Despite the broadening of the global palate, historically people have shown very little interest in African cuisine, believes Abonga ‘Absie’ Pantshwa (39), food commentator and co-founder of the Fresh Corporation.
The home cook says that the past few decades have, however, been indicative of radical changes in the global culinary sphere with African cuisine set to make great strides towards inclusion.
Pantshwa has been prompted to speed up this process with an initiative two years in the making that has recently become reality. Alongside a network of chefs she has become a custodian of African cuisine through an initiative she calls the African Culinary Library.
The preservation and celebration of the continent’s rich food history lies in the hands of its people, she believes. “We need to take pride in our own foods before the world can actually see us as an equal partner and an equal player.”
At its core African food is by nature embedded with a sense of community, says Pantshwa. Growing up in the Eastern Cape town of Port St Johns was where she was exposed to this aspect very early in her life.
Her father, Wela Pantshwa (71), is a farmer and part of a farming stokvel in the coastal town and would share produce from their harvests amongst a group of neighbouring farmers in the area.
“We have grown up with farming in our blood, preparing farm-to-table meals. We would use every inch of produce harvested or slaughtered in our backyards. Everything was put on a plate,” she says.
“Growing up I have watched the sense of community in food. To this day my dad and his neighbours share whatever is grown on their farms.
“When they harvest, they will visit five or seven houses all bearing the fruits of their labour. These are elderly men who hardly buy anything from a local supermarket, they get all that they need from each other,” Pantshwa elaborates.
In 2013, she founded the Johannesburg-based corporate catering company Fresh Corporation with her sister, chef Mandlakazi Mbeta, offering elite event services countrywide.
A family of cooks
While she may not be a qualified chef, Pantshwa classes herself as a home cook with an exploratory palate. She draws her culinary inspiration from her late mother, Nombulelo Pantshwa.
“I do love cooking, so my source is definitely my late mother and my sister who is the actual chef behind the operation. For a long time, I didn’t feel like I had space in the kitchen, there was my mom, my sister, our helper and some kind of aunt who always cooked while I would spend more time outside with my brothers.”
This changed when tragedy struck her family. In 2009 her mother, who had battled an acute brain tumour, found peace. To honour her memory, Pantshwa took to the kitchen.
‘Mom used to say whatever you cook, make it with love.’
“To be honest I never thought I would fall in love with the kitchen or even end up in the food business,” she explains.
Her fondest memories of the kitchen are of her father’s famous steak and kidney mash and peas meal that he would prepare weekly.
“He wouldn’t necessarily make it into a pie. We would have it with mash potatoes and peas, which are still my absolute favourite side dishes.”
It has been nearly impossible to recreate the dish. “My sister actually sat and watched him make it and she can’t remake it, there is something that obviously he brings to it, that actually makes the dish,” she says.
She now believes that the secret ingredient is love. “My mom used to say whatever you cook, make it with love. And if you are not feeling it, don’t. Feelings transfer to a plate.”
A sisterly partnership bears fruit
Pantshwa had never imagined she would work alongside her sister to make their clients’ visions for extravagant events a reality. “Growing up I was never really into these big blowouts. Personally, I do not like the limelight, but I love to do it for other people.”
The Fresh Corporation offers a multitude of services including catering corporate events and recently opening the doors of the Fresh Yum Café in Randpark Ridge in Johannesburg.
Like many businesses in the hospitality industry theirs has been hard hit by the covid-19 pandemic.
“2020 was the year when everything was going to happen, resolutions were made, and we had reason to believe that they would happen,” she says.
The extent of damage to the industry due to lockdown disruptions have been devastating, she adds. “Our company includes a database of 200 people, including anything from baristas to waiters, butlers and actual chefs. All of them have had zero work for the past three months. It’s devastating to see, because these people were once thriving in the industry.”
‘There is no failure in the kitchen, only learning.’
Corporate events are in danger and the duo have accepted defeat. However, Pantshwa holds firm to the adage, “when one door closes another one opens”.
“It’s going to take us a while to recover financially as an industry, but since opening the Fresh Yum Café I think we are doing okay.”
A love for locally produced produce
An ardent traveller, her journeys have seen her try out many delicacies from across the continent.
Pantshwa says that it is unfortunate that the same respect reserved for American or Asian cuisines is not given to our native food. “Whatever grows around us, is what we need as humans to perform.”
African food is diverse. “We all know koeksisters and bobotie, but we don’t really know the history of it and why it is significant to the country. It happened organically, but I took it upon myself to find out what happens in each town when it comes to food.”
Pantshwa is working to change the narrative of our own food and how the world sees it. “If you ask anyone on any street at any corner of the globe, if you ask what African cuisine is, they all say jollof rice or tilapia,” she says firmly.
Pantshwa advises chefs and home cooks to always add passion to the dish. “Enjoy what it is that you do and explore it. Colour outside of the lines, mess with those old tried and tested recipes, take the risk. There is no failure in the kitchen, only learning.”