Why you should care
Because you can’t fully appreciate your heritage without embracing the culinary traditions of your ancestors.
Don’t invite a star chef to meet up at the South African equivalent of Starbucks. She’ll promptly lead you somewhere quieter, and far cooler. At least that was my experience with Nompumelelo Mqwebu, whose list of accomplishments is such that it’s hard to know where to begin. A frequent guest on radio and TV programs; food columnist for the Mercury, the Mail and Guardian and the Sunday Times; and the director of Africa Meets Europe Cuisine, Mqwebu has just self-published Through the Eyes of an African Chef, about her efforts to revive traditional African cooking. It’s the culmination of everything she has been working toward for the past 10 years, and it boils down to this: She wants to decolonize South Africa’s food system and reacquaint local chefs, consumers and farmers with the country’s rich, but buried, food heritage.
For Mqwebu, a 42-year-old mother of two, a healthy food system starts with local farmers growing endemic species of fruits and vegetables. Next, she says, farmers need help maximizing their earnings by transforming their produce into valuable meals they can sell for a higher price. To this end, last June Mqwebu teamed up with the City of Johannesburg Food Resilience Unit to teach 16 small-scale farmers in Soweto how to turn their harvests into nutritious soups and stews and to pickle herbs and vegetables. Now she and two partners are working to set up a kitchen accredited by five local agencies to train future chefs with an emphasis on African cuisine.
Part Swati, Xhosa and Zulu, Mqwebu is determined to help the next generation of African chefs embrace their culinary heritage. In a September article for Taste magazine, she wrote, “When I cooked amadumbe [taro roots] at the inaugural 2010 World Cup conference in Johannesburg, I was surprised that most Africans present had no idea what those nutritious tubers were, even though they have been cultivated by villagers in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape for a very long time.” But rather than wade into the complex reasons most Africans have become disconnected from their native cuisine, Mqwebu prefers to focus on uniting cultures with dishes that will blow your mind. Taste printed her grandmother’s recipe for isijingi, a savory-sweet pudding made from fresh pumpkin, cornmeal, butter cream, cinnamon and a dash of honey. It’s the ultimate fall comfort food — only you won’t see it listed on any local restaurant menu.
Despite Mqwebu’s tireless efforts to mainstream indigenous South African cuisine, it’s almost impossible to find outside townships. For example, a popular chain of restaurants called Moyo — boasting “Africa’s finest urban cuisines” — serves Moroccan lamb shank and a harissa chicken breast sandwich, dishes originating on the other side of the continent, but nothing that’s truly South African, according to Mqwebu. And the current president of the South African Chefs Association is white and British (SACA did not respond to requests for comment).
Mqwebu’s explanation for the dearth of native cuisine? “The painful truth is that it’s due to colonization …”
Dr. Karin Blignaut, a consultant for the South African Association of Food Science and Technology, applauds Mqwebu’s efforts and welcomes more indigenous dishes in mainstream gastronomy, but says the demand simply isn’t there. “You cannot really upscale it to that level without changing it completely,” she says. Mqwebu’s explanation for the dearth of native cuisine? “The painful truth is that it’s due to colonization and later apartheid, where people were forcibly moved off their land.”
In 1652 the Dutch set up a permanent outpost in South Africa (followed by British and German settlers), frequently sparring with Cape Town’s indigenous Khoikhoi population, who feared they would be deprived of their pastures and water sources. And they were. As a result, Mqwebu explains, “The normal process of families passing on the farming traditions and methods was lost. Families were broken and relatives spread out.”
Mqwebu, who was raised in Umlazi township on the east coast of KwaZulu-Natal, recalls regular visits to her grandmother’s tiny diner 70 miles away in Pietermaritzburg. In the early 1980s, her parents bought a convenience store on the south coast, so Gran MaGaqa moved in to raise Mqwebu and her three siblings. The first order of business was to set up a garden. “We were the workers,” Mqwebu says with a full-bellied laugh. Her father was hired as a cook on ships in his younger years, and she grew up delighting in the exotic stories and flavors attached to his time at sea.
Mqwebu’s culinary path was more indirect. After high school, she worked in retail before studying marketing management at Centec College. Over the next decade, she held several corporate jobs, catering for large events in her spare time. Eventually she embraced her gastronomic roots and completed her City and Guilds of London cookery diploma in 2005 while studying at the Chef School of Food and Wine in Morningside, Durban. From there, juggling her young family and a catering business, she sweet-talked her way into a job cooking at the upscale Zimbali Lodge in Ballito. Since 2007, she has competed in and judged culinary competitions around the world, and in 2014 founded the annual Mzansi International Culinary Festival (Mzansi is the Xhosa word for South Africa), a gathering of chefs from all over the continent with a focus on authentic African ingredients and dishes.
Zola Shabangu, a member, along with Mqwebu, of Intsika Women in Business in KwaZulu-Natal, says the chef “is destined for big things yet uplifts others in the process.” And Mqwebu has a seemingly boundless reservoir of energy to make those big things happen. First up? Digging even deeper into the history of indigenous cuisine with her next book and building a curriculum for African food anthropologists and scientists. Mqwebu says molecular gastronomy and Michelin stars have driven her industry to astronomic heights to make food that’s “perfect” — she intends to bring it back down to Earth.