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‘My relationship with Cape Town can be described as a delicious love affair.'
Gems in this
Chef, cookbook author and MasterChef South Africa judge Zola Nene cooks from her Zulu roots — recipes passed down in her family — but remains inspired by her home in Cape Town, and all its various influences.
Zola loves that South African cuisine can’t be described. Or, rather, like the country, it’s defined by being a meeting of many cultures. Cape Town is the perfect place to experience that culinary diversity, and in her Travel Playbook, she shares the places where her dishes might start: whether it’s on the pier where the fishing boats come in with the freshest catch, in the historical Bo-Kaap where spices fill the shelves, or in a veggie patch.
On where you grew up
I was born in KwaZulu-Natal, in Umlazi, south-west of Durban, but when I was about six years old, my family moved to George, a small coastal town on the Garden Route. That's essentially where I grew up. I went to primary school there, I went to high school there. I moved to Cape Town much later in life and have been living in Cape Town for as long as I can remember.
On your foodie origins
My love for food stems from the fact that I grew up eating really well. My mum is a fabulous cook; my maternal grandmother was also a fabulous cook. She passed away when I was very young, but I still remember her presence in the kitchen. Growing up, family functions and events were always centred on food and it always seemed like my mum, her sisters and my grandmother were the ones laughing the loudest in the kitchen, while everyone else waited for the food. So I think that's where the foodie bug bit me. I always wonder what my grandmother would make of me being a cook or a chef. I'm pretty sure she would think it's bizarre that I studied to be a chef, when cooking is something that came so naturally to her and she did it without learning about it.
On learning family recipes
I love drawing inspiration from nostalgia, and those traditional dishes that I grew up eating always play a role on my plate in some way. My mum has taught me so many different dishes and my grandmother was able to teach me a dish before she passed away. It’s called Isinkwa sombila, which is the isiZulu name for steamed cornbread. We used those white mealies that grow abundantly in KwaZulu-Natal, and she let me sit on the table and grind the mealies with her and mix the dough. It just always brings me such great memories, so I love to make that dish.
‘The best way to learn about somebody and their culture is to eat their food. And travel helps you to do that.’
On the importance of travel for a chef
I think to be a great foodie, a great chef, a great cook, you always have to hone your craft and learn new things. The best way to learn about somebody and their culture is to eat their food. And travel helps you to do that. I love exploring new flavours, new ingredients, new ways that people do things. I think that the stranger things are, the more fascinating they are. That's a wonderful place to be; a place that's not comfortable is where you grow. So I think travel plays such a big part in growing as a chef or a cook. I feel very fortunate to have been able to travel, and I hope to travel so much more in my life.
On defining South African cuisine
When people ask ‘How do you define South African cuisine?’ — I love that you can't because there are so many nuances. South African cuisine can be Cape Malay, it can be Afrikaans cuisine, it can be Zulu cuisine, Xhosa cuisine. There's so much but it is all correct. No one cuisine defines South Africa. That's why it's so beautiful and so unique, and why we should be celebrating all the differences even more.
On your latest cookbook
Simply Seven Colours is the title of my third cookbook. Basically ‘seven colours’ describes the way South Africans love to eat. We all call it different things: some people call it several colours, some call it Sunday lunch, some Sondag kos, some ukudla kwasekhaya. Whatever you call it, the premise is the same. We, as South Africans, love to eat family style, and we gather for a meal, usually on a Sunday, when we cook an abundance of colourful dishes to share with our family and loved ones. The book is chaptered in colours so that people can take recipes from all the different colours and create their own unique seven-colour plate.
‘The food options in Cape Town are endless. I mean, you can eat cuisine from anywhere in the world and find it in Cape Town.’
On what you love most about Cape Town
Cape Town is definitely the foodie hub. A lot of the top 10 restaurants in the country are found here. The fact that there are always new restaurants opening is also what puts it on the map when it comes to food. I love Cape Town and its vibrancy, its different zones and regions. In Cape Town, you can travel 30 minutes or less and you can be at the sea; 30 minutes or less from there you could be on a mountain somewhere; 30 minutes or less from there you can be somewhere drinking wine on a wine farm. The food options in Cape Town are endless. I mean, you can eat cuisine from anywhere in the world and find it in Cape Town.
On your relationship with your city
My relationship with Cape Town can be described as a delicious love affair. I spend a lot of time eating in Cape Town. I love food, I love making food, I love feeding people, but I also love exploring other people's food and going out to different restaurants, meeting other chefs and other food lovers. I'm so connected to the food industry within Cape Town. It’s a beautiful relationship.
On food shopping in Cape Town
Take a slow drive to Kalk Bay, spend the day there, eat some fish and chips, get some fresh fish, and then go home and cook it. You should always get there early, just as the boats are coming in, so you can get the first pick of all the best fish. The fishermen and fisherwomen are incredible as they'll tell you what's really great and how to cook it, and they will prepare the fish for you however you want it. Atlas Trading is a beautiful spice shop situated in the Bo-Kaap, which is a historical part of Cape Town where the Cape Malay people reside. They have beautiful colourful houses and it’s just a beautiful place. I love that the spices are always fresh, they know exactly where they've come from. I love to buy the whole spices so I can grind them myself. People from all over Cape Town all go there because they know they're going to get quality. Klein Goederust is the very first Black-owned wine farm in Franschhoek, and I think that's something worth celebrating because integration is a wonderful thing. The wine is exceptional. It's a beautiful farm that everyone should visit.
On food destinations in Cape Town
Makers Landing is a food hub situated at the Cruise Terminal at the V&A Waterfront. Moses Coffee is one of my favourite places at Makers Landing; his coffee is exceptional and everything's always better after a coffee. There's a bakery there called Sweet Lionheart that makes beautiful cakes. There's the wonderful Conscious Meat Merchants, which is a sustainable butchery. Kapoochka is also there, making Indian food. We also filmed MasterChef South Africa there so it feels like a second home. Boschendal is one of those farms that has everything going for it. It's been making exceptional wines forever but it also has so many other foodie things to offer. They have their own seasonal honey, and you can visit the bees and see exactly where it comes from. You can pick veggies from the garden to buy and take home. Oranjezicht City Farm Market is open on Saturdays and Sundays, and Wednesday evenings. It is such a beautiful family-friendly space. It's a really great place to source ingredients: there's a guy who sells mushrooms, who will talk to you about all the different mushrooms for ages while you eat the beautifully barbecued mushroom skewers. The Hog House sells pasteis de nata that are a game changer. All the vendors are really passionate about the produce that they bring to the market.
‘There are so many beautiful parts of South Africa to explore. You never fall short.’
On where else to visit in South Africa
I cannot talk enough about how stunning our country is — how vast, how different, how exceptional the place is. I was born in KwaZulu-Natal, and that is a beautiful region. It has the highest population of Indian people outside of India so it's got a really strong Indian-cuisine influence. Obviously, my Zulu culture is very prominent there. So that is definitely something you should put on your bucket list if you're coming to South Africa. I think Mpumalanga is often a province that is forgotten. It is so beautiful. It's very scenic, very green, very lush. There are lots of trails for people who love outdoor life. Go and explore the Garden Route, where I grew up. It’s a coastal region, and there's wine and spirits being produced there as well. There's so many beautiful parts of South Africa to explore. You never fall short.
On the South African concept of ubuntu
Ubuntu is the concept of being part of a community: you don't stand alone, you are part of something bigger than yourself. And I think that's such a beautiful way of looking at life. You're stronger together as a team. It's a very South African way of thinking. And I think that's what makes us the rainbow nation, as cliché as it is.
On window or aisle seat
Window seat all the way. I will fight you for a window seat.
On a song that sums up Cape Town
I think the song that represents Cape Town for me would be Bob Marley, ‘The Sun Is Shining.’ Yeah. Groovy.
On Cape Town in one word
If I was to choose one word to describe Cape Town, it would definitely be ‘abundant.’