Pretoria - Chef Hennie Fisher, a lecturer in Culinary Arts at the University of Pretoria and regular contributor to this column, was recently given a challenge: to cater for the university’s Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation conference using only what was in keeping with a sustainability theme.

The centre, the first research institution of its kind on the continent, is dedicated to governance innovation, which includes debates around land, water, food, energy, and other resources.

Food he selected for his menus should be locally produced and organic so that what was offered could be a means to continue the conversation of the conference around issues of sustainability and food security.

The keynote address was by environmental activist Vandana Shiva, who stressed the need to consider the long-term social, economic and health risks of genetically modified foods and destructive agricultural processes.

Friday, Mandela Day, hunger and food security have again been highlighted as key issues, with many organisations planting food gardens and doing other projects linked to food security.

Fisher loved the challenge posed by this particular theme, but it was not easy.

The organisers wanted something substantial but manageable as finger food and, because the conference attracted international guests, Fisher wanted to showcase not only local produce but local cuisine.

He says he found it can be tough to source products which tick the boxes of organic and produced in a sustainable way – in other words using such methods that their production did not cause harm.

As an example of what would be excluded, he says, is feeding your guests farmed fish which were fed on other fish which could have been used to feed people.

Referring to the local element, he said we often miss our own recipes and their amazing qualities because we’re used to them. There’s bobotie (spiced mince), for example, something Fisher knew he wanted to include on the menu.

Another element to the task was the sheer volume of the catering which stretched over five days.

But, as a lecturer who often assigns his food science students similar tasks, it was good to be reminded of the planning and physical slog involved in catering.

“It is all about logistics, which is no more than good planning,” says Fisher. “Think of a dinner party that you are hosting and cooking for. It’s about how to get things done so that you don’t spend the whole night in the kitchen but can relax with your guests.”

Fisher is someone who loves to take a traditional meal and give it a contemporary slant while holding on to the roots and the quality that turned it into a classic to start with.

“It’s about thinking out of the box,” he says, and for those of us who have tasted the result, it is wonderful to experience.

Research is one of Fischer’s passions so he got looked up ways to incorporate elements of African cuisine.

“We are lucky in this city (Pretoria) because of its multicultural flavour through the African element and the diplomatic one. We are exposed to different foods and can, for example, source an Ethiopian injera if we want to, or would know where to find palm oil which results in such exceptional flavours.”

His quest was to give conference-goers novel food that celebrated the continent’s cuisine. So, what did he make?

He was influenced by Cape Malay food and, when you think of it, there is little traditional Afrikaans food which does not have some influence from Cape Malay.

 

“I was determined to do bobotie and I did a fish version,” he says and that, to his surprise, flew off the table.

Then there was his salad version of a Moroccan preserved lemon, green olive, coriander and chicken dish which isn’t all that spicy but, because of tumeric’s colour, might give that impression.

“I loved that,” he says. He was also tickled by the raisin tartlets usually baked for Christenings in Malay quarters. “I love it when food has that kind of history, a story to tell,” he says.

A shredded roasted chicken combined with a spinach and peanuts Palaver sauce and served with an Ethiopian Injera flatbread, used almost like a wrap, was one of his African favourites representing a number of countries.

As a desert he reworked the Kenyan n’Dizi, fried banana and peanut dish which he served with pieces of smashed meringue, cream, banana and peanuts served in individual small glasses.

For one of the evening meals, a buffet allowed him to be a touch more playful. That’s when the fish bobotie (made with freshwater, sustainable Tilapia) appeared, as well as ostrich goulash and one of his rich lentil cottage pies which fools everyone with its absence of meat.

There was a typical boere carrot salad but served in luminous rice paper wraps, a Nigerian Ikpakpala which combined steamed corn, onion and chilli pureed and baked like a custard, so – while savoury, it resembled crème brûlée.

There was also Moroccan bastilla which he turned into cocktail cigars and Malay denningvleis in wraps.

Picture the garish coloured pink coconut cakes usually sold on the street? He made a white chocolate and coconut lamington equivalent which won many hearts and made pampoen (pumpkin) koekies with a toffee sauce.

On the drinks side, he got a thumbs up for the jugs of tap water, and found his craft beers at Silverton’s Draymans where he selected a different one for each night.

Catching up on such abundant riches from local soil, I was smacking my lips.

We should be honouring our own cuisines with so much fanfare and more often. When someone travels to this country, they appreciate the opportunity to dip into some of our local delights.

We can start with something familiar like braai meat, pap, potjiekos, babotie, vetkoek, biryani and pickled fish, to lure people into tasting the unfamiliar in a non-threatening way.

But first we as South Africans have to learn to celebrate and enjoy and not shy away from our own tastes.

This is what Chef Fisher achieved with his imaginative sustainable menu. He did us proud.

Diane de Beer, Pretoria News