Celebrating SA’s township food

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MEDIA CONTACTS
• Soweto Food Festival
info@sowetofoodfestival.co.za
marketing@sowetofoodfestival.co.za
• Adilia Teixeira
Channel Managed PR
Tel: +27 (0)11 327 5802
Mobile: +27 (0)72 398 2525
Email: adilia@channelmpr.co.za
• Refiloe Mataboge
+27 (0)72 622 0782
• Mavis Mataboge
+27 (0)72 458 6696
• South African Chefs Association
Graham Donet
+27 11 482 7250

USEFUL LINKS
Soweto Food Festival
South African Chefs Association
Soweto

Wilma den Hartigh

The first-ever Soweto Food Festival is set to celebrate Africa’s food heritage by showcasing both traditional ekasi cuisine – township food – and food from elsewhere on the continent, and will also introduce international cooking to the people of Soweto.

“We would like to put township food on the map and bring international food to the township,” said Refiloe Mataboge, organiser of the festival, which will be held from 1 to 4 October 2009. She said people who don’t usually eat township food can sample it, and township residents who have not been exposed to foods from other parts of the world will have an opportunity to taste foreign dishes.

According to Graham Donet, general manager of the South African Chefs Association (Saca), there are a number of misconceptions about indigenous South African food.

“Traditional African cuisine is extremely varied and most people have not been exposed to its full scope,” he said. “We want to get away from the mopani worms that have been marketed for shock value and show people what wholesome tasty indigenous food is like.”

Why township food?

Sisters Refiloe and Mavis Mataboge identified the need for a food festival when they noticed that more people were moving back to Soweto. It seemed that the township’s food, the lively atmosphere and culture was a big drawcard.

“We realised that there is no one fully capturing and telling the story of township cuisine and this is what we are setting out to do,” Mataboge explained.

In recent years there has been growing interest in Soweto’s food establishments. Donet said this trend is encouraging because it shows that indigenous food is growing in popularity. The next goal is to see more South Africans choose township food establishments for a good night out.

“What we want is people from other suburbs and areas in South Africa to also experience this and make the trip to Soweto to experience its vibrant culture,” he said.

Food has a significant role in making cultures more accessible, according to Mokgadi Itsweng (PDF), head chef and owner of Black Sage, a catering company that specialises in contemporary African cuisine. In South Africa, food has been a main catalyst in making the townships more trendy.

“There is a great need in society to learn about other cultures, and food is one of the easiest ways to do this,” Itsweng said.

Mataboge said more restaurants and hotels are showing interest in serving traditional food as part of mainstream cuisine. “We believe that a great number of chefs are making an effort and we hope that through the Soweto Food Festival we can support them.”

The origins of indigenous SA food

Itsweng explained that South Africa’s food history is rooted in the country’s diverse population. Immigrants, settlers and migrant labourers brought much of today’s popular cuisine ideas, ingredients and food preparation techniques to the country.

She believes that foreigners who made South Africa their home many years ago made a valuable contribution to food, spices and fresh produce diversity in the country. Immigrants brought with them the ingredients they needed to prepare their dishes, or adapted their dishes to the ingredients they found here. The ordinary orange carrot, for example, was brought into the region by the French Huguenots, and has now become widespread.

Indian and Malaysian influences mean spicy dishes such as curry, bobotie and samoosas are now of South Africa’s food heritage.

Even township food has incorporated external influences, and Itsweng believes that this diversity is what gives it such a wide appeal.

“It is a merger between what is known as ‘western’ and ‘traditional African’ cuisine,” she said. Popular dishes such as pasta salads are a western influence, while atchar is uniquely South African.

Food indigenous to the African continent also hasn’t remained unchanged. “Food is dynamic and always evolving,” she said. A common dish like morogo, made from indigenous spinach, has developed and now similar leafy crops from countries such as Zimbabwe, Kenya and Ghana are also consumed in South Africa.

Itsweng has noticed that nowadays even township food has a healthy twist: “Food is cooked in less oil, olive oil is used and there is less deep frying,” she said. Salads and side dishes are also often stir fried or steamed.

On offer at the festival

It is South Africa’s food diversity that gives the Soweto Food Festival its significance. Numerous South African chefs will be preparing a variety of dishes ranging from everyday township food, to more daring local, African and international dishes. Itsweng is one of the chefs who will be preparing signature dishes at the festival.

Saca will be running an interactive chef’s kitchen where top Soweto chefs such as Kabelo Segone will give demonstrations on township and worldwide cuisine. Audiences can also pick up tips on knife skills, new food preparation techniques as well as food trends.

The practical food demonstrations will offer ideas to prepare tasty meals at home. Although many South Africans have been affected by the economic downturn, food remains an important part of everyday life.

“We still celebrate with food, perhaps on a tighter budget, but it brings families and friends together,” Mataboge said.

Township stokvels (informal savings clubs), catering companies and restaurants will also showcase their cooking talent. Traditional food will be on offer from many of South Africa’s cultural groups – Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Swazi and Venda.

Some of South Africa’s food favourites such as magwenya or vetkoek (a large yeast dumpling fried in oil), kota/sephatlo or bunny chow (a hollowed out loaf of bread filled with curry) will also be available.

Embassies in South Africa have been invited to bring their countries’ food to the festival and there will be wine tasting, whisky tasting and a beer garden. There will also be an area dedicated to learning about organic vegetable growing, health, nutrition and budgeting around grocery shopping.

New trends in traditional food

Donet hopes that South Africa’s township economy will benefit as indigenous and township food becomes more widely accepted. Celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver (PDF) have recently placed the food industry on the map and as a result many young people are seeing hospitality and catering as a worthwhile career.

“This event shows that there is a growing market for South Africa’s indigenous food and that people’s tastes and food preferences are becoming more sophisticated,” Donet said. Bringing more people to Soweto will also contribute to changing negative perceptions of townships in South Africa.

“I would like to see people from north, west, east, south and west Johannesburg travel to township restaurants to enjoy a meal and experience more flavours and cultures.”

  • The Soweto Food Festival takes place from 1 to 4 October at the Hyundai Stadium in Pimville. Tickets will be available at the entrance and cost R35 for adults and R10 for children. Visit www.sowetofoodfestival.co.za for more information.
  • Do you have queries or comments about this article? Email Mary Alexander at marya@mediaclubsouthafrica.com