For Hope Malau, his first culinary exposure to something “different” was when he accompanied his dad to work.
“My dad worked by the mine kitchen as an administrator,” he says. “He used to oversee the stock for the chefs, making sure the menu was in order for everyone who came into the dining hall to eat.
“He would tell one of the chefs, ‘Hey, do something for my son, man he’s working with me today’.
“The first thing they did for me was a sunny-side up egg on toast. And I wasn’t used to it because I’m a township boy. I only knew scrambled eggs.
“Eating it was a messy job, yolk running down the side of my mouth. It was not a good experience. But every time I went there afterwards, I would experience the sunny-side up egg. And I fell in love with it.”
By spending so much time around chefs, Malau became entrenched in the food side of things.
“As it went on, I got into the kitchen and I met up with those guys wearing chefs’ white. And I said to myself, ‘One day, I want to be like them. I want to see myself wearing that’.”
He’s definitely fulfilled that dream, and then some. Aside from being the food editor for Drum magazine, he’s recently joined another magazine, Taste.
And for two years, Malau has won the prestigious Galliova Food Writer of the Year honours.
In fact, it was after his first win that the idea for a cookbook was born.
“After school, I studied transport management at the University of Johannesburg,” he says.
“It wasn’t what I loved and my results weren’t exciting either. So my mum decided to take out the life savings she had for me. She asked me if I wanted to have it as a deposit for a car, house or chef school. I wanted to go to chef school. And I got eight distinctions.
“When I won my first Galliova Food Writer award, my manager, who accompanied me, suggested I write a book. I said I would think about it.
“I just couldn’t see myself writing a book about African food and I’ve never been to an African country apart from ours.
“Eventually, I got around to writing a proposal. And everything started coming together.”
And so, while holding down a demanding full-time job, Malau stayed up writing late at night and on weekends.
For his first cookbook, Johanne 14, he chatted to those he knew. After all, a book on home-cooked meals in South Africa’s townships mandated a reconnection to his roots and his culture.
“The recipes are from the community itself,” he says.
“I spent so much money on airtime. Calling my uncle, mostly. I had to understand the reason why we slaughter a goat. I wasn’t familiar with it. And he enlightened me. He also revealed why people wear the fur of the goat around their wrists.
“Working on the book helped me understand my culture more.”
The book itself is separated into different sections: snacks/spaaikos (street food), big events and slow-cooked meals, vegetables and salads, favourite sweet things and miscellaneous.
In case you are wondering about how he arrived at the title, Johanne14 is another name for cabbage in the township.
Of his favourite recipes in the book, he says, “Just to show my chef skills, I put my influence into the mogodu/ulusu (curried tripe) dish.
My other favourites are the chicken feet, fried cabbage, peppermint crisp tart, milk tart and Black Forest cake, which is amazing. It’s moist and different from the usual.”
Everything in the book, from the pictures to the recipes, lends context to what Malau is trying to establish.
He says: “I want to make everyone feel what I’m talking about, hence the images. The recipes emphasise my background. Me holding the head of cabbage is taken from a scripture in the Bible.”
What’s his objective right now?
Malau says: “I’m on a big mission to try to get people to love the traditional ways of cooking. That, and simple cooking.
“I’m proudly South African and I want to push that trend.”
* Johanne 14, published by Quivertree Publications, retails for R275.
Pictures: Craig Fraser