Women in Africa continue to shine and break barriers which were once only dreamt of and break into industries which for a very long time were male dominated.
In celebrating women’s month, it is imperative to look at where women come from in the history of South Africa and how far they’ve come to play on a level field with males and excel further at that.
One such woman who not only broke into a previously male dominated industry but also broke the stereotype about how African food was seen and perceived across the globe is trained chef, food columnist and author Nompumelelo Mqwebu.
SADC News sat down with her to find how she broke into the industry and where her love for African indigenous food comes from.
What was your childhood like growing up in KZN?
Mqwebu: I was born in Northern KZN, near Stanger but grew up in eMlazi. I grew up in a typical African home brought up by my grandparents while my parents ran a business in the South Coast in Margate. My parent’s shop was deep in the rural areas in Oaklands Farm, so I had quite a taste of both rural life and township life.
Where does your love for food come from?
Mqwebu: A lot of things for me were unconscious, it was not like I consciously understood where my childhood experiences would take me. Growing up in the South Coast we just ate a lot of fish, there were fisherman who would come into my parent’s shop and batter with my father. Fish in exchange for bread or vegetables and other things. We ended up with a lot of fish at home, so I learnt different ways to cook fish and with my grandmother who grew a lot of vegetables and she used to run her own restaurant in Howick.
So typically, as a child the memories of visiting my grandmother’s house are precious. I remember the different smells of food and soup. That’s where my love for soups and food came from. Also, at home everyone cooked including my dad, I was curious and intrigued about where this man learned to cook because back then you would not see many men in the kitchen cooking. That’s when I found out that he had run away from home as a teenager and found a job in the ships and there he became a cook. That’s where I get my influence of adding value to things.
So then, how did you become a chef?
Mqwebu: Like I said, I wasn’t conscious that all these influences would lead me to be a chef. Afterall, I went to a science boarding school in Durban and we only studied science. My mother was very fixed in me being an attorney, but being a headstrong person that I am, at the time I wanted to do Maritime, but my mother wouldn’t have that, so I decided to get an education and I did Marketing management. But where I found myself, I was in a space of supply chain and logistics of commodities.
I was doing well and BEE was coming in and they had all these plans for me in the Swiss company that I worked for but I ended up leaving but I had to have a plan and going through the motions I had all sorts of thoughts and questions about what do I want to do with my life, it then came to me that you know actually I’m passionate about food.
Everything that I do I always take myself seriously so I decided if I’m going to go for food, I can’t take for granted that I can sort of cook so I must do it professionally. So, I took my retrenchment package and bought my self those phone containers to replace my salary then I enrolled myself at Christina Martin school of food and wine.
Where did specialising in African Indigenous food come from?
Mqwebu: At Culinary school that’s where my eyes were opened to the lack of indigenous food. We were French trained in terms of the methods, and the French terminology in the kitchen. I was looking forward to when we would do South African food but even when we got to cook South African food again we were still cooking koeksisters and boboties and that’s where I saw that the food I eat at home is actually not present and not represented well enough.
There used to be African Renaissance and all these African leaders would come and eat at the school and they would make special requests for things like Ujeqe (steamed bread) so the school had to make a plan but what I found was that the chef in charge would say the lady that does the dishes must make the bread because now we are chefs and cooking Ujeqe is beneath you, that offended me a lot. The good thing though is only now African food all over the world is slowly coming to the centre stage and more African restaurants are opening, now suddenly what the world deems important is important to us now.
The same dish can be cooked in different ways and this is what I learned about my Nguni people that some group like Sothos eat their samp alone while Zulus mix it with beans, so we have something to offer the world we’re just not putting it in the table.
Tell me more about your book, Through the Eyes of an African Chef?
Mqwebu: It started at cooking school, after coming fourth in a cooking competition we entered with my fellow students where we cooked African food and having that food looked down on, then I started documenting and asking myself why can’t I use my own recipes using indigenous ingredients. As I was proposing my book, a white woman threw a question at me which I took as a challenge. She told me people are not going to take nicely to you modernising African indigenous food, I told her every kind of food is present today because it has been developed.
Our food should be everywhere, in the rural areas, in the cities and around the world. The same way we share our culture and our fashion and languages. So in this book I teach people about African food and indigenous ingredients.
What are you currently busy with at the moment?
Mqwebu: I took my book and converted it into a training manual, and I’ll be training chefs, that is my focus. I do booking lessons and training of women farmers around Joburg but that is on a smaller scale but what I will be focused on now is training chefs through the book.
Where can people find your dishes?
Mqwebu: My website: http://nompumelelomqwebu.africa/ where people can book for private lessons or find my recipes. Also follow me on Instagram: @nompumelelomqwebu.
Koketso Ramorei is a journalist and news editor of SADC News with years of experience in a number of genres including sports, politics and community reporting. He has worked for a numerous publications including The Citizen Newspaper and is a former editor of a Johannesburg-based off-campus publication called The Waldorfian Times.