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(Looking at the Science on Raw vs. Cooked Foods--continued, Part 3G)

The !Kung San's main plant foods

Plentiful, but life would be difficult if all-raw consumption were attempted. We shall see that the !Kung's foods are indeed plentiful and nutritious, but that without processing (such as roasting to facilitate mongongo nut cracking, burying wild oranges, roasting some roots), food would be more monotonous, less palatable, and certainly life more difficult in general. The material below has been condensed and paraphrased from Lee [1979].

The Mongongo

Description: The mongongo is a highly nutritious fruit and nut that constitutes the main staple in the diet of the !Kung Bushmen. Indeed, nuts represent over 1/3 of their total calories, and are available almost all year long. The fruit of the mongongo is composed of five layers:

  1. The fruit skin, which is not consumed: it is removed and discarded.

  2. The green or red fruit flesh, which has a dry and spongy texture. The taste of the fruit flesh is similar to a date, although it is not as sweet as the date varieties that are the standard in international commerce.

  3. The outer shell of the nut, which is very hard and difficult to crack. (The fact that the nut is so difficult to crack has prevented the commercial cultivation of the mongongo.)

  4. A thin inner shell (1 mm, or 0.04 inch).

  5. The nut kernel, which looks like a small hazelnut (except that it is skinless), and breaks easily into halves. The taste is similar to that of cashews or almonds that have been dry-roasted. With long roasting, the nut develops a flavor similar to an aged cheese.

Consumption: Under normal climatic conditions, the mongongo season begins when the fruit first ripens and falls to the ground in April. After the fruit flesh has been consumed, the nuts are roasted, cracked, and eaten. By August, and lasting until approximately November, the fruit flesh has dried, and has been partially eaten by insects (the nut kernel is still okay at this point). Despite the insect predation, some (dried) fruits are edible after soaking and cooking; the insect-damaged fruits are roasted to burn off the damaged fruit flesh, and the nuts are cracked. From November to March, the fruit flesh is gone--eaten by insects--and only clean nuts are available.

The flesh of the mongongo fruit was eaten whole and raw in the past, but now it is cooked in an iron cooking pot for 20 minutes.

The nuts are roasted about 5 minutes in a mixture of coals and a small pile of dry, loose sand; then they are cracked. They can be eaten whole, or pounded in a mortar, or mixed with a variety of vegetable or animal foods.

The mongongo nut is an excellent source of protein (28% by weight) and energy (654 calories per 100 grams), as well as magnesium.


Description: The seedpod of a very large tree. The seedpods are 10-15 cm long, 80-200 gm in weight, and have a dry pulp with 20-30 seeds. The composition of pods (by weight) is: 22% pulp, 31% seeds, 47% waste. The pods are in season in the period May-September.

Consumption: In immature pods, the seeds and pulp are eaten together. With mature pods, the pulp is pounded to remove the seeds; after removing the seeds, the dried pod pulp is pounded to produce a flour. The flour is then used to make pudding or drinks. The fruit has a pleasant flavor but is acidic. The seeds are roasted and consumed.

The baobab (nut and fruit) contains 14% protein (by weight), and is an excellent source of magnesium, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, thiamine, and vitamin C (213 mg per 100 grams of pulp).

Vegetable ivory palm (!Hani)

Description: The spherical seed (5 cm in diameter) of a palm tree; consists of four layers: (1) An outer skin (inedible); (2) edible fruit pulp (3-5 mm); (3) nutshell (inedible); (4) an extremely hard nut approximately 15 mm in diameter. Early in the season, in June, about 33% of the total weight consists of the fruit pulp. Later in the season (October), the seeds dry out and the fruit pulp proportion falls to 25%.

Consumption: The skin is peeled off and the fruit is pounded to remove it from the nutshell. The fruit pulp may be eaten raw, as-is, or ground into a coarse meal. It is always eaten raw, unsalted, and never mixed with water. It may be eaten with baobab fruit (flour). The flavor of the fruit pulp is similar to dates.

A dwarf form of the vegetable ivory palm exists, although it may actually be a different palm species. The dwarf form yields a large, edible palm heart. The palm heart is roasted in a pit and eaten.

Marula nut

Description: Season: March-October. The oval seed, about 2.5 cm long, consists of a skin, a juicy pulp, and a hard shell enclosing a small kernel. The juicy pulp has a wonderful flavor; however, the nutmeat is the most important part of the food.

Consumption: The taste of the nut is superior to that of the mongongo, but is much smaller, and the nutmeats are extracted with difficulty using a long thorn. The nuts are often eaten as-is, but they can be used as a substitute for mongongo nuts in recipes.

Wild orange

Description: 10 cm diameter, 438 gm average weight. Lee [1979, p. 482] describes it as follows:

The fruit looks superficially like a large Sunkist orange about 10 cm in diameter. But the rich orange-colored rind is hard and woody, and the pulp inside is quite unlike an orange, consisting of 30 lozenge-shaped pips surrounded by a sticky brown pulp.

The fruits are in season from September-December. However, the common custom is to collect unripe fruits by knocking them down with sticks or snagging them with a probe. The unripe fruits are then buried at a depth of 0.5 meters in the ground, where they remain for approximately one month. Burying the fruit speeds up ripening and protects the fruit from insect attack. The wild oranges are popular with other local tribes, and are a trade commodity.

Consumption: The fruit is cut with a knife and the pulp eaten out-of-hand or with a spoon. The fruit is sweet and has a nice fragrance. The seeds are discarded; only the pulp is consumed.

There is another form of the wild orange; it is not buried but roasted. When tree-ripened, it can be eaten in the raw state.

The !Kung understand that unripe wild oranges are unsuitable as food. Lee [1979, p. 482] reports:

The !Kung older people caution the children to never eat either species [of wild orange] unripe, saying that doing so will make them vomit.

Sour plum

Description: The oval fruit, about 2 cm long, consists of a soft, juicy, astringent-tasting skin, a layer of acidic orange pulp, and a seed (inedible). The fruits are collected in season (December-February) directly from the bushes; however, fruits that have fallen on the ground are neglected.

Consumption: The fruits are eaten raw, peeled and/or unpeeled. They may be crushed and eaten as pulp. The seeds are roasted and used for medicinal purposes. Despite the high acidity of the fruit, it is eaten alone and not mixed with other (less acidic) fruits.

Berries (Grewia species)

Description: There are two major species: Morethlwa and Mokomphata. Their size is comparable to that of a pea, and they consist of a thin, edible skin; an edible orange pulp; and a tiny, inedible seed.

Consumption: If ripe and fresh, they are eaten raw as-is. Later in the season, after they have dried and become stringy, they are pounded with water in the mortar, and the seeds removed. The pulp may then be eaten as a pudding, or a drink may be made from the mixture. The "grewias" are always eaten raw and alone.

There can be side-effects to eating these berries. Lee [1979, p. 484] reports:

The !Kung consume large quantities of the berries, including the pits. The latter are passed intact through the digestive system and expelled in massive wads in the feces. One of the hazards of eating Grewia in large quantities is the danger of fecal impaction. According to the !Kung, people have died from this condition though we never observed such a case in our studies.

Wild mango

One of the best-tasting of the !Kung plant foods. The fruit is about the size of a cherry (~3 cm). It consists of an inedible rind, an edible orange stringy pulp similar in taste and appearance to the mango, and a hard, inedible seed. The peel is discarded and the pulp is eaten from the seed. The fruit is eaten alone and never mixed with other foods.

/Tan root

The root is shaped like a yam, with a thick skin and fibrous white flesh. The roots lie 25 to 60 cm below ground, and usually weigh 1 to 2 kg, although large roots may weigh as much as 10 kg. The roots are extracted using digging sticks, and it is a very strenuous process that may take 20+ minutes for a large root. (Some of the soils in the area the !Kung inhabit are compacted, making digging very difficult.)

The root is always eaten roasted, never raw. It can be eaten alone (it is delicious) or mixed with other foods. The !Kung report that the root can cause diarrhea or stomachache if eaten raw.

!Xwa water root

It is an important source of water. One may eat the pulp, or squeeze the liquid out to eliminate the bulk. However, the technique of squeezing !xwa to get water is only 63% efficient. The !xwa has a sweet, pleasant flavor. !Xwa is a starchy food and may be eaten with mongongo nuts. Its juice is used as a water source when water is scarce.

Sha root

A popular food. It is edible raw, but is usually eaten cooked (roasted). The entire root is eaten. It has an excellent flavor and can be eaten by itself, but is usually mixed with other foods.

Tsin bean

Lee [1979, p. 487] reports that, "The tsin bean is the second most important food of the !Kung in the southern part of the Dobe area and in Nyae Nyae." The seedpod of a vine, it has an inedible shell but contains edible seeds. The tuber of this plant, known as "n//n," is also edible. Immature beans are collected in January, and the beans are peeled and roasted. After April, the beans are mature and the shells hard. Beans are often roasted in-shell by burying batches in hot ashes. The beans are cracked and eaten whole; they are said to have a good flavor. The shelled beans might be ground up and water added to produce a soup or pudding.

Tsama melon

Grows abundantly in the central and southern Kalahari desert. They are a major food and a water source. The melons are round, pale green or yellow in color, and weigh around 1 kg. They are easy to find and collect. The seeds are edible and are eaten roasted. The melon flesh is white, hard, and is more bitter than the domesticated watermelon. A large melon might be sweet in the center, although the degree of sweetness depends on the pollination parent.

A related melon found in the Kalahari is the "bitter" melon, dcha, which is always cooked to improve its taste.


(Were Eskimos the Only Raw-Food Culture? / Hunter-Gatherer Health)

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GO TO PART 1 - Is Cooked Food "Toxic"?

GO TO PART 2 - Does Cooked Food Contain Less Nutrition?

GO TO PART 3 - Discussion: 100% Raw vs. Predominantly Raw

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