Calabash / Iselwa – Everything You Need To Know And More!



It is reassurance to the young and the old, that there will be food, always, in this house. Cats and dogs swear by it, and claim its fed them well till now” The Calabash by Abner Nyamende.

As I was doing my research on the topic I came across the poem cited above,  about the calabash,  I just love how its significance and functionality in the household are depicted.  Back in the day, it played a big role,  that of ensuring visitors had something to drink and that families had sour milk/amasi for meal times.

Calabashes were and are still used to transform fresh milk into sour milk.  This is done mostly by the Xhosa people in the Eastern Cape.  Once again I had never tasted sour milk from a calabash before and as I was chatting with some elders they kept on emphasizing how good it is and how different it is from the retail version.  That got me so curious I made it my own personal mission to look for and buy a calabash.

Looking for one almost became “mission impossible” then suddenly one summer day as I was walking down the streets of my hometown Queenstown, I saw a small shop at the back corner of a Chinese grocery store.  As I started chatting to the owner she was amazed and asked: “My child, what are you going to do with iselwa?” “Youngsters nowadays don’t bother with such”.  That is the sad truth, but then again youngsters are used to convenience,  my mom calls it a generation of here and now.

Anyways, I ended up buying two calabashes, one for me and another one for my mother.  You should have seen the excitement on my face when I got my calabash….I was like a child on Christmas day!  Upon my return to the city, I put fresh unpasteurized milk in my brand spanking new calabash, kept on monitoring the progress on a daily basis.  My mom did the same and we kept on communicating over the phone describing the progress.

I now understand the excitement, enthusiasm and love expressed by the elders I had chats with regarding the sour milk from a calabash.  It is rich, thick and just plain delicious.  I must say this is the best sour milk I’ve ever tasted.  If you happen to find a calabash I suggest you try souring your own milk,  it beats the retail version by far!


A Calabash


Recipe for souring milk in a calabash

(Adapted from Hunger for freedom)

You need:

2L ml fresh unpasteurised milk, depending on the size of your calabash

  1. Transfer the milk to the calabash.
  2. Ensure the stopper is not in too tight as the fermentation process will release gas, which can cause the calabash to burst.
  3. Leave the milk in the calabash for 5 – 10 days.  (I did not separate the whey and the curd instead I mixed them together)
  4. The resulting sour milk is thick, creamy and very sour.  Adjust the sourness by diluting with fresh milk before eating.
  5. Serve it with Umphokoqo or Umphothulo

Thuli’s Tips:

  1. Iselwa breaks easily, therefore, it should be handled with care.
  2. To clean it use your dishwashing liquid and warm water and leave it to dry.
  3. Its gets mouldy therefore it should be kept in a dry place (mine is displayed on my tv stand hehe I love the fact that my visitors keep on asking what it is….I’m a proud owner!!!)

About Author


Thuli Gogela is a Food Technologist with 8 years of experience developing products in food manufacturing. She is dedicated to discovering wholesome traditional dishes and recipes with a distinctive taste from different parts of the African continent. Thuli is well known for her food blog, Mzansi Style Cuisine which was established in 2010. She saw a gap in the traditional food market that people were hungry for. From there, it didn’t take long to build her brand. In 2013, she started writing a recipe column for the Cape Times for and has collaborated with some of the biggest brands in South Africa namely, Knorr, Nedeburg Wines, First Choice and Spekko rice. Not only does Thuli feature traditional African dishes, she’s also open to developing recipes, food consultations and brand collaborations.

Comments ( 3 )

  • Anel

    Hi, Thuli. I never developed a taste for sour milk, but my grandfather – when he bought milk from the store – just always put one container of milk on top of the fridge, in stead of inside (it’s not inside, it’s onnn the top!) anyway. He LOVED sourmilk. Just to drink. Kept it up there for day, until it had the right consistancy when shaken and only THEN would he put it in the fridge. Wonder where he learned to love it so much!!

    • Hahaha! I think Grand Pa had a calabash before and maybe it was broken:-)….People who love sour milk prefer it sour, thick and creamy. Thanks Anel for sharing your stories and experiences with us, I really appreciate it!

  • Zonke

    Hi Thuli. I come across this article as I’m looking for more information on the calabash. Iselwa or igula (in Nguni) is a treasured vessel in an African for fermenting milk into a select buttery sour milk.

    I just need to add that a smile hole is carefully drilled and burnt at the bottom edge of the calabash. This helps to drain the watery whey so that only the buttery amasi gets left. Hmmm! My mouth waters,

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