24 September marks Heritage Day – a national holiday with one message in mind: let us celebrate our diversity as a nation and embrace our cultures. Central to this embrace is food, say Mzansi chefs and home cooks.
Food connects. Food is unity. After all we live in a country with eleven whole languages and it is safe to say that it’s pretty hard to find some sort of commonality.
With such a wide variety of cultures there is obviously room to clash over traditions and beliefs unique to our identity.
Each family also has its own food heritage, and with it its own set of complex customs. But something that remains the same no matter what race, religion or complexion is the South African love for food.
And of course our love of food and our sense of hospitality come together in a good old shisanyama or braai, which has become the poster child culinary experience to commemorate the day.
Food is unity
Our shared food heritage binds us beyond our differences. Just ask Johannesburg home cook Lihle Mahambehlala (21).
To commemorate the day Mahambehlala, who believes that food transcends borders, will be preparing a feast fit for statesmen from across the African continent.
South Africa is unique in its embrace of the African diaspora in its entirety, she believes.
To celebrate the day, she will be incorporating the African continent on her dinner table for her family and friends to enjoy at her Eldorado Park home.
“South Africa is a country that has many diverse groups and on Heritage Day we celebrate the wealth of these cultures. On this one day we get the chance to celebrate this richness of our diversity.”
‘Heritage is long and slow, it’s not about things you do quick and sexy.’ – Dr Anna Trapido
“I want to incorporate the whole continent on my table,” she adds confidently.
The secret to the perfect braai lies in the coals, Mahambehlala believes. “The wood really makes a big difference in terms of the flavouring of your meat,” she says
“I actually learned a couple of tips and tricks from a braai master quite recently and the top tip they have shared with me is to create a blend with coals and chunks of wood – it creates a smokier flavour. I am also learning about different woods and it’s made a huge difference to my technique,” she says.
Heritage is multifaceted
Meanwhile in the North West province of the country, food anthropologist, critic, and chef Dr Anna Trapido will be making a timeless slow-cooked Setswana staple and simultaneously paying homage to her Jewish roots.
Trapido says that heritage is a complex thing for her as she was born to South African parents in England with Lithuanian grandparents, Dutch great grandparents, and Spanish ancestors. “I come from multiple generations of people who haven’t lived in the same country for any length of time and I only recently began grasping my South African-ness,” she explains.
Trapido is a trained anthropologist and chef. Her works have seen her win the World Gourmand Cookbook award three times.
She has even baked a birthday cake for rapper and actor Will Smith, a Christmas cake for former president Nelson Mandela and a batch of cranberry scones for former first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
On the day she will be celebrating her South African roots by borrowing influences from Setswana and isiXhosa culture with tšhotlho (slow cooked pulled beef) and umngqusho (samp and beans).
“That is a food I like which is heritage in the place I live in, but it is not genetically ‘my’ heritage. I make a lot of jollof rice, but that doesn’t make me Nigerian,” she says.
To pay homage to her roots she tells Food For Mzansi that this week Jewish South Africans will observe Rosh Hashanah – Jewish new year.
“Probably a genetically truer answer to my actual heritage, genetically rather than just what my tastebuds want on Heritage Day, is honey. In Jewish New Year you have apples and honey to symbolise the sweetness of the year ahead,” she says.
A tip to live by when cooking on Heritage Day, “Most heritage food is not about trying to be clever, it is about respecting tradition.
‘Kasi cuisine is also our heritage on its own. It plays a central role in our identity.’ – Phumzile Mbinda
“Heritage is long and slow, it’s not about things you do quick and sexy, you want to ensure that you feel everybody in a heritage meal,” she says.
Trapido is not a fan of the “braai day” version of Heritage Day. The day has seemingly lost its significance year by year, she feels. “When one has a thing like braai day everybody else’s heritage gets subsumed and hidden under this one topic,” Trapido says, concerned.
Township cuisine a hidden gem
Her sentiments are echoed by Durban-based chef Phumzile Mbinda, who adds that South Africans have sidelined the significant influence of township culture on Heritage Day.
The KwaZulu-Natal-born chef and founder of Petals and Bows by Phumi says that we have put the township on the back burner when celebrating our heritage as South Africans.
“Kasi cuisine is also our heritage on its own. It plays a central role in our identity.”
Mbinda’s secret to the perfect shisanyama side is uphutu (pap) salad. The concept is a twist of the North African classic couscous with a touch of South Africa.
“You would make uphutu, add some veggies like spinach, butternut and herbs with butter and garlic to make it nice and moist. Instead of couscous you would use pap as a cost-effective alternative.”
Meanwhile KZN home cook Reezwanah Seedat will be celebrating with her busy boys with a braai and loads of Treetz by Reez! The proof is in the sauce, she believes.
“Pre-marinated is the secret to the perfect braai,” the cookbook author says. Don’t rush the process, she says, as it takes at least two to three says to lock in those flavours a
the marinade so that it is lovely and tender and soft and not overcooked or undercooked.
“Yoghurt generally tenderizes meat, especially chicken. For meat we usually also do basted barbecue lamb chops. I like to keep it very simple too!”