Chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu is on a mission to give the food she ate as a child the recognition it deserves. Her new cookbook is a modern take on traditional food, writes Gayle Edmunds.
The first time I tried gnocchi,” says chef Nompumelelo Mqwebu at the launch of her first cookbook, Through The Eyes of an African Chef, “I thought, ‘okay, this is like amadumbe’.”
On the menu at the launch was Mqwebu’s African take on gnocchi with that amadumbe – wow, delicious.
The book is a collection of Mqwebu’s experiences as a well-travelled, expertly trained chef and her experiments and fusions of ingredients that were a part of her childhood in rural KwaZulu-Natal. The result is quite incredible.
Among the recipes she showcased from the book were bone marrow and samp served in the bone, phuthu and chamolia in peanut sauce, venison mini burgers with chakalaka and Isijingi (pumpkin pudding) with fresh berries.
Mqwebu, who works extensively with predominately female farmers, says that going organic isn’t a trend, “it is about going back to the methods of old”.
“This is how our ancestors grew up – my grandmother always had a little food garden.”
She says that it is very satisfying to see the farmers she works with grow their vegetables and then sell them for a good price at the market. Apart from working with the farmers, Mqwebu also engages youngsters to learn to cook. The chefs who put together the meal at the book launch were all trained by her.
Mqwebu believes that culture belongs to everyone, and that “we all own it and have a right to express it”.
She says that, so far, she hasn’t had much resistance to her style of contemporising traditional food.
The book also includes a lot of advice on storing ingredients that grow in abundance at a certain time, as well as how to make your own butter, for example.
“If you can’t afford the machinery, there’s a way to do it – the way people did it before.”
Mqwebu says that one thing she found when she was working in kitchens around the world was that her fellow chefs and the people she encountered weren’t interested in how good her French sauces or Italian pastas were; they were interested in the food from her culture.
That is what Through the Eyes of an African Chef is – a celebration of traditional food culture, but with enhancements and embellishments.
Mqwebu’s book celebrates local ingredients, and she believes it is our responsibility as consumers to know the producers of our food and to ask for what we want.
Buy the book for R450 at throughtheeyesbook.com or at the following outlets:
JHB Culinary & Pastry School,
Exclusive Books, Dainfern
Bargain Books Fourways Crossing
Bargain Books Mall of the South
Bargain Books The Glen
Bargain Books Springs Mall
Clarke’s Bookshop, Cape Town
Tintfo le Tinhle
Wordsworth, Somerset West
Amadumbe salad served with home-made pesto (pictured at the top of the image)
For the pesto:
100g fresh basil leaves
175ml extra virgin
25g fresh pine kernels
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste
For the salad:
100g amadumbe (one large or two small amadumbe)
1 small bunch imbuya leaves (in season)
½ small packet rocket leaves
½ small packet cos lettuce or mixed lettuce
6-8 cherry tomatoes, cut in half
1 small red onion, peeled and sliced into long, thin strips
A small handful of pecan nuts
For the pesto: Home-made pesto takes minutes to make and tastes a million times better than that from the shop. The main hurdle is getting enough basil. If you have difficulty finding lots of it, a good substitute is a mixture of parsley and coriander, or parsley and rocket.
Blend the basil with the oil, pine kernels and garlic in a food processor, or pound in a pestle and mortar. Pour into a bowl and fold in the Parmesan cheese. Season to taste.
Pour into a sterilised jar, cover with a layer of olive oil and store in the fridge. Pesto keeps for weeks and it also freezes well, but, for best results, do not add the grated Parmesan until it has defrosted.
For amadumbe: Boil the amadumbe until cooked but not too soft – 40 to 45 minutes. Then cool, remove from the pot, peel (preferably with hands) and chop into quarters.
For imbuya: Boil water in a large pot, add salt. Place imbuya leaves into a sieve and submerge in the boiling water for five seconds. Drain immediately and blanch leaves in ice-cold water. As you remove the leaves, they should be soft and bright green.
Mix the imbuya, rocket, salad leaves, tomato and onion in a salad bowl and gently place the quartered amadumbe in the salad. Garnish with pecan nuts, drizzle with pesto and serve.