Nompumelelo Mqwebu is a chef after my own heart. A fellow fan of African cuisine, she has written an educational cookbook about South Africa’s food and just how much fun we can have with indigenous food.Through the Eyes of an African Chef sees Mqwebu, former head chef at Zimbali Lodge, tell the story of our traditional cuisine and provides recipes you can impress guests with.
Why did you decide to go the route of self-publishing?
I did not like the deals I was offered, to walk away with less than 10% of sales after writing a cookbook just did not seem right. I also did not like that I would not choose the photographer or anyone in the team I would work with, and the fact that I had no final say in changes that are implemented to my original idea. I thus saw that I would end up with a book that did not represent me or even lose the essence of the theme.
You obviously felt that the content of your book is important and needed to be published?
I felt a lack of professional training in African cuisine, our misinformed food history (myths around our indigenous food) and the need to celebrate our indigenous food history isare what led me to publish this book.
What makes your cookbook different from the rest?
Quoted from my book: “This is not just another recipe book. This is a food book that is a cultural education; a cultural barrier-breaker and a bridge-builder amongst people… because food is the doorway to all cultural experiences.”
I can imagine that at times you would have wanted to give up, but what kept you going?
The fact that the African food scenery was not changing just informed me daily that I needed to do this. The more I travelled and saw that no matter how cosmopolitan each country or city may be, local food was sought-after and celebrated by both locals and visitors.
Is your book also a commentary on the way that we see our cuisine as Africans?
Partly, to those who celebrate our heritage and then to provide answers to those who are lost as to our food heritage. Just defining what we inherited from our good and bad history.
We seem to not know much about it. Will the book then makes us less ignorant on African cuisine?
I sure hope so. Just last week, I met a person who commented without even opening the book saying “Oh it’s an African cookbook, it must be full of meat, I am a vegetarian.” I had the time and patience to educate her on our food history and our relationship with meat.
Was there one ingredient that surprised you on how versatile it is?
Yes, baobab. It’s so healthy and has so many uses. Making desserts, smoothies, having it with yoghurt and many ways to benefit from the slow-release energy ingredient loaded with vitamins – it’s so good for us. It’s grown in Limpopo but the majority of us do not know it.
What have you learnt about African cuisine and the way we view it, while working on the book?
Sadly, the lack of knowledge of who we are, ie our history and lack of development of our cuisine. Distorted information and myths around our food and benefits of it, a lot of documenting necessary to preserve methods of old, ie “forgotten skills”, our recipes and our ingredients.
All is not lost though as I met wonderful cooks and storytellers who have valuable knowledge on our food history. The wealth of knowledge needs to be passed on to educate us andthen generations to come. We have so much to celebrate through our food and share proudly with the world.
Through the Eyes of an African Chef is available at most bookstores.