How chefs are paying homage to SA’s heritage and reviving culinary roots

At Johannesburg-based Les Créatifs restaurant, the first course on the set menu is Krugersdorp beef tongue with ox liver, marrow, chakalaka potato, melon atchar and imphepho smoked beef jus. While this description may strike a chord with some local diners, the rest of the menu comprises dishes with rarely seen ingredients such as indlubu beans, purple sweet potatoes and imfino.  

However, these forgotten native ingredients are increasingly making an appearance on fine dining restaurant menus in South Africa, thanks to the current generation of chefs eager to resurrect the country’s rich and diverse culinary heritage. Their aim is to create awareness about the undiscovered potential of the vast indigenous culinary resources that the African continent has to offer.  

According to Kobus van der Merwe, owner and head chef at Wolfgat, “Long gone are the days where exotic and imported ingredients are seen as superior. As South Africans, we take pride in our local bounty and it’s finally being showcased more and more often on local menus.” The award-winning Paternoster-based restaurant’s menu features wild herbs, succulents and wild vegetables such as dune spinach, dune celery, soutslaai, brakslaai, veldkool, slangbessie and samphire that are endemic to the Saldanha Strandveld region. 


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The growing support for field-to-fork, local and sustainable cuisine has also aided in the revival of indigenous ingredients. Besides, more tourists today are interested in trying local flavours, providing an opportunity for chefs to shine a spotlight on native ingredients and timeless African flavours with a creative, modern spin on traditional recipes.   

 Creating awareness of native ingredients  

“When it comes to food, I believe that much of our heritage might be forgotten or denigrated as inferior. Therefore, it’s crucial for chefs to share their experiences, highlight their journeys, innovate with lesser-known items and let our local ingredients take centre stage,” says Peter Duncan, head chef at La Petite Colombe. Ingredients like kapokbos, amaranth shoots, sorghum and rooibos make an appearance on the current menu of the renowned Franschhoek-based restaurant, while a mopani worm cleanser is also offered to challenge and intrigue diners.  


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Innovative cooking techniques, giving signature dishes a unique twist by substituting standard ingredients with indigenous ones, putting a modern spin on classic recipes that feature such ingredients and educating patrons about the origin and usage of these ingredients, are also ways for restaurants to promote native and local. 

“At The Chefs’ Table we try and utilise as many indigenous ingredients as we can get our hands on, including marog, spekboom, madumbies, Saldanha Bay mussels, sorghum, amaranth, samp and amasi, to name a few. We use modern techniques and creativity to accentuate the uniqueness and flavours of these ingredients. Customers enjoy theatre with food and a story gives a better understanding and overall experience,” believes Calvin Metior, executive head chef, The Chefs’ Table, Durban.  


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While allowing each element on the plate to tell a story, it is vital to ensure that the flavour and texture of the indigenous ingredients are highlighted, so as to evoke sensory delight, while promoting a learning experience for diners. “Innovation without taste is a big waste of opportunity to show how good the local ingredients can be, because flavours are what people will remember, and subsequently the ingredients will be utilised more,” avers Fabio Daniel, head chef at Rust en Vrede in Stellenbosch.  

Apart from heralding the open fire cooking style, Boma on Bree in Cape Town has dishes on the menu featuring blatjang, bokkom and atchar that are included to showcase a variety of flavours that the Western Cape has to offer. Remarks Vusi Ndlovu, head chef at Boma on Bree, “My satisfaction comes from watching guests experience our flavours. They leave not feeling challenged or confused, but rather impressed they could experience a piece of their heritage on Bree Street.”  


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However, offering patrons something new also comes with its own risks of appeal to a larger audience, apart from the challenge of cleverly combining native ingredients with other ingredients in a particular dish, without one flavour masking the other or without stripping the native ingredients of their fundamental flavours, but rather enhancing them.  

“I’m not going to lie, some of the textures and tastes can be challenging. To introduce these ingredients to the public, it can’t always be in your face. For instance, I try and use seaweed pickled and thinly sliced on top of dishes, or as crispy toppings, in flavoured salts or even as cooking vessels,” explains Isca Stoltz, head chef, Galjoen. The Cape Town-based restaurant that is focused around the coast-to-fork concept is big on locally harvested seafood and locally foraged plants such as seaweed, fynbos, wild garlic, buchu, wild sage, kapokbos/wild rosemary and saltbush. 


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Aesthetics of appeal and brand promise  

Presentation is everything. But how does that tie in with a restaurant’s overall concept and brand promise, especially when it comes to using native ingredients on the menu?  

Ryan Cole, co-owner and head chef of Cape Town-based Salsify at the Roundhouse, tells us, “Everything we do is always driven by the seasons, grounded in technique and pushes boundaries in terms of delicate, yet intense flavours, interesting textures, and an unrelenting pursuit of excellence. It’s also about creating an experience for our guests – people are excited to come out and experience new things. We’ve recently incorporated the likes of madumbi, cassava, okra and river greens into dishes, as well as local venison, guinea fowl and quail.” 

Ivor Jones, co-owner and head chef at Chefs Warehouse Beau Constantia, Cape Town, lends his perspective, “We are a nation of many walks of life and each culture tells a different food story. Using those stories, we can design dishes that fit within our restaurant style without being too obvious. So when we use native ingredients such as baobab flower, amadumbe potatoes or sorghum, they will either be the hero of the dish or used in the aesthetic or design of the dish.” 

Given that today’s chefs influence the next generation of chefs, home cooks, retailers and the world at large, with them lies the responsibility in promoting native ingredients through gourmet dishes that are aesthetically appealing.  

“Our ethos at the restaurant has always been championing our heritage, culture and boldness in the most modern approach. I use my creative storytelling skills to first create a narrative of the dish or ingredients I’m using. Transforming it into either texture, liquid or scent, or keeping the original nostalgic flavour or colour, definitely evokes emotions. I also use these ingredients as plating vessels as much as I can,” elucidates Wandile Mabaso, owner and head chef, Les Créatifs restaurant.  

Challenges in sourcing and propagating native ingredients  

“In sourcing native ingredients, the main challenge is the acquisition of knowledge. There is very little literature and very few people who still have inherited and generational knowledge that can share the full spectrum of what’s possible. Besides, African ingredients have always been seen as secondary to the imported crops that are used commercially in general. Most of the ingredients we use are foraged and grown by ourselves,” notes Johannes Richter, owner and head chef of Durban-based The LivingRoom, which has native ingredients such as sorghum, teff, millet, pigeon peas, purple sweet potatoes, amadumbe and Natal coastal plums featured on the menu.  

Native ingredients are also still relatively hard to source due to their perceived low market demand by farmers and local suppliers. This gets especially compounded with restaurants who have to cater on a large scale. Using such ingredients only in season or from a particular region is one solution. Growing your own native ingredients is yet another option.  

James Diack, resident head chef of Johannesburg-based Basalt, says, “At Basalt, we offer only ingredients that are seasonally available, so when we can grow native ingredients such as wild African spinach, wild African garlic and amadumbe, we like to incorporate them into our tasting menus. Over the years, during many local and international culinary trips, we have sourced a lot of non-GMO seed stocks and clippings which grow beautifully at our Brightside Farm.” 

Increased restaurant collaborations with local artisans, farmers and local suppliers can help ensure a steady supply chain and consistent availability of native ingredients. Sourcing directly from farmers also helps to boost the local economy. For restaurateurs, this means more affordable prices, while ensuring local producers get a fair price that they deserve. This then translates to better pricing on restaurant menus.  


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Thus, with more restaurants incorporating indigenous ingredients into their menus and more guests trying them, coupled with restaurants highlighting the nutritional, sustainable and ethical properties of these ingredients through social media campaigns, these ingredients may gradually become mainstream. Subsequently, as these ingredients start appearing in supermarkets, more people may be encouraged to start cooking with them at home as well. This is just one way that chefs are bringing South Africa’s culinary prowess to the forefront, on par with other global cuisines.  

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