Chef and "The Africa Cookbook" author Portia Mbau. Pictures: Quivertree Publications
Chef and "The Africa Cookbook" author Portia Mbau. Pictures: Quivertree Publications

Portia Mbau reveals how flavours of Africa inspired 'The Africa Cookbook'

By Debashine Thangevelo Time of article published Apr 17, 2020

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Not long after our interview, Portia Mbau found out "The Africa Cookbook" bagged a Gourmand Award for Charity Cookbook - Africa.

Suffice to say, the acknowledgement left the chef and founder of The Africa Café beaming with pride. 

"The Africa Cookbook", like everything in Mbau’s life, is a labour of love and a wonderful introduction to the culinary knowledge she acquired on her travels. 

She shared: “To start, I have been travelling Africa and gathering inspiration and creating recipes for my restaurant for many years. For the longest time diners would ask for the recipe of their favourite dish. Finally, at the beginning of 2019, I sat down with Lumai (Mira de Smidt, her daughter) and started putting together a collection of my most popular recipes. The timing was right and it coincided with Lumai graduating from media, design and photography school. Lumai was eager to flex her photography muscles and I was ready to put my dishes and stories together.”

West Coast Calamari

And that explains the genesis of "The Africa Cookbook" by Quivertree Publications.

On how visiting different countries in Africa helped sharpen her cooking skills, Mbau offered: “Travelling Africa is such an inspiring, sensory experience; especially if you walk the streets and dine with the locals. After seeing street vendors grilling meat, smelling smoked spices and selecting fresh fruit at an open-air market, you cannot help but be changed as a person and a chef. I am also an avid gardener and lover of plants, so the farming and vegetation of a country or region also inspired my cooking. Being naturally adventurous, I love learning new cooking techniques and buying different utensils, which I'm then excited to get home and play with and create new recipes.”

Dhania Dip

While bearing witness to myriad cooking styles, she made a few observations. 

“I discovered traditionally how much time people spend on food preparation. In our modern world of 'fast food’, we're quite removed from how much time it takes to make food. I witnessed people rubbing couscous in Egypt for hours making those tiny fine-grain balls. In Kenya, coconut is grated with a wood and metal contraption that you need to crouch on the ground and twist to work. The energy, care and time put into the food really changes the quality of the ingredients and ultimately the taste.”

Having accumulated recipes that could fill several cookbooks, it wasn’t easy whittling down her selection for the cookbook. 

Malawi Mbatata, Cheese and Simsim Balls,

She agreed: “That's correct, I have so many more recipes. However, I made the selection based on a few factors. Firstly, recipes that could represent different regions of Africa: north, south, east and west. Then I wanted to put in recipes that would be easy for a beginner to an experienced cook, with ingredients you can find across the world. A lot of my customers are foreign and I want to promote African cooking across the globe. Finally, I chose the most popular recipes, dishes that customers have asked for time and time again.”

As a chef, Mbau favours cooking from scratch with plant-based ingredients, deliberately avoiding ingredients in a can or out of a packet.

Soweto Chakalaka

She is quite the doyenne with her spice mixes and she makes a mean Piri-Piri dip, avocado dressing and pineapple pickle.

She added: “The secret to tasty food comes in layering spices and herbs - that’s the alchemy I love.”

With her Cape Town restaurant closed during the lockdown, Mbau admitted: “The service industry, restaurants and hotels were the first hit by the lockdown. It's a challenge we all have to manoeuvre, while taking care of the many families who depend on our employment. The situation varies from establishment to establishment as far as what you can afford to support your staff with, but it is top of all our minds while we don't know when we will be up and running again. I do believe that despite the strain we're under currently, there is something positive to be gained and once the lockdown is over, we will reap the benefits of our faith.”

She offered a few cooking tips for parents, too. 

Mbau offered: “Hopefully, during this time families will take the time to connect over food. I believe prevention is the best cure, so I'm cooking a lot of vegetables, immune-boosting meals. I think it's important for parents to explain to their kids how sickness, health and food are connected. So making healthy meals together can be fun and a deeper understanding of health will be gained.”

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