Chef Sipho Mdlankomo: Food is a means of expressing love and gratitude

Published on Mar 30, 2022 12:59 PM IST

After working as a domestic worker for a Jewish family for 14 years, Mdlankomoi’s fate changed when her employers encouraged her to enter cooking competitions. Not only did she make it to the final two in MasterChef‘in 2014, but she now has her own cooking show, called ‘Let’s Eat With Siphokazi’

Chef Sipho Mdlankomo
Chef Sipho Mdlankomo

Chef Sipho Mdlankomoi grew up in Tsolo, a small village outside of Mthatha in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. She relocated to Cape Town and started working as a domestic worker. After working as a domestic worker for a Jewish family for 14 years, Mdlankomoi’s fate changed when her employers encouraged her to enter cooking competitions.

Not only did she make it to the final two in ‘MasterChef ‘in 2014, but she now has her own cooking show, called ‘Let’s Eat With Siphokazi’. She has also released a cook book, titled ‘My Little Black Recipe Book’. The chef has a candid chat with us and draws comparisons between Indian and South African cuisine.

Question: Her approach to food

My approach to food is very personal. Food has an emotional association that allows it to become a channel of expressing love, care, and gratitude. While there are many ways to immerse yourself a culture, one of the best ways - in my opinion - to do is through food. Some of the recipes are recipes I grew up cooking and eating, but now with the knowledge I have gained, I try to give those recipes a new life, to revamp them. For example, pap - you can cook pap in so many ways, not just the old-fashioned way. Pap lasagna, stuffed deep fried pap balls, papizza, the list is endless.

Question:History of SA cuisine

While South Africa offers unique wildlife and adventure experience, what makes it even more exciting for travelers is the diversity in its culinary offerings by the various communities that inhabit the country. Food enthusiasts will find themselves a range of options, from lavish Eurocentric gourmet exclusivity to authentic cultural delights at the many Michelin star restaurants. South African cuisine is a unique fusion of many different external cultural influences. These include Dutch, French, Indian and Malaysian flavours and techniques that continue to make their way onto the menus of restaurants and into the homes of locals all over the country. Home to some of the world’s finest wine, South Africa has become an integral part of the luxury experience. South Africa’s wine lands stretch from the Cape Overberg in the south-western Cape, through the Little Karoo and the West Coast into the adjacent province of the Northern Cape. The Cape Winelands are the most well-known, and include the Route 62 wine route, said to be the world’s longest wine route. From the deliciously diverse flavors of South Africa’s indigenous and multi-cultural rainbow cuisine to culinary specialties from all over the world, the fascinating variety of different culinary traditions is irresistible.

Question: Similarities between India and SA cuisine

Curried dishes are popular in South Africa among people of all ethnic origins; many dishes came to the country with the thousands of Indian indentured labourers brought to South Africa in the nineteenth century. Indian expats have contributed to South African cooking with a wide variety of dishes and culinary practices, including a variety of curries, sweets, chutneys, fried snacks such as samosa, and other savory foods. Interestingly, South Africa’s delicious signature dish – the Bunny Chow (also simply known as the ‘bunny’), has Indian origins. The dish consists of a hollowed-out loaf of white bread filled with meat or vegetable curry. This dish, though rare in India, is extremely popular with the locals of the Rainbow Nation. In fact, each year in September the ‘Bunny Chow Barometer’, which attracts numerous entrants from across the Durban Metro region to compete for the title of top bunny maker, is held in Durban.

Question. Dishes cooked on important days (weddings, festivals, etc.)

Celebrations and occasions such as weddings and funerals are very important in telling the food story of South Africa. These occasions really are a group effort - everyone in the community has a role to play for the event to be executed. A great festive meal must have at least seven colors: the yellow of savory rice, the white of potato salad, the purple of beetroot, the orange of butternut mash, the green of creamed spinach, the brown of the meat and the red of the chakalaka (vegetable relish). On Sunday’s families usually go all out and are extravagant and prepare these traditional dishes they don’t usually have during weekday.

Question. Do you think the country is evolving in terms of food tastes and styles?

Over the last 20 years or so, though, the internet and social media have tied people around the world closer and closer together, creating new food cultures regardless of physical proximity. South Africa can be said to have a significant “eating out” culture. While there are some restaurants that specialize in traditional South African dishes or modern interpretations thereof, restaurants featuring other cuisines such as Moroccan, Chinese, West African, Congolese, and Japanese can be found in all the major cities and many of the larger towns.

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