What are your earliest memories of food? This was the first question I asked 47 local foodies, the wonderful characters to be included in a book, Cooked in South Africa, an initiative for Wish Upon a Star, a nonprofit fund-raising charity to raise funds for underprivileged children living with disabilities.
From chefs at more formal establishments to food truckers, market makers and artisan bakers, my team and I documented their colourful journeys, which reflect the rich diversity of South Africa through food. The result is not a traditional recipe book; it is more about stories around food and why these personalities have chosen to cook.
One of the first characters I interviewed was Adam Klein at Kleinsky’s, my favourite breakfast spot in Cape Town. Adam and brother Joel opened in Sea Point in 2014 and I’d escape there every morning for their latke benedict or breakfast bagel, if it weren’t for other commitments. In his not-so-distant past, Adam Klein was better known for his skills on the decks at his famous nightclub, Fiction on Long Street, and not for his perfect bagels. His first foray into food was with Neighbourhood, a late-night diner and bar on the same strip. Kleinsky's is a far cry from the 24/7 frenzy that is Long Street and a "sensible day job" for the contemplative Adam and his brother.
Together they've introduced a fresh, contemporary take on Jewish favourites to the revived Sea Point Main Road, where the neighbourhood is abuzz with trendy new bars and restaurants. The beat of a packed dance floor has been exchanged for a spot with soul of a different pace, luring regulars back for their breakfast bagel or generous latke benedict with crispy lamb bacon. Combine this with the modern deli interior and congenial company and it's no wonder that a seat is often hard to find. Everything is homemade, which actually means something to the brothers, and the star performer on the lunch menu is their hot pastrami on fresh rye, with house-blend mustard and piquant pickles on the side.
Adam's earliest memories of food include going to his granny and grandpa's house on a Friday night. "Chicken soup was always on the menu. It's a nostalgic place."
Granny's soup has been "modernised a little bit" and is served daily. "We don't use chicken necks and feet like our gran did, but it's still a rich chicken broth. I think this is something that goes back hundreds of years, so you can't really mess with it."
From my memory banks, I remember the smell and taste of fresh guavas on the tree outside my granny’s backdoor. I recall mulberry-stained lips and fingers in summer as my siblings and I stuffed our little faces, and helping gran with the pastry as she prepared syrupy fillings for her sweet pies. Her moist carrot cake, or pecan or mulberry pie, and always the perfectly trimmed and triangulated cucumber sandwiches accompanied afternoon tea at her home. In my own home, I’d escape to my rather entertaining nanny, Cynthia Mtandeki, and her friends to dine on her hearty umngqusho or imfino. I also remember the earthy, refreshing umphokoqo, a combination of Cynthia’s crumbly putu pap and sour Amasi milk. My adolescent belly stood no chance of being flat.
From social-media sussed teens to globally connected adults, our obsession with food goes way beyond beautiful Instagram posts, bringing with it necessary worldwide discussions around what we consume, where it comes from, the producers and the future of food. Travel and the Internet have opened the doors to global trends, interesting concepts and exciting ingredients. Television shows, blogs and books abound, yet the really colourful narratives are the ones that start at home in a mother’s or grandmother’s kitchen, in a nearby neighbourhood or on a farm. There are experiences and dishes that touch our hearts, build relationships, inspire debate and gather family and friends. Feast and festivity, breaking the bread or breaking the ice, food is a key ingredient in uniting us around tables.
Reflective of the age in which we live, we also discovered that not all our gastronomes started their careers in food. For many people disillusioned with their day jobs, food culture has brought about change, with new career opportunities starting at neighbourhood markets. Immigrants have brought us diversity and variety, but what began as an idea to capture the stories around traditional styles of cooking quickly evolved into a book that also highlights innovation on the South African food scene. Best described as “scandalous” by Karen Dudley of The Kitchen, the miscegenation of cultures and ingredients is what makes our food so fresh and interesting.