Baking for Bookworms: Sugar Beans and Rice from Meg Vandermerwe’s Zebra Crossing


Every once in a while, you’ll read a book and be extremely grateful for the things you have. Meg Vandermerwe’s book is a heartbreaking look at what it means to be poor in South Africa, as well as what it means to be an outcast in your own hometown.

The protagonist is an albino, and therefore unwelcome in many places due to superstition. When she travels with her family to the big city, they live in extreme poverty, working hard to make ends meet. There’s a lot of talk about what food means in terms of survival versus abundance, subsistence versus plenty. Food is nostalgic, taking the characters back to when they were well cared for and happy. It’s associated with life and health and plenty.

“The others would be home soon. My pot of boiled sugar beans is ready on the stove. Beans and rice. One of David’s favourites. Of course, he loves meat best. I wish I could afford to buy him meat. Even chicken thighs. I would cook them with a little paprika and spice. I love the color of paprika. It is a passionate, joyful color.”                                                                                               61

Though you could easily add meat to this dish, I didn’t, in recognition that many people can afford nothing more for their families than beans and rice, and that it is a nourishing, complete meal in its own right.


recipe adapted from Food Like Amma Used to Make It

Sugar Beans and Rice

  • 2 cups dried beans sugar beans (also called barlotti beans if you can find them, but you can also use red kidney, pink, or pinto)
  • 1 onion, chopped finely
  • 1 can diced tomatoes
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon chili powder (more or less to taste)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 potatoes, in medium cubes
  • 1 red pepper, diced

Soak your dried beans over night, rinsing thoroughly before hand and picking through to remove any weird ones.

Cook your beans the next day in plenty of water until semi-soft (about 1-2 hours) over medium heat.

Heat your oil in a pan. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft. Add spices and cook until fragrant (about 1-2 minutes).

Add in your tomatoes and about 1/2 cup of water (you can add more if you’d like a thinner consistency). Simmer for ten minutes until it develops a chutney-like consistency.

Add your potatoes and cook for another ten minutes. Add the red pepper and the beans and simmer (covered) for 20 minutes or a bit longer, until the potatoes are cooked.

Serve with rice.

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