(Cape Town) – From bunny chows served in traditional steamed bread to umleqwa (“runaway chicken”) skewers, Khayelitsha restaurateur Abigail Mbalo-Mokoena takes her diners on a trip through her childhood with township food “made for the 21st century palate”.
The dental technologist-turned-chef behind “4roomed eKasi Culture” – comprising a fine dining restaurant, the Mphako/Padkos/Mofao takeaway outlet, and a food truck – is drawing international tourists and homesick suburbanites to the province’s biggest township for her take on traditional cuisine.
After swapping her lab coat for an apron, she is making it her mission to get Khayelitsha on the tourism map in a bid to improve the socio-economic challenges facing residents, while preaching the benefits of traditional foods with a healthier twist.
Inspired by her brother, who died of diabetes-related complications 10 years ago, Mbalo-Mokoena is on a one-woman crusade to improve eating habits in townships.
“It is important that we move from our meat-centred lifestyles back to the cooking like our parents did.”
Her business concept stems from the eKasi four-roomed homes of yesteryear, in which houses in the country’s oldest townships comprised a kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms.
“This is how I grew up in Gugulethu. We lived in our house with four other families, surrounded by the spirit of ubuntu. I am from humble beginnings and never realised we didn’t have much, even when there was only bread with coffee for dinner.”
Celebrating history and recipes
Some of her favourite memories were made in the kitchen, watching her single mother cook and her sister bake. Mbalo-Mokoena never got an opportunity to stand behind the stove, but was allowed to lick the bowls, she joked.
She started dabbling in the kitchen as a student on a shoestring budget, creating new recipes with limited ingredients.
After marrying her husband, she had a new guinea pig to sample her creations, Mbalo-Mokoena quipped.
He and their three children eventually convinced her to enter season three of MasterChef SA, where her cold audition dish was a terrine made with umleqwa, duck and turkey.
“Throughout the competition I made dishes which celebrated our township cuisine, such as lamb served with mushrooms and butternut mqa [pap],” she explained.
Mbalo-Mokoena made it to the top six, where she was eliminated for failing to create a glass disc using treacle sugar, glucose and isomalt.
The burnt sugar which cost her her spot in the competition eventually inspired the toffee apple which features on her dessert menu.
Mbalo-Mokoena believes in celebrating the history and recipes stemming from the country’s oldest communities, from isiXhosa to Cape Malay.
“It saddens me that we celebrate other nations’ food instead of our own. We order paella – which is actually peasant food – in restaurants, but won’t have our own umngqusho (samp and beans). We look down on it.”
For the full article: news24