name is synonymous with the art of cooking. With over two decades of experience in cooking and hosting internationally, her focus as a practitioner extends beyond creating tastefully entertaining food to contributing to people’s well-being. In the context of the undeniable global popularity of Alexander McCall Smith’s book series, The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, encountering a person from Botswana often sparks curiosity, if not humor. Rosen’s journey to better represent Botswana was initiated by her experiences in Sweden, where people’s questions about the country and its cuisine mentioned in McCall Smith’s books made her reassess her perspective. “People would always ask me things about the country and wonder what the foods mentioned in McCall Smith’s books are, and I didn’t always feel I could answer confidently,” says Rosen. She adds, “I had to change the way I viewed Botswana and see it like a visitor. I had to create a kind of curiosity about what I’ve grown up with.” This desire for deeper knowledge led her onto an anthropological literary path, recognizing that falling into routine tends to limit the ways people imagine and cook. This realization held true for Botswana.
“Our food is very humble; we have a lot of earthy colours and we don’t incorporate too much colour” offers Rosen, not as commentary on any lack of inspiration, but rather in acknowledgement that while colour entertains the eyes, its absence isn’t a mark for lack of flavour. With the greatly successful traditional food street vendor sector across the country, Rosen grasped that one of the ways she could better understand this cuisine across time would be to engage with the cooks. “I wanted to find out the various recipes and cooking styles that different people use while working with the same ingredients,” she says, echoing her statement in her introductory author’s note on the “wisdom in Botswana that goes deep and is reflected in our traditional cuisine (as) it allows the coexistence of our old ways and modern living”.
The publication – the second instalment in the series – is Rosen’s way of taking readers on a culinary and cultural journey through Botswana. Speaking of his famed character in the book’s foreword, McCall Smith muses that “I feel that the remarkable woman, solver of mysteries and helper of those in need of assistance, would very much enjoy this book”, adding, “I think I can say with complete confidence that Precious Ramotswe would recommend each and every one of these recipes that Ednah Rosen has been so kind as to make available to the world.”
While the global book publishing revenue was valued at USD 122 billion in 2022, according to Statista, Rosen is quick to remind that the cookbook is a more difficult publication to produce and have supported. As a self-published author, she is frank about the fact that “there are many fiction writers but not as many of us in this genre” so people often fail to understand her products. This has, however, encouragingly led to her actively trying to build networks of her peers locally while changing people’s mindsets about ways in which Setswana cuisine can in fact triumph. A harsh reality is that even though both editions of ‘Taste of Botswana’ have garnered international acclaim, winning at the prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in 2018 and 2023, a challenge Rosen laments is the cost of book production locally and the unwillingness of financial institutions to view some forms of publishing as viable investments.
“Getting an award is inspiring and elevating; it tells me that I am doing something right” beams the Mahalapye native, adding that while she is in awe of her fellow nominees, the choice to make the book about more than just recipes and centring the storytelling tied to food and Setswana culture has been what set it apart. Paging through the weighty and immaculately formatted book, one is captivated by the imagery – spanning from vignettes of daily life to portraits and mouth-watering dishes – as it complements the anecdotes and educational titbits. The results is a book for people of all ages and levels of experience and further serves as an extension of Rosen’s food-driven advocacy.
Throughout the book, you’ll learn things about traditional farming livelihoods in Botswana, all feeding into the author’s desire to raise consciousness about climate change and its impact on food security. “I am worried about the future of food. Not every Motswana goes to bed with a full stomach, and old school farming livelihoods are no longer viable – I want us to encourage adaptive farming our way”, she says, further highlighting that “people used to have mabele when they felt like it, instead of out of desperation. However, nowadays the abundance of mabele is no longer there and many of our indigenous ingredients have the same retail value as what people would consider fancy – such as rice, spaghetti and others.” Similarly, she observes that dietary changes have led to rising cases of lifestyle diseases that were otherwise previously abated by following a fibre-rich and nutritional traditional diet. These are the perceptions that Rosen seeks to awaken people to, moving for more incorporation of indigenous foods in school curricula and high-end kitchens such that they are not seen as markers of deficiency but flavours that can be toyed with while keeping their fidelity and nutrition.
This campaign is alive across the pages of the 9-chapter book. The hundreds of pages carry insights as well as sage guidance. The range of ingredients is rich yet non-exhaustive; from korong (whole wheat meal) to nchwachwa (samp and corn stew), mogodu (honeycomb tripe) to mogatla (oxtail), nyebu (fresh beans) to delele (okra), Rosen pulls from her childhood enjoying farm-to-fork style food. What follows in many cases is a symphonic orchestration of sharing understandings of what the raw materials are, and how to best handle them to prepare the dish. Staples such as matemakwane (steamed dumplings) and phaleche (corn meal) make appearances alongside their power starch peers, lebelebele (pearl millet) and mabele (sorghum). While it is often assumed that a traditional Setswana plate isn’t complete without a cut of prized, grass-fed beef, the chef offers alternatives that are suitable for vegans that still roar with colour and flavour. For signature summer days with scorching heat, or those who wish to pair their dishes with something to drink, Rosen whips up a selection of alcoholic and virgin cocktails.
As someone who has spent a fair portion of the new millennium fashioning culinary experiences, Rosen is adamant that “the future is fusion”. The thought of being conservative with modes of preparation is something she speaks clearly against, warning that “should Botswana not tap into gastronomic tourism, there will come a day when the opportunities to create from our own will have been exhausted by others.” Not to be misinterpreted, however, the chef reminds that “fusion isn’t about making Western meals with indigenous foods”, adding “just like we can make pan-African food that still holds its own, we should be cautious of ruining traditional cuisine by doing too much in the wrong direction.” Of the fascinating twists that appear in the book, the marriage of Greek and Setswana cuisine may strike up a fair amount of discourse.
Having started on this pursuit of blending teaching with archiving, Rosen reflects on the role that the Taste of Botswana series could play in the greater scheme of Botswana’s history. “Many families and cultures have ‘food bibles’ that get handed down and inherited generation after generation, these are a way of preserving their recipes and traditions” she states, “so, even if I hadn’t written the book, I still believe that every household should have one – if I could afford to, I’d give them as gifts to everyone in Botswana”. Not one to be slowed down by challenges of the present or the past, the chef shares that she is already brainstorming on another cookbook that will highlight not only the variations of the use of indigenous ingredients but also “promote different culinary styles; we can’t always cook the same things in the same way” she chimes.
It is fascinating that the responsibility of representing one’s people’s way of life becomes a driving force to ensure accuracy in every detail. Ednah Rosen exemplifies this by demonstrating that pursuing one’s passion will always guide one in the right direction. The Taste of Botswana series, akin to the cultural significance of rock paintings in Tsodilo hills or the artistry of Setampore on the four-string guitar, serves as a heritage blueprint. Someday, the pride that Botswana takes in its diverse attractions may extend to the culinary wealth the country abundantly possesses.