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The real African taste from Cape to Cairo

African chefs sell our culture through food.

African cuisine is on a high note right now with the location of the best restaurant in the world a tiny beach side eatery called Wolfgat standing proudly in the quaint town of Paternoster off the West Coast.

The restaurant which sits on top of Wolfgat cave, hence its name, was voted the best in the world in February at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards in Paris. The global recognition of the unassuming restaurant headed by 38 –year old self taught chef, Kobus van der Merwe, was mainly because the eatery sources locally produced ingredients, and its back to basics approach to cooking wowed international judges.

With Wolfgat hoisting the flag high for African food, any visitor to Africa home from east, west, north or south will tell you about the warm hospitality found in any African home that has made international guests fall in love with our countries.

From Nigeria’s spicy jollof rice and peanut soup, to Morocco’s famous couscous with lamb tagine stew, succulent Mozambican peri-peri king prawns, to the Ethiopian injera flatbread, African cuisine has always been a major attraction for global tourists. The rise of the African celebrity chef has also invigorated the cuisine landscape with chefs adding a unique flavor in the world by serving Africa’s warmest hospitality in five star style.

Although TV and celebrity chefs catapult brand Africa into global consciousness, chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu and author of Through The Eyes of an African Chef, says we need to do more to promote local and international ingredients in global markets.

Mqwebu is one of the few voices in South Africa in the culinary sphere passionate about the lack of traditional ingredients in global five star restaurants. According to Mqwebu, regions such as West and East Africa fare better than Southern and Northern countries in the strides they have made.

“Just go to any Nigerian restaurant in a top franchise hotel tomorrow and you will find the buffet serves 80 percent local dishes that have been modified and upgraded to fit in with that establishment. The opposite is true in hotels, restaurants and resorts in the south, where we serve largely western ingredients.”

Mqwebu promotes local ingredients such as amadumbe (traditional root crop) and reviving ingredients once used by our great-grandmothers. It is imperative for African chefs to go back to basics and work with farmers to promote vegetables, herbs, fruits and seeds that thrive when they are planted on local soil. Mqwebu says local ingredients are the reason why tourists who come into any city are eager to explore different tastes and flavours and culinary tourism is one of the significant boosters of international tourists in any country.

“In South Africa we have what we call our survival cuisine which is what our forefathers compromised on after the land was taken away from them and they could no longer produce their own food. These kinds of food includes the kotas (popular township delicacy of a quarter bread stuffed with atchaar and other savory delicacies including chips, viennas, cheese, etc), bunny chow (bread quarter filled with curried meat stew); and offal’s (animal intestines). They do not represent the best of our ingredients but somehow get the most awareness instead of our healthier and nutritious ingredients. This is because the custodians of our food have largely been outsiders and international food corporates promote the kind of food they know and have commercial interest in.”

Local ingredients thrive more on home grown soil and Mqwebu says it is a no brainer to inculcate a tight relationship between African chefs and farmers as this also benefits our environment and economy. Mqwebu even presented a paper at the African Union a few years ago in her bid to sway political decision makers in the continent to support her point of view.

In her cooking Mqwebu uses traditional food such ting (sour porridge), mukoki (dried meat) wild berries to color and sweeten desserts, pumpkin leaves, and uses a lot of dried baobab tree fruit in yummy smoothies and desserts since she discovered the fruit has “more vitamin C than orange”. She recently teamed with innovative young chefs who also use moringa leave powder creatively in desserts.

During icon Dorah Sitole’s busiest time as a leading African chef throughout the 80s and 90s, celebrity TV chefs were unheard of. Sitole’ peers relied on editorial shoots to showcase African food. The author of the popular From Cape to Cairo recipe book recalls how during former president Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance revival, our ingredients were also put on a pedestal in international platforms.

The then government of the day used to exhibit South Africa’s arts and culture in various American, Asian and European cities to lure visitors to our shore with events called South Africa Week. Sitole did two such tours in Italy and Japan in the early 2000 and says the invasion of South African chefs, musicians, designers and actors achieved tremendous results in selling brand South Africa to the world.

The week in Tokyo stands out more to her after South Africans turned the five star Hilton Hotel into an African fiesta that week. “We worked with their executive chef and served popular recipes such as milk tarts, chakalaka (hot vegetable salad), home-style beetroot salad with pap croquettes and samoosas in the menu. By the third day of exhibiting, we had long queues of locals who upon hearing by word-of-mouth of our exhibition came to the hotel to taste our menu.”

Sitole says the beauty of our local food is the incredible journey that food tourists can embark on from tasting Cape malay flavours, traditional African food and boere kos (Afrikaans cooking).

“We have amazing food and ingredients to share with the world, we just need to ensure that we reach a much wider audience,” said Sitole.