Why the time is right for black South Africans to reclaim their food heritage
Ishay Govender-Ypma speaks to the chefs leading the charge to embrace indigenous ingredients and get SA cuisine on more restaurant menus
The energy in the conference theatre shifts the instant Carlo Petrini walks in. Women ululate, the crowd cheers, lifting to its feet.
The Italian founder and president of Slow Food International has arrived at the closing meeting of African and Middle Eastern delegates, after a gruelling week-long Terra Madre, held every second year in Turin, Piedmont (the region where the movement was born).
Having mobilised Slow Food since 1986, based on its motto of "good, clean and fair" food, Petrini speaks directly to the heart of his congregation.
The antithesis to the stereotypical white saviour of yore, here, amongst the growers, the fisher-folk, youth activists and cooks from the region, he is held in the highest regard.
Slow Food has funded the trips of nearly 2,000 delegates to northern Italy to participate in Terra Madre, where women, indigenous people and migrants are given a special podium.
Amongst his rallying calls Petrini makes one appeal that the South African members of the Slow Food Cook's Alliance (formerly the Chef's Alliance) find heartening, as it aligns with our earlier presentations to member states.
Petrini says: "I would love to see the continued development of African cuisine. I want African chefs to be proud of their food. And when we visit Accra or Nairobi, say, at the Hilton, we don't want European food. You must serve food from your country." He's met with thunderous applause.
Later, an Algerian chef shares how she motivated to train 120 young chefs and placed them across major local hotels so that authentic versions of traditional foods are now served in addition to international fare.
The drive to reclaim pride in indigenous cuisine and give it visibility at major hotels and restaurants isn't a new conversation, but for South and Southern Africans, there remains much work to do.
It's crucial to remember that the South African kitchen has been, as historian Gabeba Baderoon says in Regarding Muslims - From Slavery to Post Apartheid: "a site of harrowing intimacy, power, knowledge and invisible ideological contest, with profound cultural effects".
In Cooking from Cape To Cairo (first published 1999) veteran food writer Dorah Sithole made a plea for the recognition and appreciation of indigenous food.
If anything is mentioned about South African cuisine, it is usually only about Afrikaans or Cape Malay foodVeteran food writer Dorah Sithole
"If anything is mentioned about South African cuisine, it is usually only about Afrikaans or Cape Malay food," she wrote, adding that North, East and West African cuisines have made a powerful impact around the world.
"Through the pages of this book, Southern Africa will at last make its contribution to international cuisine."
But how much has changed in the 19 years since Sithole penned these words? There's a discouraging dissonance between the childhood foods we grew up with and crave, and their availability on restaurant menus.
And while everyone's grandma makes it best, let us consider the fact that Mexicans frequently consume Mexican food (and not just streetside tacos) outside the home too.
Johannesburg-based chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu, whose cookbook Through the Eyes of an African Chef took top honours at the Gourmand World Cookbook awards this year, says: "My work is about reclaiming our food, because for the longest time it was said that nobody knows what South African indigenous food is, which isn't true. Our food culture was wiped out long before apartheid, during colonisation. We weren't allowed to have a food history."
She adds that her research is aimed at correcting this. Working on “culinary experiences” Mqwebu provides diners with a background on our ingredients, some long lost or forgotten.
For the South African dining scene to change to accurately reflect our demographics, she says: "It starts with the training of our chefs on indigenous food and crops. Then we can develop recipes that reflect an African aesthetic."
I've previously written how dining trends are curtailed by socioeconomic factors - statistics show that on average white South African households earn incomes 4.5 times higher than black-headed households. This sets the tone for dining out beyond a fast-food level and precludes the appearance of African foods.
Consequently, black chefs (who would likely possess a wealth of traditional food knowledge), rarely hold top positions at mid- to high-end restaurants. Investors and funding for their projects are rare.
Épicure by Belgian-Burundian chef Coco Reinarhz, a modern restaurant in Sandton covering swathes of the continent, is a welcome addition. Pop-ups and supper clubs serving fusion food from the continent have been doing the legwork for years.
For Hartbeespoort-based dietician Mpho Tshukudu, author of Eat Ting, a book on healthy eating based on Southern African indigenous ingredients, having agency over indigenous foodways is "an important part of political and economic change".
When I studied dietetics, we only learnt about Western foods. Currently there are no textbooks on our local ingredientsMpho Tshukudu, author of 'Eat Ting'
Tshukudu, who is compiling an encyclopaedia of local indigenous ingredients, says: "When I studied dietetics, we only learnt about Western foods. Currently there are no textbooks on our local ingredients."
Former dental technician and MasterChef SA contestant, chef Abigail Mbalo, took a leap of faith and opened a restaurant in Khayelitsha where she grew up. Converting a typical "four-roomed" house, Mbalo opened a restaurant, 4-Roomed eKasi Culture in 2016 that pairs traditional food like umqa (pap) with butternut, nutmeg and truffle oil, and collaborates with local businesses and tourism agencies.
"Many have disassociated themselves from our South African cuisine, calling it 'peasant food'. I had the privilege of cooking township-inspired cuisine in Switzerland recently," she adds.
With the upcoming release of Dijo, Soweto-born chef Lesego Semenya's first cookbook on township dishes, the milieu seems ripe for appreciation of African heritage. Certainly, if the pre-release support on the Twitter streams of Semenya and entrepreneur and TV chef, Mogau Seshoene of The Lazy Makoti (whose book by the same name was just released), are anything to go by.
I return to Mbalo's words: "Not only will reclaiming our heritage bring a dignified status to African cuisine, it will bring much-needed knowledge associated with our foods' health benefits. Our people knew exactly how and when to serve which produce."
Perhaps this is the moment to interrogate how we define the South African culinary canon as we question the glaring absence of indigenous cookery.
And maybe it's time for black chefs to invite their mothers and aunties into their kitchens, to record this accumulated traditional knowledge, before it's too late.