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My passion for African food

I was fortunate to be raised by a father who had travelled and worked as a cook on ships. Thamsanqa Mqwebu left his missionary village, Groutville, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), as a young man to travel the world, and became immersed in a passion for food and cooking. He enriched our lives with his Sunday meals, which the family always looked forward to. He instilled in us a sense of culinary adventure and I learned to eat and taste rare and raw food before it was mainstream and, unlike most children, to eat and enjoy vegetables of all kinds.

I’m sure we can all subjectively say that we grew up in families of amazing cooks, however my food experience growing up subconsciously led me to my love for food and cooking. My Xhosa grandmother, Noluthando MaGaqa Kunene of the AbaThembu tribe, was a pioneer. She owned what Americans call a ‘diner’ in Howick, KZN. Her husband, a translator of the court, and his diverse creed and prestige of colleagues would commune there during their lunch breaks.

To think that a young lady from eMdantsane, Eastern Cape, married a Swati national, moved to Pietermaritzburg in KZN, and started a restaurant business in the thick of Apartheid, challenged me to keep going as an entrepreneurial chef. Gogo Noluthando and her brother left uMdantsane at a very young age to escape the vicious chains of poverty. Her brother moved to Kimberly, and they communicated through messages carried by the miners on their way home.

My first burn was on her coal stove, where I fell with both hands on the scorching plates. She bathed my wounds for weeks afterwards. She later taught me to cook porridge, ujeqe (steamed bread) and perform other cooking tasks that were suitable for a pre-teen. She also instructed me in the importance of growing your own food. I have blissful memories of her orchard at the back of her little Howick house where she grew apples, figs, oranges and grapes among infinite varieties of vegetables. In her frailer days, she moved to uMlazi township with our family. She started a food garden at one side of the house, flowers beds on the other and a chicken run in the back yard.

Nothing was wasted. We were encouraged to dispose of peels, grass, eggshells and the like for what I later grew up to discover was organic compost. She influenced my love for food and culture.

Sadly, over time, I noticed a change in the food that I grew up with. One example is the raw milk we bought in bottles from a nearby Umlazi “N” Section crèche; the pasteurised, tasteless milk we are now used to drinking just cannot compare. The taste of tomatoes and other vegetables has changed with the introduction of pesticides and over-farming. The quick-cooking maize meal of today says a lot about how food structure has been tampered with.

I prefer to stick with tradition, and my cooking passion has ventured into curiosity of different farming methods. I have now built relationships with farmers. I have been educated in the produce seasonal changes while trying to source local ingredients for my menus. I now actively search for pumpkin leaves and amadumbe so that I can adapt my recipes for cooking in season. To my joy, I discovered Baba Nkosi’s gardens at KwaMashu, KZN, where he grows mainly organic spinach, beetroot, peppers and other vegetables, which he rotates seasonally. I have also discovered the “Amawoti Women’s Farming Group” based at Inanda, north of Durban, and have learnt about double-digging, which improves the aeration of the soil.

For me, this was déjà vu. At Fundakahle Lower Primary, where I went to school, we had Agriculture as a subject, during which we went outside and tended to our small school gardens that used to provide vegetables for our lunch, prepared by Aunt Ma Dlamini. I didn’t know it at the time, but we practised the method now called double-digging! I realised that going back to the methods of old had been coined ‘organic’. It is neither new nor a trend; it’s just how things were and how they should still be.

I am vehemently driven by the lack of available authentic South African cuisine in our South African restaurants; food cooked with ingredients of local origin that were part of the African culture before King Shaka’s days is scarce in the very country that survived on it. Amadumbe (taro root), ubhatata (sweet potato), izindlubu (jugo beans), iselwa (baby pumpkin), imbuya (amaranth), imifino yezintanga (pumpkin leaves, of the yellow flower), uqadolo (black jack), and wild berries such as amajingijolo (blueberry) should be widely accessible here at home.

Chef Nompumelelo (Mpume) Mqwebu

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