Love food for a hero – South Africa

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Earlier this year I went to the launch of the cook book Ukutya Kwasekhaya: Tastes from Nelson Mandela’s Kitchen by Xoliswa Ndoyiya, private chef to South Africa’s national hero for the past twenty years. A little cheekily I used my press credentials to get into this popular event at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, though I’m not really reporting these days.

The Foundation is just around the corner from where I live, and is also where I went to my first press conference when I arrived in South Africa as a correspondent in 2004. For the launch of the Foundation’s historical archive. It was far from big news, but since Mandela himself was going to be present local and foreign media piled in with cameras and recorders.

It is the only press conference I have been to in which the collected press corps has greeted the subject with a standing ovation. Madiba himself was already so old and frail he was seated for the event, in a large arm chair at the front. No one expected him to show up at the launch of the cook book recently, but the media showed up in full force nevertheless.

Xoliswa Ndoyiya, Nelson Mandela’s private chef for the past 20 years.

There is something magical about Nelson Mandela, everyone knows. I shook hands with him once, when I was an exchange student in Swaziland just after he had been released from prison in 1990. I remember feeling like I wanted to take a piece f him with me for the rest of my life: a piece of goodness and the moral principles he represents.

To cook for someone is an intimate experience, and there is no doubt Xoliswa Ndoyiya has played a central part in the life of the Mandela family. At the book launch Madiba’s children and grandchildren referred to her as ’Mama Xoli’, and said she was the family’s best kept secret. In a handwritten note Madiba thanks her for ”feeding us so well all these years.”

Xoliswa herself could not hold back her tears as she talked about her dream of writing a cook book and to share her recipes with the world. Some of the dishes are wholesome traditional South African food, like Isophu, sugar bean and maize soup, or the very typical South African relish Tshakalaka. But there’s also curried mango rice salad and seafood spaghetti stir fry.

Curried mango salad.

The recipes are surprisingly simple and straight forward for someone who has fed not only Madiba, but also guests like Michael Jackson and Oprah Winfrey. Speaking to the world press Xoliswa said the children of the family always suspected her of using some secret ingredient. There was none, other than love. ”It is love. I cook food with love.”

”Some people don’t see cooking as important, but I truly believe that we who stir pots and roast meats have a big responsibility. Chefs bring whatever love, longing, sadness and joy they feel to the stove and it goes into their food. This is a power that should not be taken lightly, either by those who cook or those who eat,” she writes in the foreword.

Her fare certainly tastes lovely. As the journalists mingled after the press conference I couldn’t help myself from grabbing one taster after another: the curried mango salad was soft and sweet, the potato laksa with prawns sophisticated and delicious, the chicken with samp and beans the definition of comfort food. Madiba’s favourite, the oxtail stew, is simply divine.

I got so into the food I soon found myself standing just outside the kitchen door to catch the waiters as soon as they appeared with a new tray of samples. When I eventually decided to leave I bumped into the day’s chef. I wanted to thank him for the lovely food, but full and content I stumbled on my words: ”Thanks for the love,” I said, ”it was fabulous.”

Chicken with samp and beans.

A peak into the kitchen at the Mandela Foundation.

Nelson Mandela's favourite dish - oxtail stew.

Nelson Mandela’s favourite dish – oxtail stew.

Ukutya Kwasekhaya: Tastes from Nelson Mandela’s Kitchen, by Xoliswa Ndoyiya and Anna Trapido, by Real African Publishers and the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 2012.