Award-winning chef and local legend Dorah Sitole, who spent years as the editor and food editor at True Love magazine, celebrates a culinary journey to savour through her latest book, 40 Years of Iconic Food, in which she commemorates certain milestones, township living, hunger, loss and learning. Nobhongo Gxolo speaks to her about the book and internationalising African cuisine.
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40 Years of Iconic Food invites readers to taste cultures through food. How has the versatility of food expressed itself for you?
Food is quite important. We all have to eat to survive … Food is central to every occasion. Whether you’ve just given birth. Graduation. Grief. Futhi (on top of it) when you’re grieving it’s worse — we eat, even more, especially us African families. Someone will cook breakfast; someone will make lunch, you don’t have to think — food just keeps coming. Food is just something else; it’s magic, you know? It soothes you, and it comforts you, it nourishes you… Food draws people together. African people are very generous with food. The Sothos have a fascinating saying: Dijo ketshila yameno — Don’t hold onto food, it just makes your teeth dirty, so give generously. You can’t really translate it.
In the book, you mention the heartbreak of losing loved ones; your son, your husband, your brother.
My first real grief was my son. That hit me so, so hard. It’s almost like nothing after that would hurt so bad. Three months after he passed on my brother — we grew up like twins, him too. That also hit me. With my brother’s death, I experienced a miscarriage afterwards, that’s how traumatising it was. It’s almost like those two deaths numbed me. So that in the future with my mother, my sister, my brother, my husband — that thorn was being pressed in a bit. But it wasn’t as traumatising as the first. It’s like that trauma helped me navigate the others that came after… Death is death; losing a person is losing a person — but I think there is a special pain that comes with losing your flesh and blood. It’s like your husband is your husband, and the pain of that loss was profound, excruciating. But this one [your son] is you — they came from you. Even your brother is your blood. Every death, I’d say, diminished me a bit.
For many, Covid-19 has been traumatic for some while others found innovation and creativity, and you brought a cookbook out?
Lockdown was a gift of time for me. With every book, every publication you’re pressed for deadlines — they were driving me crazy. It’s a big book, and a lot of writing went into it. I did an intro about what the recipes mean to me. There was a lot of writing and typing — my fingers [suffered]. When you come from the magazine space deadlines are your enemy. I was shooting, and it felt like there was so much to do. And then lockdown happened, and everything stopped. No shooting, no one’s working, no one’s doing anything. I’ve got time so let me just concentrate on [the book]…I think I did most of my writing — the writing that really came from my heart during that time. Because then I could go back to all my stories and rewrite and revise. It worked for me in that way. I’m sad for people who lost jobs, the business that shut down, lost lives — I’m sad for those families. But I’m grateful that something came out for me at that time — something positive.
You’ve said that people should develop a taste for African food — to celebrate and be curious about it, why?
Our food is amazing. This whole nation la eMzantsi [here in South Africa] that’s refusing to experiment with our food — they’re losing out on so much flavour. Why are you able to enjoy i-oyster or i-sushi? It’s a mind shift. It’s because you’re curious about it. So I feel, nabo, they should be curious about our food. Curious enough to say: Idombolo, i-ting, umphokoqo zi-taster kanjani?
But there’s zilch interest. It’s their loss. What I love seeing now, every occasion, no matter how sophisticated that African family considers themselves, they will have African food on the table. There was a time when it was just lasagne, pasta salad, but now you’ll find samp and beans, an excellent dish of ulusu (tripe) and whatever. I think we’re now consciously embracing our food as black people.
Technology has made so much accessible — everyone is a food “expert”. Does this take away from classically trained chefs?
I wish people would respect the classical ways of cooking; respect ingredients, respect technique. Don’t think you can just throw flavours that don’t even go together for the sake of Insta. Argh man, I love the noise and that people are cooking. But there should be some respect for well-trained chefs. And a lot of those chefs who are hard-working, who are producing good, respectable food are very quiet. They seem to be working in the background, doing their thing and focusing on their craft and skill. Do you know what it is to whisk? To sauté? Learn those terms and do them correctly. You don’t even need to go to chef school just buy a nice book.
Khona manje (right now) you just have to Google — what is this technique I see used in this recipe? Don’t just look at ingredients and say: Mina ngizozenza nge-way engifuna ngakhona (I’ll just do it the way I see fit), I don’t care what chef says.
Ingredients are there for a reason, they all have their various tastes, and they want to be respected. It’s nice to be creative, but if I give you my recipe, try it out once and respect it. And afterwards, you can make it your own and add things.
How have you lasted this long in this space?
I think it boils down to passion and what some people might term a calling. It’s something that resonates with your soul. I started working in market research, and when I joined the food industry, I didn’t even know there was a career like that. When I got this job, it was like destiny. As if this divine hand held me and put me in this career that I didn’t even study for. Immediately when I got in, I felt like I’m at home. I loved it so much and told myself that people around me had studied this craft; they’ve been to chef school and teachers’ college to learn home economics, so I’m also going to study and make sure that I feel confident around them… It was an extension of my lifestyle. It never felt like work. You get physically tired because you’re on your feet the whole time. But when you wake up in the morning, you’re not thinking: Yho, ndisayosebenza (I’m going to work) … It’s an industry that loved me, and I loved it. It’s a calling, to begin with, and then the passion that comes with it, and then the focus of honing in on this skill and not getting distracted by other possible career paths and interests … Then you get to stay because you get so much fulfilment and so much satisfaction from what you’re doing.