The Chef: Xoliswa Ndoyiya

19 September 2011 - 22:21 By Hilary Biller

Xoliswa Ndoyiya has cooked for Nelson Mandela and his family for close on two decades. On the eve of the launch of her first cookbook, Hilary Biller speaks to her

Preparing meals for the Mandela family is not about cooking for an average household, is it?

In 1993, Madiba's home became home to his grandchildren, so meals are for anything between 15 and 20 people. At the weekend when the family visit, there are many more. I always prepare a selection of dishes for the main meal, including meat, chicken and fish. No meal can be without chicken as the family love chicken.

Having cooked for one of the world's most famous heroes for 19 years, what made you put your recipes into a book?

The book has been a dream come true. Whatever I cook for the Mandela family they like, so this is for them so they have the recipes they love. I dedicated the book to my children as I was not able to be there for them when they were growing up.

Of all the meals you have prepared for Madiba, which is the most memorable?

Madiba was in London and he was tired of hotel food. I got a message that he was missing home food and craving some umphokoqo (creamy mielie meal pap). I made it up, packed it with sour milk in a Tupperware, wrapped it like a present and it was taken to London on a plane.

What type of food does Madiba enjoy?

Madiba is a man of simple tastes. He is not fussy at all and enjoys everything you prepare for him. He does not enjoy oily food though, and does not eat too many sweet things. So long as the food is tasty and I serve traditional food, then it's fine for him.

How did you come to cook for Madiba?

Through my friend Gloria Nocanda (who now cooks for President Jacob Zuma). She told me that Madiba was looking for someone who could prepare traditional food. At my interview, Madiba said he knew I could cook - but could I cook Xhosa food? I said I could make ukutya kwasekhaya (home food) so I passed the test and started immediately.

Madiba recently celebrated his 93rd birthday at his home in Qunu. What did you make?

I knew I had to plan for a large crowd and there were more than 100 people at the house for the celebration. We got some help from the local community and we prepared turkey, chicken, a fish stir-fry, prawns, baked fish and boiled meat. There was a large birthday cake and I served a malva pudding and apple crumble for dessert with custard and ice cream.

In such a busy household, who does all the shopping?

I do. I shop two to three times a week and I prefer to do it myself. Sometimes when I'm busy I give a driver a list and he goes and does the shopping.

Is there any part of cooking you don't enjoy?

I don't like surprises. I love cooking for any number of people but I always want to know numbers beforehand so I can plan.

You have travelled extensively with Madiba and cooked in many kitchens. Has there been a favourite?

The kitchen in Qunu is my favourite as it is small and makes me feel I'm in the house. When Madiba was President, the first time I saw the kitchen at Mahlambandlovu in Pretoria I fell in love with it. It is so well equipped, although at times it did feel as though I was working in a hotel.

You have spent your working life preparing food for others. What would you choose if someone was to prepare a special meal for you?

People always tell me they can't cook for me but anything anyone cooks for me is delicious. I love boerewors fried with tomato and onion gravy, and my mother's special frikkadels she prepares when I go home. I always let the person know I'm enjoying their food.

If someone was to make just one recipe in the book, what would you recommend they make?

My sweet chicken baked in spicy chutney and mayonnaise. The family call it Sis' Xoli's sweet chicken. In fact, everyone demands it. And my oxtail. Everyone goes mad when I make it and asks for my recipe. They say they can't make it the way I do and that I'm hiding something. There's no secret, I just make it with these hands.

You've cooked for many famous people in your time. Tell us about some of them.

Oprah Winfrey loves my thinly sliced potatoes layered with cream and always asks for them when she visits. Bill Clinton enjoyed my sweet chicken and my oxtail and even came into the kitchen afterwards to thank me. Michael Jackson thanked me by giving me a beautiful silver tray.

What lies in store for you?

I hope one day to have a small hotel or guesthouse in Queenstown and be close to my children and give them the quality time they never had. I'm just an ordinary person and glad and happy I've contributed to the son of the soil. I feel I've played my part, but then that is something anyone would do or want to do for this great man.

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