You can’t be a South African foodie without knowing Siba, who like Jamie and Nigella, has earned that golden first-name-only status. The TV chef with the infectious personality and killer smile who grew up in a humble Eastern Cape township is on a global rise… managing to look perpetually happy and glamorous while cooking food that’s calling your name. Well, actually her name…as it’s all “Siba-licious!”
Even though she’s got charm, a global palate and contemporary style in spades, I think it is Siba Mtongana’s authenticity that is her greatest drawcard. What you see is what you get from this magnetic culinary force and mega role model, who is grounded by strong Xhosa roots and family values. I’m not spouting hype here; it’s my own perception…and yes, I did meet her.
First a few facts: Siba is the first South African to have her own television show broadcast on The Cooking Channel in the US, with a reach of 60 million homes. Siba’s Table is now aired in more than 130 countries in Africa, the UK, Europe, the Middle East, US, Australia and Asia. She made Oprah Magazine’s prestigious 2014 O Power List of 21 African Women Rocking the World, and is an active do-gooder, as Foodbank South Africa ambassador and participant in many charity events. Which leads me to how I met Siba.
It would be an understatement to say that my jaw dropped to the floor when Siba, who lives and shoots her shows in Cape Town, accepted an invitation to speak at a charity breakfast at my daughters’ school last year (for Rotary’s Interact Club, which she had headed at her own high school). For non-South Africans, I’d say it would be like Nigella Lawson agreeing to show up at your kid’s school to talk about her life’s journey and favourite dishes.
At the event, before Siba even got started, she walked around the audience of mostly white faces, saying hello, schmoozing and hugging nearly everyone. Then she spoke… about her humble beginnings, and how there were always people sitting around her family’s table who had less than she did…and always made to feel welcome by her parents. Her rise to success which began with a Food and Consumer Sciences degree from Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where she mentored and tutored academically struggling students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. How for three years she was a Sunday School teacher in her local church in Langa, where she encountered immense poverty and hunger among the children of that community. And how she made the epic leap from cooking instructor to magazine food editor to TV show host.
As a speaker, Siba had her audience enthralled, and the story of her journey was inspiring on many levels. I also loved what she had to say about food; most interesting to me was her easy-going embrace of both tradition and modernity, of South African and global flavours – and how she weaves them all together.
Recently, Siba answered a few of my questions about the role of traditional South African food in her life.
Q. Where did you grow up and how did this shape your personal culinary heritage?
A. I grew up in East London in a township called Mdantsane, in the Eastern Cape. I have such great memories of my mother cooking our traditional food in our home kitchen and somehow even today those teachings form a firm foundation for my cooking, which touches on traditional food here and there, but with a modern twist.
Q. What were some of your favourite childhood dishes?
A. My favourite was mfino (spinach or wild leaves cooked in sautéed onions, mixed with maize meal and cooked until a somewhat crumbly yet mashed potato-like mixture). It was what my mom used to make for us after school. I loved samp and beans (umngqusho) with meat stews and veggies. I also enjoyed umphokoqo or krummel pap (white maize meal) with milk or maas (sour milk) and many other things. And, I liked pasta dishes and adding a variety of vegetables from my mom’s veggie garden.
Q. Do you make them now in the traditional way, or do you translate them into modern versions?
A. There are times when I just crave something traditional; especially when I’m feeling nostalgic. Then there are other times when I want something traditional but with a bit of a modern flair. I do this often when I want to kill two birds with one stone: teaching people how to make the traditional food and how to make it a little more modern. Often traditional food is only exciting to those who grew up eating it, so I give it a twist to make it attractive to others who perhaps would find it boring or bland in its traditional state. So you teach and inspire at the same time.
For example, I’ve turned mfino into wonderful canapés with soy mayonnaise and hot smoked salmon. And, I created the ‘papizza’, which is pizza with a stiff pap base.
Q. Many foods in the traditional diet are high in starch. Is health more of a consideration for you in terms of what you like to cook today, and how does this tie into traditional foods?
A. Being in the food space and a person who influences what people eat, health is definitely something on my mind. This is true when creating my recipes or when cooking at home, as I am also a mom. Contrary to what some people believe, our traditional food is generally low in fat, and high in starch with lots of vegetables often accompanied by protein. It’s more the Western side of our diet, with food high in fat, starch and sugar, that is detrimental to our health than the traditional side.
Q. Is it better to keep some dishes/foods purely traditional, rather than to try to adapt them?
A. It depends on how traditional you are and who you are cooking for at that time. When I visit my home in the Eastern Cape, my parents appreciate some of the things I cook in which I modify traditional food. But I know there is a special place for something authentically traditional like krummel pap or mphokoqo with maas for instance, and I often don’t want to tamper with that. But for a friend from abroad who thinks its bland – I’d add a little sugar and they’d appreciate it more.
All images courtesy of Food Network.