Exploring food’s soft power with chef and author Nompumelelo Mqwebu
Nompumelelo Mqwebu is an enterprising chef who has travelled the world to hone her skills. Yet her roots remain firmly planted in her homeland of Africa. She has recently released her debut cookbook, Through the Eyes of an African Chef.
Chef Mwqwebu runs Africa Meets Europe Cuisine, a skills-training and hospitality service provider, as well as the Mzansi International Culinary Festival. Before this, Nompumelelo spent 10 years training and mastering her cooking skills around South Africa and the world, including at culinary schools and kitchens in New York, London, Paris, Bremen and Shannary. She has sat on various judging panels, including judging the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
Having trained at the prestigious Ballymalloe Cookery School in Ireland, Chef Mqwebu has mastered the art of making yoghurts, butters, preserves and countless more recipes and methodologies that are included in her book. We chatted to Nompumelelo about food as a powerful ingredient in human and foreign relations.
In your years of travels as a chef, have you experienced the “soft power”of food?
Yes, food transmits with it a cultural identity. When people taste your food, they appreciate and embrace your identity and culture. This bonds well in business as well as in social circles. Offering your food means opening your world. Hospitality is incomplete without food. As part of etiquette, people are catered for when they visit. There’s a certain level of respect people afford you, when you display information of who you are.
A chapter in your book is titled “Ukuhamba Kuzala Induna (My Food Travels)”- if you had the opportunity to travel to any of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), where would you go and why?
Brazil- from what I have learnt over the years about Brazil being the largest country in South America and the most diverse, it fascinates me. I would love to try their local dishes and explore the influences of their neighbouring countries, such as Venezuela and Peru. I am interested in gauging if the food I have eaten outside Brazil, which is said to be authentic Brazilian, measures up to the cooking in Brazil. Dig into their indigenous and ingredients and cooking methods to feed me into their cultural identity.
Each of the BRIC countries have a signature drink or dish – what would South Africa’s be?
South Africa is not a one-nation one-dish type of country. We have indigenous ingredients from our diverse cultures that make up this South African nation, reflected by our 11 official languages. From samp with marrow, to dovhi la mukusule, tsama melon, springbok meat with maize meal rice, ting and many more!
What do you think other nations can learn from South Africa food techniques, from growing and harvesting to preparation and preservation?
The art of preserving meat called mukoki (biltong), which has been with us for decades. It has been transformed to the rest of the world, but much of its important history if from the Khoisan hunters, VhaVenda and other South Africa peoples and has been lost along the way. Another example is umqombothi (traditional Zulu beer) – the fermentation is an age-old formula using sorghum that has entered world trends, but which has been part of our daily lives for centuries. Even looking at the “new”nose-to-tail talk – it has always been here, the relationship between Africans and animals. The skin is used rather than thrown away. The skin is used rather than thrown away. The animal is eaten from the premium cuts to tripe. Horns, hooves, tail hair – everything has its use. Food waste is something of a new phenomenon by reviving our methods of old.
What can be done to ensure South African effectively uses food for national branding purposes?
We must take up our food identity with the national pride it deserves. We need to listen to our visitors. They do not come to our country to taste their food; they are here for our food. They need us to genuinely welcome them by opening our culinary journey in earnest, sharing who we are that reflective of our roots and our food culture. We are a diverse nation, and that should be reflected fully in our cuisine. Embrace the cultures previously left in our culinary history.
What advice would you give South African chefs who are cooking beyond the borders of our country?
Keep it real. Show pride in your roots and our identity, which is brimming with diverse cultures that are yet to explored. Remember to know where you’re going- it’s important to know your history.