Connected through cooking: Zola Nene on the joys that can be found in the kitchen

the year we went back to basics

Like many others, I went into 2020 envisioning it as “the year of plenty”. I had so many new boxes I planned to tick off on my food journey … but clearly the universe had other plans for all of us. The plenty quickly turned into panic at the rapid spread of the coronavirus. 

Fortunately for me, who has always found comfort in the kitchen and through food, that medium wasn’t completely removed from me, even during the very first stages of lockdown. I was still able to cook, which was such an important lifeline for me during an uncertain time. It soon became a lot of other people’s solace too. The number of people cooking and discovering their inner “chefs” was such a thrill for me to witness – finally people were experiencing the same joy and comfort that food has always given me… albeit under very strenuous circumstances.

My personal style of cooking and food philosophy has always been simple, delicious food that draws from nostalgic taste memories, so it wasn’t long before requests started flooding in from people asking me to share some of my easy recipes and ideas on how to tweak their daily dishes in different ways to add excitement to their menus. I absolutely loved it! I loved that people were getting into the kitchen and actually cooking and, for the most part, enjoying it. Yes, it was out of necessity, but it was also a means of refuge for so many.

In a time where we were physically disconnected from our loved ones and from our families, the one way we were able to connect with each other was through recreating our most beloved food memories. So even though you couldn’t physically be with your mom, you could make her isitambu or her jeqe and feel deeply connected to her. Isn’t it wonderful how food can evoke such comfort and take you to a place where you feel like mom is there with you in the kitchen, just by experiencing a particular smell or taste?

Comfort food has played such a huge role in getting us through (hopefully) the worst of the pandemic. In times of uncertainty, we all seek familiarity to hold on to and I think food is definitely that. Familiar is what makes us feel safe; comfort food is what gives us a hug from within when there is no one to give you a physical hug. In times of uncertainty, no one is pining for foie gras or “foams” or “dainty deconstructed somethings” – we seek real food, hearty food that we grew up eating, plates of familiar tastes, bowls of simple food, the delicious food that our moms and grandmothers used to make for us, the kind of food that makes us feel safe and loved. There’s a reason why banana bread and amagwinya were among the most searched (and Instagrammed) recipes at the beginning of lockdown – these are the types of recipes that mom used to make as a treat or that we enjoyed on occasions that always made us happy. 

And even though the lockdown restrictions have eased up, I’m still finding that people are cooking more and seeking out the classics. Even today, if I share a bowl of iphalishi or a pot of insima people get excited and start reminiscing about their grandmothers and end up making the same meal for themselves to enjoy. 

zola nene cooking

I think that our entire mindset when it comes to food and our food experiences are forever altered. I’m certain that more of us now realise the importance of sharing meals and why our parents always insisted on sitting down at the table together as a family. As kids, what we found to be an inconvenience, is now something we crave. It took this pandemic to actually make us all realise how important eating together is, the memories we form during meals are what get us through the tough times. I’m certain that future dinner parties will now take on a different meaning for most. They are no longer a gathering designed to impress; they are actually a fundamental moment of togetherness and sharing of food and making memories.

As we slowly return to our “new normal” I think (I hope) that people will continue to gravitate and embrace their reignited love for simple comfort food, because the feeling of comfort one gets from a bowl of delicious home-cooked food never goes out of style, even beyond the times of a pandemic.

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