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Kerthu Nangombe and Klaudia Magongo spend much of their free time gathering wild plants on the farm Tandela Ridge. When asked what they do with the plants, they answered that they were nice to eat, and were called omboga in the Oshindongo language.
The scientific name of this plant is Cleome gynandra, and its common names are cat’s whiskers and, due to the long stamens protruding from its flowers, African spider flower. It is a member of the caper family and is a herbaceous annual, usually growing between half a metre and one metre tall.
The leaves and apex, including the flowerhead, are picked from the plants. They are washed and then cooked until soft, which takes one to two hours. Omboga is rather tough and bitter if eaten by itself, but it is often cooked in a 50/50 ratio with a plant called ondjulu, which helps to soften it. Ondjulu grows only in the four Owambo regions in central-northern Namibia. Another plant used to soften the omboga, is ekwakwa, Amaranthus thunbergi, which has a wider distribution.
All three these plants – omboga, ondjulu and ekwakwa – grow mainly in flat areas, especially where there have been old cattle kraals. They thrive in disturbed soil and often grow in cultivated fields of mahangu (a kind of pearl millet that is the staple food of the rural inhabitants in northern Namibia).
The growing season of omboga is from November/December, when the rains start, until March/April at the end of the rainy season. While the plant is native to tropical Africa and South-East Asia, it has been spread by man to most subtropical areas of the world.
After the omboga has been cooked, the water is drained and the residue is compressed to make hand-sized patties or cakes. When these are dried, they have a dark-green texture and are called ekaka. In dried form, ekaka can last for months. At markets the patties are offered for sale at N$3 to $N5 per patty.
Ekaka patties are prepared for eating by boiling them in water until they are soft. When cooked without adding anything else, the boiling water smells like nori (Japanese seaweed), and the ekaka tastes like regular spinach. Most people add onions, meat and spices to give it more taste. It is often eaten with mahangu or mealie-meal porridge.
According to J Chweya and N Mnzava, who studied these plants in Zimbabwe, they are high in iron and calcium and other vitamins such as A and C. Unfortunately up to 80% of their vitamin C content is lost during the cooking process. Some people react to the high iron content and end up with upset stomachs.
For people living in the bush, and city dwellers with a taste for traditional food, ekaka is a welcome addition to their nutritional needs.
Other parts of omboga are used as traditional medicine, such as the juice, which is applied to scorpion stings, and the leaves, which are used as a treatment for rheumatism.
If you happen to see ekaka for sale in a Namibian market, and especially if you’re partial to spinach, give the patties a try.
This article appeared in the April 2012 edition of FLAMINGO Magazine.