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Ditching meat planted the seed for these famed foodies' new ventures

Mokgadi Itsweng and Tamsin Snyman chat about why they've predominately swopped animal-proteins for plant-based ones, and share some of their favourite recipes

08 August 2021 - 00:01 By hilary biller
Chef Mokgadi Itsweng’s debut cookbook 'Veggielicious' will hit shelves in September.
Chef Mokgadi Itsweng’s debut cookbook 'Veggielicious' will hit shelves in September.
Image: Roelene Prinsloo

MOKGADI ITSWENG

Chef, writer, former food editor of True Love magazine and owner of Lotsha Home Foods

My carefree foodie life meant I got to taste and experience all kinds of food, and pretty much ate everything under the sun. That is, until my body started fighting me from the inside, and started having allergic reactions to fish, shellfish, pork, cow's milk, maize, preservatives and wheat. A bite of these allergens would turn me into a swollen mess covered in itchy hives.

The doctors couldn't find any plausible explanation and could only prescribe antihistamines to manage my condition. Being a pill-phobe, I looked for a more sustainable solution and turned to diet. I went on a strict cleanse and diet following Queen Afua's Heal Thyself book. This helped to heal my body and I soon stopped taking the antihistamines and the breakouts stopped.

I followed this vegan diet for about nine months. I found easy products to replace meat because I craved it, and the smell of a braai would send me on a tailspin, turning me into a "dirty vegan". This term refers to anyone who eats unhealthy vegan food - wors rolls made with vegan sausage, vegan kotas with slap chips and lashings of atchar.

Although this kind of eating was vegan, it was not sustainable as it was unhealthy and soon my health began to suffer again.

The smell of a braai would send me on a tailspin, turning me into a 'dirty vegan'. This term refers to anyone who eats unhealthy vegan food
Chef Mokgadi Itsweng

I then was diagnosed with pre-hypertension, which meant that I had to cut out processed food, sugar, salt etcetera and struggled with this type of vegetarian lifestyle and soon found myself going back to eating steak and chops, because I felt deprived and punished. This was not sustainable as every so often, my body would reject the meat and the allergies would return. I had to find a sustainable diet - a lifestyle instead of a diet.

In 2018, I joined The Chef Manifesto, a group of global chefs working to highlight the UN Sustainable Development Goals and through this I was exposed to how our meat-based food system has contributed to climate change, and how a diet rich in plant-forward foods with fewer animal sources of protein, confers both improved health and environmental benefits.

After learning more about a sustainable plate of the future, I made a conscious decision to eat more plants, and less meat. I started to experiment with different ways of preparing vegetables and grains and for the first time in my life vegetables became the main act on my plate.

I ate less and less animal protein but whenever the strong craving for meat came, I would eat free-range chicken or Sassi approved fish (Sassi - Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative).

Chef Mokgadi Itsweng's upcoming cookbook 'Veggielicious' shows that leading a plant-forward lifestyle doesn't mean eating bland and boring food.
Chef Mokgadi Itsweng's upcoming cookbook 'Veggielicious' shows that leading a plant-forward lifestyle doesn't mean eating bland and boring food.
Image: Roelene Prinsloo

The beauty of this lifestyle is a vast improvement in my health - I'm no longer prone to food allergy breakouts, backache, and lethargy. Instead, I feel energised to do the things I love and find I'm more present in my daily life as I'm always mindful of what I eat.

In the beginning of my plant-based lifestyle I struggled with creating appetising meals without the animal protein, from years of conditioning to make the meat the focus and everything around it a sideshow.

During lockdown my new lifestyle choices became the motivation of sharing the many plant-based ideas in a cookbook, Veggielicious (Human & Rousseau, R375), due to be released next month. I know it will be the inspiration to others wanting to include tasty plant foods in their daily lives.

Along with the cookbook I have created plant-forward dining experiences and cooking classes for those keen on changing their animal protein-based lifestyles.

TRY SOME OF ITSWENG'S RECIPES

THE ULTIMATE AVOCADO TOAST

"My obsession at the moment is avocado toast, I eat it anytime of the day, from breakfast to dinner as a main meal. I always play with whatever other ingredients are in the fridge, with my favourite wheat-free bread being the base," says Itsweng.

The ultimate avocado toast.
The ultimate avocado toast.
Image: Roelene Prinsloo

Serves: 4-6

Ingredients:

4 slices of your favourite bread

1 garlic clove

250ml (1 cup) hummus

2 avocados, sliced into 4 roses

Juice of ½ lemon

Salt and pepper to taste

Fresh herbs of your choice

Pickled red onions, optional

Method:

  1. Toast the bread to your liking, remove from the toaster and rub the garlic clove over the toast.
  2. Spread some hummus over each slice of toast.
  3. To make the avocado roses, cut the avocado in half and peel it without damaging the fruit. Remove the pip and cut the avo into very thin slices. Carefully separate the slices to create 4 spiral shapes that form a tight rose. Drizzle the roses with lemon juice to keep them green, season with salt and pepper, and set aside.
  4. Top each hummus-topped bread with an avo rose, pickled onions and fresh herbs. Serve immediately.

RAINBOW SALAD WRAPS WITH PEANUT SAUCE

"This is so fresh, colourful and wholesome," says Itsweng. "It's the best kind of playing with your food. Place bowls of the ingredients on the table and allow everyone to make up their own wrap."

Rainbow salad wraps with peanut sauce.
Rainbow salad wraps with peanut sauce.
Image: Roelene Prinsloo

Serves: 4-6

Peanut sauce:

60ml (¼ cup) smooth peanut butter

60ml (4 tbsp) soya sauce

15ml (1 tbsp) lemon juice

50ml (10 tsp) runny honey

2.5ml (½ tsp) grated ginger

2.5ml (½ tsp) chopped garlic

Salad:

6 spinach leaves

1 small red cabbage, shredded

2 carrots, grated

1 cucumber seeded and cut into strips

1 avocado, halved and sliced

Pickled ginger

Handful of fresh mint

Handful of fresh coriander

Handful of fresh basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Method:

  1. To make the peanut sauce, whisk all the sauce ingredients together in a bowl and add some water to loosen the sauce to desired consistency. Set aside for serving.
  2. Using one spinach leaf at a time, remove the middle rib from the leaf and cut the leaf in half lengthways. You can use the ribs for vegetable stock, or finely sliced into a salad.
  3. Place some shredded cabbage and grated carrot in the centre of each leaf, top with the avocado and ginger, some herbs and season.
  4. Bring the bottom edge of the spinach wrap tightly over the filling, fold in the sides, rolling from bottom to top until the top is reached. Repeat until all the wraps are filled.
  5. Cut in half and serve immediately with the peanut sauce.

TAMSIN SNYMAN

Cookbook publisher, culinary consultant and World's 50 Best Restaurant Awards judge, and more recently founder of Plant-Based Creative food company

I grew up in the coolest household ever. Entertaining, fine food and wine appreciation was central to our existence. Living in moderation, exercise and vegetables was a life lived by others; certainly not the Snyman family.

Tamsin Snyman, founder of Plant-Based Creative food company.
Tamsin Snyman, founder of Plant-Based Creative food company.
Image: Supplied

When I left school, I joined my mother, the late Lannice Snyman's world; we wrote and published cookbooks, ran restaurant award programmes and celebrated chefs and their work both nationally and internationally. Between us we averaged eight restaurant reviews a week, wrote for numerous magazines and launched a catering company.

Sixteen years into working alongside my mother she fell ill, and her stomach cancer diagnosis shook our world. In the few years she fought the disease with numerous ops and countless chemo sessions, she got to see me walk down the aisle with my husband Chris and witnessed the birth of our daughter Trinity. She died four weeks after her granddaughter was born, and four months after her passing my father passed away of a sudden heart attack. And it didn't end there.

A couple of years later, when unpacking our last box in our new house, Chris fell ill. What we thought was a rough bout of pneumonia turned out to be fourth-stage lung, colon and brain cancer. He was 46, fit, training for the Argus Cycle Tour and trail running; and the next two years became a blur of hospitals, oncologists, operations, specialists, chemo, radiation and a radical lifestyle and dietary shift.

As the flailing wife on the sidelines of this journey, with my skill set firmly in food, I set about investigating the best way to nourish Chris through his journey with cancer. He sadly succumbed to complications from his intensive chemo treatment.

The final straw was my own health, with half my life spent on chronic medication and when I was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer. After recovery treatment at a wellness centre in Stellenbosch, the time there entrenched what I'd learnt while caring for my husband. Our lifestyles - and especially our diets - play a huge role in our health. Years of excess on my part from my career in the world of food and hospitality, coupled with the immense stress and trauma of loss, had made me ill. I came to the realisation that a predominantly plant-based lifestyle can play a major role in maintaining one's health and wellbeing.

Part of my new lifestyle choice was a need to share the health benefits, and during lockdown, with the shutdown of the restaurant and hospitality industry, I invested my time into researching and planning a plant-based consulting business and a range of foods, a passion project that had been in my mind and heart for so long.

My Plant-Based Creative company employs chefs and kitchen cooks rescued from the restaurants that closed in Hout Bay during lockdown. Using our creative juices we have put together 15 plant-based products so far, like a vegan mayonnaise and a red pepper shakshuka, and hugely nutritious plant-based veggie burgers - beetroot and baobab, and quinoa and broccoli - and a selection of guilt-free treats like trillionaire squares, cashew nut chocolate mousse, chia seed and maca cookies, and many more.

They are available from selected Spar stores and health stores in the Western Cape or online at plantbasedcreative.com.

TRY SOME OF SNYMAN'S RECIPES

AROMATIC NOODLE STIR-FRY WITH SESAME-TOASTED TOFU

"This is one of my go-to tofu dishes with a fun mix of Western and oriental ingredients resulting in a harmony of colour, flavour and texture," says Snyman.

Aromatic noodle stir-fry with sesame-toasted tofu.
Aromatic noodle stir-fry with sesame-toasted tofu.
Image: Neil Corder

Serves: 4

Ingredients:

200g rice noodles

20ml (4 tsp) sesame oil plus extra

3-4 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced

1 red or yellow pepper, cored and very finely sliced

15ml (1 tbsp) scraped and finely chopped fresh ginger

60ml (4 tbsp) soy sauce

10ml (2 tsp) coconut blossom sugar*

30g rocket leaves

30ml (2 tbsp) shredded mint leaves

30ml (2 tbsp) shredded basil leaves

60ml (4 tbsp) sesame seeds, toasted in a dry frying pan

200g firm tofu, cut into batons

Vegetable oil

Method:

  1. Pour boiling water over the noodles in a bowl and set aside for about 2 minutes to soften. Drain well in a colander.
  2. Heat the sesame oil in a medium frying pan, add the spring onions and pepper, and stir-fry until softened.
  3. Add the ginger, soy sauce and sugar, then stir in the drained noodles, rocket, mint and basil. Stir-fry until the rocket is limp and everything is piping hot.
  4. Drizzle a little sesame oil over the tofu and roll them in half the sesame seeds. Heat a little vegetable oil in a non-stick frying pan and fry the tofu on all sides until the seeds are golden and crispy; this should only take a minute or two.
  5. To serve pile the noodles into bowls, top with sesame-toasted tofu and scatter over remaining toasted sesame seeds.

*Cook's note: If you can't find coconut blossom sugar, regular brown sugar will do. You could switch out the tofu for slivers of tempeh if you wish.

SPICED BERRY JELLIES

"This simple berry jelly is from our cookbook Fruit Art," says Snyman. "Use any berries in season and know that it works equally well with slivers of granny smith apple or perfectly ripe pear. Depending on the size of your serving glasses or bowls, you can easily stretch this recipe out to serve eight people."

Spiced berry jelly.
Spiced berry jelly.
Image: Malcolm Dare

Serves: 4 - 5

Ingredients:

400g raspberries (or other berries of your choice)

500ml (2 cups) cranberry juice

60ml (4 tbsp) sugar

2 whole cloves

2 cinnamon sticks

22.5ml (1½ tbsp) agar-agar powder*

125ml (½ cup) port

15ml (1 tbsp) lemon juice

Method:

  1. Rinse the berries with cold water. Drain well. Pile into glasses of your choice and place in the fridge while making the jelly.
  2. Heat the cranberry juice in a medium saucepan with the sugar, cloves and cinnamon, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Don't allow it to boil. Cover and set aside for about 15 minutes for the flavours of the spices to infuse.
  3. Meanwhile, pour about 60ml (4 tbsp) of water into a small bowl and sprinkle the agar-agar powder over the surface of the water and allow to absorb - 5 minutes should be sufficient.
  4. Add the agar-agar mix to the warm liquid and stir until it dissolves. Stir in the port and lemon juice.
  5. Strain the jelly into a jug, then pour it onto the berries in the glasses. Return them to the fridge to set; about 4 to 5 hours will do it.

*Cook's note: Agar-agar is a star ingredient that is often overlooked. It is the perfect substitute for bone-derived gelatine for plant-based and vegan folk. It is a gelling agent made from Japanese seaweed called ten gusa. Agar-agar has lots of minerals known to aid digestion and regulate blood pressure.


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