Chatting to Xoliswa Ndoyiya about her second cookbook, “Made With Love”, a collection of 50 unique recipes from her 22 years of being the private chef to Nelson Mandela, her warmth was unmistakeable.
Her passion for cooking was obvious as she shared wonderful anecdotes about feeding Madiba and their interactions.
But, first, here’s some context on how this book came about. It follows her 2011 book “Ukutya Kwasekhaya: Tastes from Nelson Mandela's Kitchen”.
Ndoyiya said releasing a cookbook was a dream she harboured for the better part of her career.
She explained: “It happened that the lady who was doing a book collectively with the people who used to cook for Mr Nelson Mandela before he went to prison and after prison, came to ask the (Nelson Mandela) Foundation for some recipes from me.
“It was my chance to tell her that I can’t give her all the recipes that I have but I can give her some of them. She asked me what was my dream and I told her I would love to have a cooking book.
“She said to me, I’m here, I can do the book with you, and I had to compile all my recipes.”
While the marketing around the first book went well, she admitted that it didn’t do well for her.
She said her second book fulfilled part of an ongoing dream.
“I had recipes that I had kept and didn’t want to put them in the first book because I didn’t know what it was going to be like.”
The recipes that she shares are tried and tested in the Madiba household.
For “Made With Love”, Ndoyiya was hands-on with the book, adding food stylist to her skill set.
She admitted: “I had never been a food stylist but I managed to do that. All that’s in the book.”
This book was a labour of love and it is reflected in her cherished memories of her interactions with Tata Madiba.
I asked her if she remembered the first meal she cooked for him.
Without any hesitation, she responded: “Oh yes, I remember exactly. I made a roast chicken with an orange jus and roasted vegetables with rice. But the surprise was, he ate everything and left the rice. And I was so worried.
“When I saw the rice, as I was collecting the dishes, he called me and said, ‘Don’t mind me not eating the rice, I don’t love rice. So whatever you have cooked is what I love’.”
The feedback consoled her.
Before delving more into the book, Ndoyiya revealed that her passion for cooking was ingrained when she was young.
She shared: “It started as a very young girl when I was with my grandmother and mother. They were great cooks. My grandmother was a domestic worker and every time she would bring back the leftovers from work, I was the one who was always curious about what she had cooked and what she called the dish.
“So the dishes that I loved from her were like cottage pie. That is where it started for me. And I was the first-born to my mother.
“My mother would leave everything when she would go to work and say, do this and do that, combine everything and cook it. I was 13 years old at the time.”
She moved from Queenstown, Eastern Cape, to Johannesburg after her matric year.
She recalled working for a Jewish family, going to cooking classes every Wednesday and, from there, fine-tuning her culinary skills at the Coronation Hotel in Johannesburg.
Of the three stand-out recipes in the book, she admitted: “First of all, I would talk about the oxtail stew and samp and beans. It is close to me.
“He would always tell everyone: ‘Can we go home and have home-cooked food?’ And in those days, it was on a Wednesday. And because he would love that, he would call his friends, his comrades… to have lunch with him and the family.
“He couldn’t go a week without samp and beans and oxtail stew. I had to cook this time and again.”
But the story that really warmed the cockles of my heart was her making his favourite breakfast meal: Umphokoqo (porridge).
“It was supposed to be a porridge but for him it was pap, you know the pap you eat with meat? He was taking this with nuts, raisins and sultanas as his sugar because he was against sugar.
“He was all about having fruit and dried fruit as your sugar. I used to serve it with hot milk.
“When I began to work for him that is what he was eating from the beginning. On the 18th year – I served him for 22 years of my life – I was so surprised to find him eating the most sugar-coated porridge with his grandchildren.
“On the second day, I found him doing the same. And I had to put my foot down as the person responsible for his health. I know him as a very health-conscious person. I told him, Tata, now you are going to get me into trouble with the medical team.”
He asked her to take a seat next to him so he could explain.
She recalled: “He answered me in a way that I was not expecting. He said: ‘Xoli, I think I’ve honoured my mother enough’. He asked: ‘Are you taking my answer?’
“He said: ‘Remember, I grew up eating this porridge that was cooked by my mother for me when I was a young boy, and remember this porridge I ate until I was a big boy. I came to Johannesburg, I came for greener pastures. I became a lawyer. I was away from my mother for some time but I would go and see my mother.
‘I was still eating this porridge but not in the same way that my mother used to cook it. Now, I went to prison and when I came out of prison, I came out eating this porridge.
‘I keep eating this porridge as a way of saying to my mother, I’m still with you because I never got the chance to go and bury my mother who was cooking this porridge’.”
She added: “But he began eating that porridge again.”
Her last story was funny.
Ndoyiya said: “These dishes were close to him and close to me. He had left for four days to London. I was headed home to see my children but was told to come back. I thought it was a joke.
“But I had to package a meal – sour milk and cream (on the side) – and wrapped it up nicely and wrote on the outside: ‘President’s medication’. That is how we smuggled it into another country.
“And when he came back, he said: ‘Hey, you are going to prison as well because you smuggled food’.”
In her time as Madiba’s private chef, Ndoyiya accumulated many heart-warming stories about the Father of the Nation.
While she cooked with love, she was also taught a few important lessons along the way and they remain close to her heart.
She shared: “Time and again, he would say you must never give up in life and do good but don’t expect a reward.
“From the values he taught us, I choose four: loving people, caring for people, sharing with people and, most of all, respecting people.”
As I said at the beginning, Ndoyiya exudes such an infectious warmth that she leaves you with an insatiable desire to hear more tales of Madiba while tucking into her dishes.
∎“Made With Love” retails for R420 and should be available at most bookstores and online.