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Suppliers are the new stars

Mumbai was recently treated to a culinary safari of South African cuisine, twice over. At the JW Marriott, visiting chef Mohamed Mustafa hosted a two-week South African food festival, and at the much-awaited Taste of Mumbai festival, Chris Erasmus, a chef and cookbook author from Cape Winelands, conducted cooking masterclasses. We got the chefs together and grilled them on the complexities of the region’s fare. Edited excerpts:

Why is South African cuisine called rainbow food?

Erasmus: South African food is influenced by many, many cultures. Each region has its own style of cooking. Similar to here, where saying “India food" doesn’t say much at all. The Western Cape was a stop on the spice route, so the food in that region is characterized by perfumed spices like cloves, nutmeg and star anise. Each community of colonizers and settlers also brought their own styles of cooking and ingredients—for instance, sambal from the Cape Malays, peri peri from the Portuguese, biryani from the Indians.

What’s a typical celebratory meal like?

Erasmus: In summer, most people would prefer a good South African braai, where food is grilled outdoors. We’ll often roast a whole lamb on the spit. Sosaties (a type of kebab on skewers), and braaibroodjies (toasted sandwiches) are big favourites. In winter, families get together for rich, wholesome, slow-cooked food, lots of stews, butternut squash soup and braised meat. Generally, people prefer to cook only what’s in season.

Mustafa (left) and Erasmus (seated). Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
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Mustafa (left) and Erasmus (seated). Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

What is considered prized produce from the region?

Erasmus: With our climate, there’s not much that won’t grow in South Africa. In the last 10 years or so, there’s been a movement to support local produce, so we barely import anything. The suppliers are the new rock stars, not the chefs. Cape fruit like apples and pears are highly regarded, and we make fine olive oil from local olives. We’re also blessed with a wide variety of seafood nearly all year round—mullets, mussels, oysters, crayfish and rock lobster, to name a few.

Tell us more about South African desserts and sweet treats.

Erasmus: We have a lot of sweet elements in our savoury food, and a lot of spices in our desserts, like ginger and cinnamon. Pumpkin is popular—pumpkin pies, cakes, fritters, even pumpkin flour in flapjacks. During high tea, we often serve soetkoekies, which are sweet biscuits cooked in lamb fat. Carrot cake is also quite common. A good example of a traditional dessert is malfapudding, made with apricot jam. I like to serve it warm with cinnamon or white chocolate cardamom ice cream. A personal favourite is koeksister, where deep-fried dough is dipped in an ice-cold syrup of ginger, cinnamon and lemon.

Mustafa: Of course, banana fritters, you’ll find them everywhere and banana bread that’s a little sweet, a little spicy.

The cuisine is known to place a lot of importance on drying and preserving foods. What are some of the best-known examples of this?

Erasmus: In the semi-arid areas of the country, or the bushveld, food is simple and people rely a lot on preserving. In the West Coast too, there are some examples: Bokkom is salted, dried fish, usually Cape mullet, that’s a delicacy there.

Mustafa: We do a lot of pickling in summer, when the fruits are overripe. Our chutneys and atjars (pickles) are usually a combination of sweet, sour and salty flavours, rather than spice. Commonly, quince, lemon, pear and mango are made into chutneys, as are fennel, peppers, sweet potato. We also make a preserve using aubergine, which is similar to the Moroccan-style baba ganoush, only sweeter.

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