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Seven foodies who want the world to acknowledge SA's culinary heritage

These local chefs and cooks all agree that where they're from impacts what they put on the plate — and that our unique food traditions must be preserved

19 September 2021 - 00:03 By Sbu Mkwanazi
Lufuno Sinthumule.
Lufuno Sinthumule.
Image: Sasha Campbell

Eating isn't just about food. Culinary experiences represent so much more than just what your eyes see, your nose smells, your tongue tastes and your mouth devours.

Food is so integral to who people are that, in 2008, the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage List was born. It includes foods from around the world. The aim of the list is to ensure better protection of important intangible cultural heritages worldwide and the awareness of their significance.

Last year, East Africa's couscous made the cut. So far, SA's rich food heritage hasn't been featured.

Luckily, there are a number of South African chefs and cooks working to ensure the world acknowledges our culinary heritage and traditions.

LUFUNO SINTHUMULE

Chef, baker, food lecturer, food trainer at African Global Skills Academy

I'm based in Joburg, but I'm originally a Venda boy. Growing up in Limpopo exposed me to food like avocados - I use ingredients like this to transform African dishes into world-class offerings. My heritage is evident in all I do.

My favourite traditional dish is mopane worms. There are so many ways to prepare and enjoy them that it would be silly of me not to choose this Venda staple. They're three times higher in protein than beef.

Lufuno Sinthumule's crispy sweet potato wrapped mopane worms with avocado dip.
Lufuno Sinthumule's crispy sweet potato wrapped mopane worms with avocado dip.
Image: Sasha Campbell

It's important to preserve our culinary heritage because very little has been recorded of our various cultures. For instance, we don't know much about okra and mopane worms but we know about Western foods. I'm doing my PhD in food services management and have learnt that there's no textbook on African foods. My students need material on African food so that they can elevate our recipes to new levels.

South African food is underrated globally, partly because we don't record our food customs, which the rest of the world has been brilliant at.

I'm unique as a chef because I'm both a chef and a baker. It's a rare combination.

Instagram: @cookingwithfuni


ZOLA NENE

TV personality, author, Checkers ambassador, serial TikTok dancer

I was born in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, and I am proudly Zulu. I'm based in Cape Town now.

Cooking happened organically for me. I shared my love of food with everyone. My mom always cooked when we had umsebenzi (traditional ceremonies like weddings). She played a role in my cooking style. My influences changed when I studied overseas. I wanted to use food to reach people and talk to them about what I had learnt. I love food photography and styling, which helps me tell people the cultural stories of food.

Zola Nene.
Zola Nene.
Image: Matanna Katz
Zola Nene’s lamb chops with isigwamba and chakalaka.
Zola Nene’s lamb chops with isigwamba and chakalaka.
Image: Matanna Katz

I ate traditional food as a young person and it forms part of my food story. I'm Zulu, but my traditional food experience is different from other Zulu people's. I made isinkwa sombila (corn bread) with my grandmother, before she passed on. I cook from a place of nostalgia inspired by the dishes I grew up eating but I add a modern twist to the recipes. In terms of health benefits, wholegrain cornbread is a great source of fibre, calcium, iron and folic acid.

It's important to preserve our culinary heritage because we learn so much about a country's culture through its food. Countries like France, Italy, the US and others have worked hard to establish their food heritage. We should too. There's an abundance of local dishes that should be enjoyed throughout the world. Traditional food becomes our food cultural reference. I mix traditional South African food with Eurocentric elements, which resonates with people.

What makes me unique as a chef is that I embrace my influences and background when I cook. Food is such a unifier.

Instagram: @zola_nene


MOKGADI ITSWENG

Plant-based private chef and plant-based food activist, gardener and food stylist

I'm based in the Joburg CBD but my roots are all over SA. I grew up in Mamelodi, a township in Tshwane. My dad is Tswana and my mom is Zulu from Umlazi but my grandmother is from Limpopo. Though my gran was illiterate, she taught me so much about food. Her approach is intertwined in my cooking.

I love teaching people about Africans' food heritage. According to our history, Africans weren't historically big meat eaters. Even when we refer to the “seven colours” dish, they weren't from meat, but vegetables.

Mokgadi Itsweng's dikgobe (sorghum grain and cowpeas).
Mokgadi Itsweng's dikgobe (sorghum grain and cowpeas).
Image: Roelene Prinsloo/Veggielicious
Mokgadi Itsweng.
Mokgadi Itsweng.
Image: Roelene Prinsloo

My favourite traditional dish is 'dikgobe', a combination of sorghum and cowpeas. You don't feel heavy after eating it and it's good for the digestive system. It produces feel-good hormones that get you on a natural high. Sorghum has lots of fibre, protein and antioxidants and it's a superfood, balancing out sugar levels. It's great for diabetic people
and when paired with cowpeas, becomes a full meal packed with healthy carbohydrates.

Nothing says love like food. Food helps us hold on to our memories and traditions. It's important to tell future generations about the food we eat as it connects us as Africans. You find dikgobe in other countries too, like Lesotho and Botswana. In Africa, the land tells our stories. Farmers and food producers can tell the story about the role of vegetables in our history and heritage. Historically Africans had cattle, but they were used mostly as a currency. Chickens were kept for their eggs, not to eat.

What makes me unique as a chef is that I understand my role in the food system. I'm evolving constantly. I used to be a food editor - eating and drinking everything. Then I had to change to a plant-based diet when my body simply couldn't take it any more. Now I use food to tell the stories of those whose lives and livelihoods revolve around food - farmers and producers. I use food to heal and these stories about food have healing powers.

Instagram: @mokgadiitsweng


ANEL POTGIETER

'Afternoon Express' producer and food editor for Rapport

I grew up in the Free State town of Wepener, so the dorpie meisiekind (village girl) features in my culinary projects. Heritage is strongly linked to nostalgia, which impacts on the food I make. I cook what reminds me of cooking with my mom.

Anel Potgieter's curried tripe and trotters.
Anel Potgieter's curried tripe and trotters.
Image: Supplied
Anel Potgieter.
Anel Potgieter.
Image: Supplied

My traditional dish is melktert - my mom and I even made the puff pastry ourselves. The smell of cinnamon brings back great memories. There are no known health benefits to melktert but the nostalgic feelings I get when I eat it bring me joy. Health is for the next day.

Food is the ideal vehicle to preserve our customs, traditions and heritage. It grounds us as a nation, gives us a purpose and reminds us of who we are in all our diversity.

What makes me unique is that I'm a no-nonsense cook. Too many people concentrate on pretty plates and other fancy things. I'm Afrikaans - I love feeding people huge portions of simple, delicious food.

Instagram: @anel.potgieter


CASS ABRAHAMS

Retired chef, food historian, cookbook author, Cape cuisine expert and lover of landline telephones

Where I live has impacted on the food I make. I'm a 77-year-old lady from Cape Town and believe there's no such thing as Cape Malay food - it's African food infused with dishes from other cultures. As time went by, nations that settled in the Cape took African food and added their own touches. The food I cook serves a purpose. When it comes to heritage and tradition, for example, I always make pickled fish on Good Friday. Simple.

Cass Abrahams.
Cass Abrahams.
Image: New Frame/Barry Christianson

My favourite traditional dish is 'denningvleis', a South African lamb stew with mixed spice marinade. It was the first printed recipe in SA, brought to the Cape by slaves from Indonesia and Bali. These slaves worked in their masters' kitchens and developed the recipe for themselves with spices bought from ships that docked at the Cape. The dish has great health benefits; some of the spices have antioxidants and some protect the body from infections.

Cass Abrahams' dhall curry.
Cass Abrahams' dhall curry.
Image: New Frame/Barry Christianson

It's important to preserve our culinary heritage because food traces the history of a nation. Many of our recipes originated from the Koi-San and were adopted by the Dutch who visited the Cape. Some were taken overseas, where they were changed to become part of other peoples' cuisine. The old ladies in my community passed the history of our food on to me orally. I wrote the recipes down and tried them. If we don't record the history of our food we'll lose it. For example, bobotie is an old recipe that comes from Indonesia. That variation is called bobotok and was wrapped and cooked in banana leaves. Cape slaves added fruits and spices to the dish. The Dutch included ground beef, giving us the modern version.

Heritage impacts our food and drinks. There are many Muslim people in the Cape, which means the bulk of the recipes developed here don't include alcohol.

Instagram: Who is Instagram?


JONATHAN NEL

Head Chef at Gemmelli, in Bryanston, Joburg

I was born in Benoni to a Dutch mother and an Afrikaans father and grew up with hearty meals and ample braais. These experiences played a role in my cooking because of an emotional connection to food. Charred or sweet and savoury flavours, my heritage pops up on my plates.

My favourite traditional food is anything off the braai. Growing up, it represented family, friends and togetherness. Those inherited experiences give me a satisfying feeling and give me something to look forward to. The health benefits of braai meat include protein, blood sugar control and increased brain function. Vegetables can also be braaied and have good benefits.

Jonathan Nel.
Jonathan Nel.
Image: Joshua Rogers
Jonathan Nel's modern Caprese salad.
Jonathan Nel's modern Caprese salad.
Image: Joshua Rogers

It's important to preserve our traditional culinary offerings to ensure satisfaction for those who consume our food. A great chef can pull off adding emotion to a dish, bringing traditional elements into fine dining, which honours our heritage.

The fact that I'm old school makes me unique as a chef. Hard work, long hours, discipline and a thick skin are my foundations in the kitchen. I reinvent classics with a quirky, comedic twist, so creativity is one of my assets. Through mentors I've learnt that adding as much flavour as possible without overpowering the dish is vital, so I implement that principle in everything. I don't like short cuts. I study ingredients to find the best way to impart maximum flavour using methods like slow cooking.

Instagram: @gemelli_restaurant


VERUSHKA RAMASAMI

Chef, lecturer in hospitality and tourism

I'm a South African of Indian origin, based in Durban - a melting pot of SA's food culture. My food heritage continues to be inspired by both my Indian and African roots, which packs a spicy punch. Growing up, I learnt about different cultures and their food by visiting people's houses and going to restaurants. When I went to the UK for nine years to teach food technology I learnt about food from Iran, Asia, Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon and other parts of the world. Even within the Indian community in London the food heritage from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Punjab was celebrated. SA must retain the food heritage and embrace the customs of other cultures.

My favourite traditional dish is samp and beans - a typical recipe in Indian homes. There are a number of variations. People with different heritages cook it but the Indian twist is in the spices and the meat we enjoy it with, like mutton. It's a “rainbow nation” dish. Samp and beans are high in protein. Even without meat it's a nutritional and fully balanced meal. It's also cost-effective and can feed large families.

Verushka Ramasami’s samp and beans, Durban style
Verushka Ramasami’s samp and beans, Durban style
Image: Salma Patel
Verushka Ramasami.
Verushka Ramasami.
Image: Salma Patel

It's important to preserve our culinary heritages to leave a legacy for generations to come. Travelling abroad, I've learnt to appreciate the food of our rainbow nation. Dishes like chakalaka, bunny chow and shisanyama are part of being South African. In food, we have a lot more in common than we realise. Our spirit of ubuntu and caring for others comes through our recipes.

What makes me unique is that I'm a 'fusion cook', creating recipes from memory and from my childhood and bringing in new ingredients. My training taught me to understand how foods mix together and the role of spices. I bring my travels into my cooking, adding a twist to older dishes.

Instagram: @spicegoddess_eats and @spicegoddessblog


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