Dorah Sitole on embracing African food, why she loves 'gutsy' new foodies

Culinary doyenne has 'urge for the world to accept our food and put it on a pedestal'

Culinary legend Dorah Sitole talks embracing African food with our food editor.
Culinary legend Dorah Sitole talks embracing African food with our food editor.
Image: Roelene Prinsloo

Well-respected food personality Dorah Sitole spoke to Sunday Times food editor, Hilary Biller, about African food, changing palates and why her grandson’s love for sushi hasher scratching her head.

Beyond melktert and malva pudding, having celebrated Heritage Day recently, how far do you think SA has evolved in embracing African food?

It’s taking time and we have a long way to go although a lot of the new chefs popping up want their food to reflect the return to their roots and are doing African food. It gives one hope when chefs who are classically trained like Chef Les da Chef still want to cook African food.

As the country’s first black food writer, did it feel as if you were carrying the mantle in a white-dominated arena for African food?

The responsibility, yes, but felt like carrying it on my shoulders like an activist, no. I felt it was my responsibility to introduce African food into the pages of the woman’s magazine where I worked at the time. It was OK to publish recipes like beef stroganoff but I needed to keep reminding the readers about African food and that of other continents to discover how good it is.

How did you reflect what was happening in the chef arena at the time?

While at the magazine I would highlight chefs in the industry and many times when I approached a restaurant or hotel, African food was a no-no. The common response at the time was: “No, our head chef is Swiss or French.”

This is changing. There is lots of talent emerging who are cooking the food they love by embracing African food.

Why do you believe it has been slow to change?

I have this feeling that many white South Africans are scared of African food. I never feel the effort from my white friends in taking an interest in learning about our cultural dishes. Take dombolo (steamed bread), it’s so easy on the palate and anyone can eat it, yet my friends have never shown any interest nor asked me to show them how to make it.

You’ve travelled extensively around the world sharing traditional African foods. How well has it been received?

In some places I visited, like Japan, they embraced our food with open arms. Deep down I have this urge for the world to accept our food and put it on a pedestal like many other cuisines, but why do I expect the world to embrace our cuisine when many South Africans haven’t?

As a proud grandmother, have your grandchildren embraced traditional food?

It’s a strange thing. My son and his family love takeaways and my grandson loves sushi. He can’t get enough it.  Yet in the same way, would a Japanese boy living in Tokyo eat African food? No, because he’s not exposed or knows anything about it. We embrace so many foods of different cultures in SA – Chinese, Thai, Mexican - but why are we not embracing African food? To try to change it. It has to happen at home.

Foodies are embracing social media with lots of new voices coming to the fore.

I’m enjoying seeing the new voices in the food arena. Finally, something has happened and the penny has dropped. There are emerging voices who are gutsy and fearless and have huge amounts of energy. They are the new "food influencers". Funny, I never thought of myself as a food influencer, I was just doing a job which didn’t feel like work.

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