Meet the chef: Aiden Pienaar dishes on his new cookbook, 'Mexico in Mzansi'

The Sandton chef explains how his long-held love for Latin American cuisine led to his cookbook as well as how to make the perfect paloma

12 May 2024 - 00:00
By Hilary Biller
Paloma cocktail.
Image: x Paloma cocktail.

My fascination with Mexican food started when I was about 10 years old. My parents hosted these Mexican-themed parties for family and friends. I clearly remember the amazing flavours and aromas that filled the air. I was instantly hooked on the whole idea of how food brings people together, and that’s what Mexico in Mzansi is all about — bringing people together.

My mother, Salome, had a huge influence on my love of food and my career choice. She got me involved in the kitchen at a very early age and was always very supportive of everything I did — from my training to be a chef and opening the restaurant I had to writing my cookbook.

In celebrating my mother this Mother’s Day, I will make her an array of tapas-style dishes — fish ceviche, chilli poppers, crispy quinoa salad, and, of course, churros bites for dessert.

Aiden Pienaar's Mexico in Mzansi.
Image: Supplied Aiden Pienaar's Mexico in Mzansi.

What’s a Mexican fiesta without a margarita? My mother adores a paloma. A paloma and a margarita both contain tequila and lime, but that’s where the similarity ends. A paloma is sweetened with fresh grapefruit juice, so it’s sweet, bitter, salty, and packed with freshness.

What is it about Mexican food that has grabbed my attention? The flavours are simply like those of no other cuisine in the world. I’m sure most people understand the meaning of “fiesta” — my interpretation of that word is “a good time” — and Mexican food is all about celebrating and communal eating, meaning it brings people together. So this cuisine gets everyone involved in the kitchen, making both preparing and eating the meals enjoyable.

I opened a small 34-seater restaurant in the heart of Gqeberha serving many of the dishes in Mexico in Mzansi. It was a very vibey place with great music, cocktails and food. My best-sellers were deep-fried avocado, lamb taco, and crispy quinoa salad. The locals loved the place, and it’s something I would love to do again one day.

Writing my first cookbook was a dream come true, but the journey towards producing it was a long one. Many of the recipes were from my archive and just required tweaking for the home cook, but I also added some that are completely out the box. The reality of the book coming to life hit me when the photography took place, as seeing my dishes captured on film was remarkable.

Mexican food is colourful, and the mainstays of the cuisine are corn, beans, chillies and white onions. Contrary to popular belief, chillies are used to add flavour, rather than heat, to the food. There are loads of other typical flavours, such as cumin, fresh coriander, fresh and dried chillies, dried oregano, and the quintessential lime.

I’m the head chef at a restaurant in Sandton City, and Mexico in Mzansi is my own separate venture. However, two to three dishes from the cookbook feature on the restaurant’s menu.

What’s next for Chef Aiden? The launch of the cookbook has really opened doors for me, and I have since made many TV appearances. I’m now working towards having my own cooking programme where I can show viewers how to take everyday ingredients and turn them into an amazing Mexican meal with an Mzansi twist — a Mexican Jamie Oliver, if you will!