Going green: This chef makes veggies look fly

Chef Mokgadi Itsweng believes the idea that healthy food is expensive, holds us back from eating well and enjoying plant-based foods

In her new book, Veggielicious, chef and food activist Mokgadi Itsweng reworks South African recipes with plant-forward passion. Photo: Facebook/Mokgadi Itsweng

In her new book, Veggielicious, chef and food activist Mokgadi Itsweng reworks South African recipes with plant-forward passion. Photo: Facebook/Mokgadi Itsweng

When health is wealth, should it really cost you an arm and a leg? Not in chef Mokgadi Itsweng’s books. This food activist believes the idea that healthy food is expensive is what keeps us from eating well and enjoying plant-based cuisine.

Mokgadi Itsweng’s debut cookbook Veggielicious celebrates the garden and its seasonal bounty with easy, affordable and delicious recipes. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Itsweng has accumulated more than 15 years in the South African culinary industry as a chef, food activist, food entrepreneur and food writer.

Her passion and expertise lie in reintroducing to our plates, with a modern infusion, indigenous foods that are good for the earth and for our health.

“Plant forward eating refers to eating more plants on your plate,” she says. “In South Africa, people are moving away from rural areas to the cities and our indigenous food culture gets destroyed as people increasingly eat cheap, fast foods. Many people in our cities also now suffer from malnutrition and diabetes.”

RECIPE: How to make the perfect vegetarian Wellington

She is on a mission to preserve and mainstream the rich and nutritious heritage of indigenous Mzansi foods, and recently published her debut cookbook, Veggielicious.

“The book has been a long time in the making. It took me over a year to curate the content, taking into consideration the important message that is carried in the book.”

“As a food activist I wanted to create a book that would carry a message of consciousness around food security by growing your own vegetables, food waste and a plant forward lifestyle that is good for the planet and for us.”

Cookbook author Mokgadi Itsweng

She is also the founder and head chef for Lotsha Home Foods and Ujuspice, food businesses that celebrate South African ingredients and recipes.

Itsweng chats to Food For Mzansi about her food journey.

When did your food journey begin? Do you have any fond memories in the kitchen while growing up?

I grew up in a foodie family. My paternal grandmother was a subsistence farmer who grew her own food and my maternal granny was a cook at a hotel in Durban. These two women played a big role in my food journey. I remember harvest time with my granny, where she would harvest the most beautiful pumpkins, ditloo and peanuts.

The taste of fresh vegetables directly from the earth is unforgettable. This helped me to develop a deep love for vegetables.

It was chef Zola Nene who once said, “Black chefs in high positions in top kitchens are like hen’s teeth.” What is your take on the representation of black foodies in the industry?

I don’t think we are well represented in the kitchen. I think our food stories as black South Africans are still being told by other people. We still struggle with accepting our food and our identity in the kitchen. No-one is going to give us a platform to showcase our food, we need to create those platforms ourselves. 

Many would think that plant-based foods cost an arm and a leg. How have you debunked this notion through your work?

The idea that healthy food is expensive, is what holds us back from eating well. I try to debunk that myth by showcasing recipes that are accessible and affordable in the South African context. I also include indigenous ingredients like sorghum, wild food like thepe [amaranth], to show the versatility of our South African ingredients and food.

The festive season is in full swing, what are some of your favourite memories of food in this season?

I love the festive season, it’s my favourite time of the year, where families get together around the table to share love. Growing up in Mamelodi, the festive season always meant us visiting my granny in KZN, the beach, mango trees and guava trees in Umlazi. There was always too much food, laughter and joy in the air. 

“My granny in Umlazi would always bake queens cakes, marble cake, fruit cake and spiced scones to last us the whole holidays.”

Cookbook author Mokgadi Itsweng
What are some your most favourite meals to make in your own kitchen in the summer?

The sorghum salad which I eat with everything. The butternut Wellington which is always a showstopper for Christmas, the mpepho smoked cauliflower and the rainbow slaw, which adds flavour and a raw crunch to every meal.

Where have you drawn inspiration from in terms of your culinary journey?

I have been inspired by the garden and all the incredible seasonal produce available in our country. Local foodies like Mam’ Dorah Sitole, Zola Nene, Khanya Mzongwana and many more.

Do you have any tips for aspirant chefs and home cooks?

Understand your role and place in the food system and never stop learning. I allow my lessons to guide me and drive my process in the food industry. 

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