CHEF MAHDI SANATKARAN INTRODUCES HIS IRANIAN CULTURE AND CUISINE

It’s become a mission for chef Mahdi Sanatkaran to introduce people to the Iranian culture and cuisine through his glorious meals. DIANE DE BEER experiences one of these gourmet gatherings and chats to the chef:

Pictures: Hennie Fisher and Mahdi’s daughter Maryam.

Iranian chef Mahdi Sanatkaran busy cooking his kebabs

When Iranian born Mahdi Sanatkaran started working with the Iranian Embassy in Bahrain, he didn’t know that 2 and a half decades later he would be cooking Iranian cuisine for South Africans intent on promoting his culture and his cuisine.

The route was a meandering one as he moved with the embassy to Nigeria, where he was appointed as head chef. “I didn’t have any formal training but they gave me some classes at the Foreign Affairs guest house to get me up to speed,” he says.

At one of the embassy events a man asked to meet the chef because the food was so good, and as the general manager of the Hilton in Abuja, he invited Mahdi to join his kitchen to learn more about cooking. “He enjoyed my cooking and wanted to enhance my skills,” explains the amateur chef.

Never someone to miss an opportunity, he worked from 7am to 7pm at the embassy and then he would be off for a stint in the Hilton kitchens. It was his first formal chef’s training which he kept up for quite a few years.

After nine years as an embassy chef with a daughter who was born in Lagos now reaching school-going age, Mahdi and his wife Hamideh Najafi decided to move to Pretoria for suitable schooling. He had met a man who invited him to join him in a restaurant partnership but when they arrived here, he discovered the potential partner didn’t want to invest anymore.

He had a family to support and quickly Mahdi was working in construction, and off to Mauritius on a landscaping job. He was finally appointed as a cameraman, translator and interviewer at the local branch of the Iranian Television Bureau in Pretoria where he worked from 2008 until 2014. He travelled all over Africa interviewing many leaders and heads of state and when they closed the office, he turned to something familiar, food.

Also familiar with the Subway franchise, he was off to the US for training before opening in Menlyn, but he soon realised it was difficult to survive with such exorbitant rentals. Instead he hoped to find a more unique offering by changing to Iranian fast food in the form of kebabs, so popular in his home country.

He changed the name from Subway to Shiraz the Kebab House (a historical city in Iran), but still the venue was problematic. Neither I nor my foodie friends were aware that this Iranian cuisine was on offer in our city and just before Covid-19, which would have closed them anyway, he decided again to try new avenues.

Iranian saffron marinated kebabs

And this is how I finally had the chance to taste Persian food and discover more about its many hidden treasures. Of course with the country not fêted in the rest of the world, little is known about its food and this is what Mahdi finds especially challenging. He wants to change that with every meal he makes.

Together with an import business selling Iranian foodstuffs (tahini, dates, nuts with especially pistachio a favourite, saffron – Iran is the biggest producer, he says – rose water and other rose products and more), he also offers Iranian meals to groups. The idea is to present it at someone’s home. They will invite the (paying) guests, say approximately 20 people at approximately R450 per person, allow Mahdi, his wife and daughter to take over their kitchen for the day, while those attending will be served a very generous Iranian menu.

It’s ideal during this time because you will be in charge of the guest list and it can be hosted – preferably in our summer weather – outside, which will allow for social distancing.

Iranian food, explains Mahdi, covers a huge spectrum. “Every city and region has its own cuisine and culture that comes with it.”

As a starter he served barley soup, a favourite in his country. It’s very traditional and often served with a flat bread but on the day, he didn’t include that because the rest of the menu would prove too overwhelming – and it still was.

This was followed by a meze-type table which Mahdi describes as similar to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines with differences in spices and marinating sauces. Saffron is the star of almost all their dishes with sumac a runner-up, and you’re not easily going to go without aubergine popping up in one or two dishes.

It could be grilled eggplant served in paste form with yogurt and walnuts (called burani and similar to what we would know as baba ganoush) or even a pickled and stuffed version. Accompanying that is something quite close to what we would recognise as tzaziki, perhaps a bit thicker than we’re used to it, with herbs. A typical salad is a shirazi with chopped cucumber, tomato, red onion and mint. Part of the deal which he couldn’t find on the day is what he describes as an unripe grape juice very common in Iran. He knows he can source it here too but also found an alternative solution.

Stuffed and marinated olives with pomegranate paste and walnuts, all Iranian staples, a spinach and bulgur wheat salad and a potato croquettes add to the taste explosion. One has to be careful because there’s mains to come but all of this is so moreish and hard to resist. It’s familiar yet with an unexpected fresh take.

Iranian chicken kebabs on the fire

Many of us could easily have stopped eating at this point, completely replenished, but the mains and dessert were yet to come. Kebab, an Iranian specialty, was on the menu with two favourites, a saffron-marinated chicken kebab (jooje kebab) and a grounded lamb cholo kebab, which means it is served with a loose Basmati-type rice. When you get the family talking about Iranian rice, they are in full agreement that this is the best rice in the world. “The scent of it alone lingers,” says daughter Maryam, who is in her final year to qualify as an industrial engineer.

Another Iranian treasure is something called tahdig (translated as potato crust). Mahdi describes this simply as a knockout! When they cook rice, potatoes are put in the bottom of the pan to prevent the rice from burning and this crispy crust is brought to the table for the guests to pick at. “If we don’t serve it, guests will ask,” he says, comparing it to that special ingredient not to be missed!

Also something unusual and part of the meal is a rice cake (tahchin), which is exactly what it sounds like but it has a crust and is made in a square. Sometimes it has a chicken filling or I suspect a chef can play around.

An Iranian rice pudding

The meal concluded with a rice pudding, which is another version of something we’re quite familiar with but by that time, I didn’t even have the tiniest space.

One doesn’t think about the cuisines you don’t know and hardly hear about because of those available out there. But one of the many benefits post-1994 has been the introduction of so many flavours to the South African food scene.

Contact Mahdi (who comes as a package deal with his wife and daughter) if you’re interested in hosting an Iranian feast. You can discuss the menu and everything about the event according to your needs and wants. He doesn’t supply the drinks, and guests bring their own. But nothing can prepare you for something presented with such warmth and deliciousness.

For more detail or to discuss bookings, contact Mahdi on email: sanatkaran2001@yahoo.com or on Instagram: @persian_food_stop.

Changing Lanes, Hilary Prendini Toffoli Turns to Italy and Food for Debut Novel

 

With Covid19 hastening the demise of print media (in this country but also across the world) as we know it, journalist Hilary Prendini Toffoli knew she had to reinvent herself – and she has, in most intriguing fashion. DIANE DE BEER chats to the veteran journalist about her first novel Loves & Miracles of Pistola (Penguin):

“I worked on Pistola on and off for several years when I was a journalist, but it was only when the media industry was really crumbling that I decided to reinvent myself and complete the novel,” explains Hilary Prendini Toffoli (Penguin).

Yet it is something that started even before her journalism career. She had her first short story published in what was then The Cape Argus when she was about 20, a BA student at UCT. Later she joined The Argus and became the company’s first female sub-editor.

Then she moved to Joburg and ran the Star Woman with Sue Grant Marshall (another journalist turned author) doing the Woman’s Page.

Where I became hooked on her writing was during her time as  a journalist for Style (remember them?) from 1983 to 2006 covering everything “from social and political satire and profiles (21 eligible bachelors in one story), to features about high profile local murders and rapes, as well as writing edgy short stories.”

Then she went freelance doing features and columns for a wide variety of publications including Noseweek, Insig, Financial Mail, City Press, Business Day, House&Leisure etc.

For her the move from journalism wasn’t difficult. “Over the years I’d written a few terrible unpublished novels, both here and overseas in my twenties, living in Spain, France, England and Japan, trying to find myself, that old cliché enacted out by a lot of us those days.”

What also came into play were all these interesting characters she’s interviewed over the years which gave her a helluva lot of material. “I think much of it went into the subconscious, to come spilling out when I write. So the process of writing fiction is not for me a case of ‘Open a vein and bleed’ as someone once described it. My MO is more on the lines of what Stephen King says. ‘Put interesting characters in interesting situations and see what happens.’”

She does however make it sound easier than it is. Not all journalists have books in them even though it is also about writing, it is something completely different. Yet those familiar with her work will not be surprised. Hilary’s interviews were special. She had an acerbic eye but was never unkind – funny yes, and capturing the zeitgeist of her time, absolutely. And she never took life – or herself – too seriously.

She is right when she notes in our correspondence that Love & Miracles of Pistola came at the right time. “In these tricky Covid times the book’s nostalgic flavour has given a lift to readers. Plus they love the food angle because they’re all cooking more than ever before. And they love Pistola because he had his own battles and survived,” she reports.

Hilary in her kitchen

The characters of Pistola and his grandfather Nonno Mario first popped into her mind during the long stretches of an Eastern Cape road trip. “I’d wanted to write about the life of my husband Emilio who grew up in a post-war Northern Italian village in the fertile Po Valley with pigs as big as small Fiats, and where people have survived in spite of the battles that have raged for centuries over these maize and rice fields. This was a way to do it.”

But for local readers especially, it’s more than just looking back. It’s also the diversity of our  people – always a South African strength – that captures the reader’s imagination. We’re all lovers of Italian food (and that isn’t an exaggeration), and this is a story which gives us insight into some  of the roots of all that glorious Italian food … today still.

Hilary explains: “At first the story revolved around food and its importance in this place where the daily greeting is “So have you had a good meal?” Then I remembered the piece I’d written for Style magazine on the young Italians brought to South Africa in the fifties as train stewards by the Nationalist Government. I’d got great anecdotes from several who were still here running restaurants.

Hilary and her husband Emilio
Picture: Alex Moss

“So I put Pistola into this story and it really worked. I could show that repressive political era through the eyes of these naive young foreigners, most of them in their teens, with Pistola going to places like Sophiatown and the Malay Quarter. For an Italian village boy, South Africa’s increasingly racist laws were a challenge, but also a journey of self-discovery – Pistola’s miracles.”

And she says it herself: “What makes the story particularly interesting for South Africans is the fact that many of those Italians then stayed on and opened restaurants all over the country, introducing Italian cuisine to people whose only knowledge of Italian food was Heinz spaghetti on toast. Places like La Perla in Sea Point gave South Africans not only great pastas and pizzas but also a taste of Italy’s extraordinary range of culinary masterpieces.”

We can all agree when she says that it was the beginning of a love affair with Italy.

What is also evident is that her husband, Emilio, being a great cook, played no small role. At one stage he had a deli in Oranjezicht, and he made most of the takeaway foods. Lasagne, ravioli, cannelloni, gnocchi, parmigiana di melanzane, minestrone, osso buco, chicken cacciatore, pesto Genovese, and tubs of sauce – arrabbiata, amatriciana, napolitana. “Clients loved to come and talk to him about their Italian holidays. It was then I began to realise how South Africans love Italy. Not only the food. Also the art, the music and the picturesque towns and villages with their fountains, piazzas and romantic Roman ruins.”

Personally, she has no Italian blood. “My first encounter with Italians and their culture was on the Lloyd Triestino ships that used to sail between Venice and Cape Town in the sixties. Far cheaper than airflight In those days. Those two-week trips were heaven. Great food and music, and good-looking officers!

“I’m a WASP, born and brought up in Cape Town. My mother Constance Young was a prolific journalist for the old Outspan magazine. She also wrote short stories that won prizes on the radio. So for me writing has been a lifelong obsession. Especially fiction.”

Author Hilary Prendini Toffoli

The book has also been a family affair in other ways. “I was lucky to have my daughter Caterina, a graphic designer with Yuppiechef, do the vibrant cover. 

“Meanwhile I so enjoyed writing Pistola I’ve just finished the second in my Italian trilogy. Not a sequel to Pistola but the story of another young Italian migrant, Furio, an opera-singing romantic with a broken heart and a volcanic core, who finds himself working on the farm of a great white hunter in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau. Challenging stuff he has to find ways to deal with.”

And that’s done in Hilary’s typical Sjournalist style! While still in the throes of doing publicity for her first, she has already completed the second – and I would not put it past her to be already working on the third.

So start where it matters, and get onto this first one. It’s a great read, informative, and captures a country and its people in a particular time.

NATANIЁL – A MAN ON THE MOVE

Nataniel ToegangMany can argue about who suffered (s) most with the appearance of Covid 19 but few will disagree that artists, who make a living by performing to a live audience, have been hit hard. Even the world’s top concert halls are struggling with no end in sight. One of our most prolific artists, Nataniël, tells DIANE DE BEER how he tries to navigate his career during the pandemic:

 

 With NANTES KOOKBOEK finishing this week, Nataniël’s latest series, TOEGANG, starts the following week – but getting that done, as everything else during Covid, was no easy task.

“The series originally planned will hopefully be done next year,” explains the artist. “The concept was a logical follow-up to the series shot in Nantes, to be filmed on the original le Roux farm just outside Kuilsriver.”

Things kept changing but because of lockdown and the necessary protocol, Nataniël  had to do some quick thinking when he realised they had to shoot where they all lived. And that was Pretoria.

“The concept came from being alone in my house for months and realising how simply I actually live and how simple my meals were,” he says. For him, delicious food, made in just one pan, became the limit for for washing-up activities. That sorted the food for the series.

He also realised how many gorgeous buildings in the city would be deserted because of the pandemic, buildings he always wanted to spend time in, but not with the crowds that would usually be there. “So I took my pan and a very small crew and went there.”

Speaking about these lightning-fast changes and the way the series had to be shot, he admitted it suited his way of working. It actually meant a spike in his already high-powered creativity levels. “I loved it. We could do what we wanted, all these fantastic spaces gave us the opportunity to create beautiful scenes, film very dramatic visuals and work without disturbances. KykNET let me be, nobody looked over my shoulder and all the strict rules made me feel safe. I had a tough time with the make-up part, because somebody had to touch me, but I bit my lip and got through it.”

Those who have interviewed Nataniël  will know that getting info about an upcoming programme or concert is like pulling teeth. Not the gist of it, but the detail. He is a man who lives for surprises. When you sit down to watch a programme or enjoy a show, he believes the less you know the better. “I tell nobody about the places we went to, that will be revealed in every episode.”

“Tragically there are no surprises on TV since Oprah left, everything is blurted out for marketing, so there is nothing to look forward to.”

But he reluctantly admits that they work according to themes, every episode has an inspired menu for which he got his ideas from the locations, history, plus his life in isolation. (“Apart from going back on stage now, I am still in lockdown, because I love it. And I will wear the mask for the rest of my life, I look fantastic and it is much cheaper than Botox.”)

nataniel oils2

He also introduces artists who made things for the programmes, including artworks, ceramics, fabrics, prints, jewellery and, of course, some surprises. 

And another secret he allows to slip … Very often a local magazine series get an original theme tune, but there rest comes from a library of canned music. “This time I had the opportunity to write and produce a full soundtrack and be in the studio for all the sessions. (With a mask and bottles of sanitiser!) That was a great experience and fantastic to work with all the musicians after months without performing a single note.”

Shooting locally for the first time in some time following a revamp of the Nantes series, was quite strange. “The European visuals are very filmic, there’s a castle or a cathedral or a museum everywhere you turn and you need to do very little to make a scene beautiful. Also finding props here was a challenge as (at the time) many shops were still closed and nothing new had come into the country for months,” always a Nataniël requirement. He hates introducing and showing things people know.

Looking ahead, Covid has given Nataniël  time to think and make some decisions. “First of all I want to dress more wildly. I realised I am still scared of what people think, but the virus took that away.

Nataniel in full colour
Nataniël in full colour

“I will also stop dumbing down musically because of my fears that the audience will not like complicated or eccentric or sophisticated or unfamiliar songs. At the Woordfees in March I performed a very modern cover song with a very abrupt ending and there was absolute silence afterwards. Then I realised nobody in the audience has heard that song yet, although it was a worldwide hit. So I stopped singing it. During isolation I decided, to hell with that, that song will be back in the new show. Life is too short to compromise.”

It’s about time!

Nataniel gesels

Now he needs to get back on stage which, not surprisingly is what he misses most. “I start with GESELS, my lifestyle talk series, every Saturday in October at the Atterbury Theatre (in Pretoria) starting this coming Saturday. Bookings on iTickets.

“Then in November Charl du Plessis and I will finally do our gala concert to celebrate working together for 20 years.” TWINTIG, the gala Concert with Charl, Sunday November 15 at 3pm in the  Atterbury Theatre. Bookings on iTickets. “In December I will stage a new production, as always.” Bookings will also be on iTickets.

He has also launched the LIVE LIKE N collection of healthy cooking oils which can be ordered at https://liveliken.com/. And a new book (a collection of short stories) will be available in October. 

Nataniël has been working on his blog called SmallCoronation.com, which was quietly released recently. “It is all about simple food in beautiful settings, creating atmosphere. I see it as sharing my personal archive with others with all the food coming from dinners at my house.

“There’s no interaction and talking nonsense with people I do not know, just an online magazine to be looked at with a cup of tea when somebody needs a break. No strange ingredients, no modern techniques, just fun, ideas and hopefully inspiration.

“It will be launched with the TOEGANG series next Monday at 8.30pm on kykNET and the English version of all the recipes will also be available on the blog.”

And if you were wondering  in anticipation about the next memoir…

Nataniel boek

That will have to wait says the author. “Too many of the characters are still alive. And LOOK AT ME (KYK NA MY) still needs to get the attention it deserves. Everything stopped when I had to stop performing and touring.”

But for the moment, the new normal kicks into action and Nataniël in full colour steps into the spotlight with even more than his usual fanfare.

I’ll be watching for those outlandish costumes and outfits as well as the music he really loves to sing … whether they like it or not!

TOEGANG starts on Monday October 5 at 8.30pm on DStv’s kykNET.

Lientjie Wessels Showcases Connections Between Food and Cultures in Geure

Cover and food pictures: Donna Lewis

Foodstyling: Hannes Koegelenberg

Anyone who knows artist/chef/stylist/entrepreneur Lientjie Wessels will remember her for her imagination and individuality. It is exactly those two elements that she exhibits so joyfully in her new recipe book titled Geure (flavours by Annake Müller Publishing). DIANE DE BEER spoke to the author:

As Lientjie tells it, she has for a long time been thinking of writing a cookery book. “My love of  strong flavours and tastes came to the fore when I participated in kykNET’s Kokkedoor 3,” she says. And those of us who know her were quite surprised by her participation. But no one more so than Lientjie herself. That’s just who she is.

The first time I bumped into the extraordinary imagination of the larger-than-life Lientjie was with her Brooklyn Mall shop Lemon Lounge. You knew immediately if this was your kind of place or not and if it was, you were hooked on the Lientjie sensibility and style, which is all her own and has a charm that is completely unique. Her food and her fine art are interlinked and -twined – similarly in this book, which makes this one such a feast for the eyes with the food further enhanced by her paintings.

Her spectacular flair and flights of imagination flourished during her years in magazine styling and also in her much-loved restaurant Li-bel in Sunnyside and later Albizia in Cullinan and for a while on a family farm in that neighbourhood.

There has always been something of a gypsy about Lientjie, the way she embraces life and everything it offers. For those of us who favoured her food tables, there was always the knowledge that it might all be gone tomorrow, but also that it would appear in some other form – as it always does.

That’s why this book, which encapsulates it all, is such a treasure – so if your Afrikaans language skills are on par, this is one worth checking out.

Because flavours, which were introduced to Lientjie by her mother (to whom the book is dedicated), have played such an important role in her food journey, this is the focus: vinegar, citrus, ginger, olives and olive oil, flowers, chilly and mustard, honey, saffron and vanilla, garlic, herbs, spices and salt, sumac and tamarind, nuts, sesame seeds and tahini.

Yum!

Lientjie and Robert.jpg
Soulmates: Lientjie Wessels and the late Robert Denton

She was helped by her late husband Robert (who sadly died suddenly last year) with the writing and, like with everything these two life travellers tackled, it is quirky and simply a joy to experience. Each chapter starts with a description of the flavour showcased and in many of them, Lientjie’s mother’s influence surfaces. “My first memories of vinegar,” she writes, “is absolutely the rows and rows of pickled onions that my mom made each year.”

And then the recipes follow and in this instance it stretches from pickled walnuts on toast with goat’s milk cheese and fast fridge pickle. Citrus is included in recipes of lemon mousse, lemon curd, soup with lamb shanks, rice and lemon, pork fillet with a lime sauce, fruit salad and more.

Lientjie’s food has always been rooted in South Africa but with a strong dose of Middle Eastern and Asian flavours. Her mother was her first and strongest influence and, according to Lientjie, started to cook because hér mother could not. “My grandmother taught me everything else, but  not about making food.”

Lientjie Gnocci
Spinach and ricotta gnocchi

From the first time we talked about food, she has talked about her boredom threshold, and she believes that her restaurant days were always doomed, because she couldn’t be bothered to make a dish more than three times. By then she had achieved everything she wanted. Also probably influenced by her mother, who had such an unusual palate and constantly introduced her family to new flavours and textures. “She always wanted to make something new,” notes Lientjie.

But of course, that’s also what made her dining experiences so unique and unusual. She has a very distinct signature and the menu would always be a surprise. Similarly she has achieved that individuality in this absorbing book.

The colours are vibrant and welcoming, the food – apart from being grouped according to flavour – is a lovely mix of starters, mains and desserts with sauces, snacks, breakfasts and more.

There’s never anything conventional or contrived about this artist. She is probably the last one I would have expected to appear on Kokkedoor and yet, in the end, it resulted in this fantastic book and when you listen to her, she also discovered a newfound confidence in her cooking during the show.

She also realised that she really likes food. Anyone who has had a restaurant will know that it must be one of the most challenging endeavours to attempt . She did it twice and then created a very niche way of dining. It was spectacular and appealed to a select and very loyal group of diners. Local chefs will tell you that South Africans are tough to feed and Pretoria, I have often been informed, is an especially  difficult market at best.

But some of my best experiences were either at a pavement table at Li-bel with Lientjie and Robert’s dogs lying around, drinking a coffee after a delicious meal and never feeling I had to rush anything; or checking in for a Sunday meal at Albizia with Robert, a storyteller extraordinaire, entertaining us with his fables of life on the fast side.

And then there’s Lientjie’s art. It has been incorporated into the book in simply the best way and introduces even more of the way her mind and creativity works. For her, when she makes food or paints, the same principles come into play. “I can taste things in my head,” she says. It’s all conceptual, exactly like her art. “It’s about balance, colour and texture.”

Lientjie Wessels1
Lientjie Wessels

 

Looking at the future, she wants to find a way to make people and cultures touch one another. “We have so many connections through food,” she explains.

And then she shares her delights in the best way she knows how – with her recipes and through her art.

 

 

For more detail on buying the book, contact Annake Müller Publishing: annakem@mweb.co.za. After lockdown they will be sending those books via courier.

Prue Leith: A Splash of Vibrant Colour

Pictures: Corne Ann Photography.

Prue Leith school

With her recent visit to the Prue Leith Culinary Institute in Centurion, mainly to celebrate their success as well as her 80th birthday, it’s her youthfulness that bowls you over. DIANE DE BEER finds out more about her unstoppable drive:

It’s Prue Leith’s constant refrain when talking about yet another venture, “I’m a  commercial woman”, and how fast she runs her life, that keeps her young. The energy obviously rubs off, that and her exuberance, her dazzling embrace of bright colours, and partner John Playfair who never stops the banter, but also gives a helping hand when she moves around the room for book signings.

Prue Leith and partner
Partners in cameraderie John Playfair and Prue Leith.

That’s just who she is. Instead of asking everyone to stand in line, she moves around the room to do the necessary with John in tow for selfies and anything else she might need, the perfect team.

In town for amongst other her birthday celebrations (she wanted to do some of that in Cape Town as well), she admits that she isn’t that happy that everyone knows her age. But when she opened her restaurant in London at the age of 29, she was loud and proud about the achievement.

Ever practical, Prue isn’t too fussed and chats happily about her many endeavours, of which her return to the food world precipitated much of what is bubbling in her booming business sphere.

Prue blowing out the candles...finally!
Hurricane Prue blowing out the candles in her exuberant style.

At the time of her first association with the food world, the British food establishment was in the clutches of Escoffier (but not in the right way, according to Prue), it had become stifled, always sticking to the rules and not taking heed of the great French master’s advice that one had to move with the times. “It was all about following the rules and if it wasn’t Escoffier, it wasn’t cuisine,” she says.

“You would find all the same items on the menus across London,” she says. When she left, she started campaigning in the food world for good school lunches, for example, and another successful launch was her fiction writing, which resulted in a clutch of novels and a revealing memoir. And she’s still writing because it is something she loves.

After a break of 25 years, she was lured back into the food world as a judge on The Great British Menu and discovered a brave new world. “It was so different with the chefs all turning to flavours from the  Middle East, for example,” and she found herself stealing their recipes.

Suddenly chefs were regarded as the great artists they had become and were taken more seriously. All of this appealed to Prue as after 11 years she was lured to The Great British Bake-Off, replacing Mary Berry when the show moved to Channel 4 in March 2017

Prue Leith dessert
An extravaganza of honey festivity, Ode to Bees,  at Prue Leith’s Chef’s Academy as they spotlight the role of bees with some food for thought.

Not only is it one of the most watched shows on British TV, it also has a huge younger demographic. “The children are all watching,” she says, which has brought her new-found fame in the food world. “I was absent for so long and suddenly there are new generations discovering me.”

Prue pretty in red
Prue, pretty in red, casts her much prized eye in the kitchen.

She’s excited about this younger generation who probably all start off baking cupcakes but even if baking is what gets them started, they will follow with cooking meals. She recently participated in the first Junior Bake-Off series with the children ranging in age from 9 to 15 years. “I thought it was unfair, that the younger participants would be at a disadvantage, but it wasn’t the case,” she says.

What she discovered during her conversations with the youngsters is that most of them learnt to bake and cook on Youtube. To her it doesn’t matter how it happens. “The more children bake, the more will cook,” she believes.

Prue Leith and another selfie...
Prue Leith and a selfie with 2nd year student, Obakeng Chiloane.

Even a stop at a petrol station means endless selfie moments says John. But what really excited Prue with her re-entry into the food world was the opening up of new vistas. She published a new recipe book after a long absence and was urged by her publishers to start with an introductory book covering all her favourite recipes, rather than launching into a specific genre.

She followed this with The Vegetarian Kitchen together with her niece, pastry chef and vegetarian Peta Leith. “I have wanted to do this for ages but 25 years ago, my publishers advised that a similar title would not sell,” she says. Even though she is not a vegetarian herself, she has always been partial to vegetables and had a full vegetarian menu alongside the main menu in her Michelin-starred restaurant.

These days, she often opts for vegetables but isn’t preachy about it.

A totally new venture and one she’s eager to promote is her collaboration with eye wear specialists Ronit Fürst. She was quick to make a note of the many people that asked her about the brightly coloured specs she was wearing on Bake-Off.

They were hand painted and expensive but her timing was right when she approached the company to come up with a bright yet more affordable series which is now also available in South Africa. She advises that one simply googles Prue Leith glasses. I did and found a few optometrists in Joburg but with the range available locally, you optometrist should be able to get hold of the distributors. When you see the range, you will want them.

Prue’s advice: “Shoes and handbags spend most of their time under the table. Across a table, people are looking at your face – hence the glasses.” Always the sensible woman.

Prue Leith graduate
A graduate that gives them bragging rights.

And then to a matter of the heart. It took Prue a while before she became involved with a cookery school but from the start, she was hands-on with the Prue Leith College of Food (1997) named Prue Leith Chefs Academy (10 years later) and now another decade on, Prue Leith Culinary Institute. She visited sometimes twice a year and was always aware of what was happening and where she could offer advice.

Prue with the Prue Leith staff
Prue with the female-dominated staff at Prue Leith Culinary Institute: From Left to right: Nicola Eksteen, Executive Chef, Prue Leith CBE, Patron, Maria Dixon, Head of Training, Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen, Managing Director, Debby Laatz, Head of Academics .

These days with the classy Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen as Managing Director and a brilliant female-dominated team of super chefs, Prue hardly has to do more than admire – and she’s smiling.

“I am so proud,” she says and as the trooper she is, she returns enthusiastically to yet another of the many functions hosted on this celebratory visit.

For more info, check http://www.prueleith.co.za

Visionary Dinners by Consumer and Food Sciences at UP Future Africa Campus

A couple of departments from the University of Pretoria combined forces to focus on foraging, future African foods and a South African menu, which embraces not only the skills but also the cuisine worth celebrating on our continent last year. With food memories still lingering and their latest indigenous dinner on the horison, DIANE DE BEER captures the experience:

Future Africa pictured by Kaylan Reddy
Water feature and indigenous plants at UP Future Africa Campus. Pics by Kaylan Reddy.

 

“Enjoy the fruits of our labour,” invited Sandile Finxa, one of the final year Hospitality Management students from the Department of Consumer and Food Sciences of the University of Pretoria.

They were hosting (and she was responsible for the menu) a special dinner to celebrate our indigenous food of which some of these ingredients were foraged on their Future Africa Campus where the dinner was held.

The Future Africa campus is the new research facility of the university with specially planted gardens purposefully designed and developed to cultivate and produce edible and indigenous plants.

Much of the expertise and help was extended by botanist Jason Sampson from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, the man responsible among others for the botanical garden on the main campus of the University of Pretoria which holds a collection of living plants that is scientifically managed for the purposes of education, research, conservation as well as community service.

With all the UP gardens, Future Africa included, the aim is to raise awareness of our indigenous plant heritage and if you’re fortunate to be taken around the campus by Sampson, it becomes a living organism with aloe walks on the Hillcrest campus and his magnificent fully fledged plant wall for the masterfully designed Plant Science building which functions as insulation as well as an aesthetically pleasing feature while also mimicking the natural habitat of some very unique plants.

Future Africa by Kaylan Reddy
Scenes from Future Africa

He is a font of knowledge and with his passion for especially indigenous flora and to the benefit of the Consumer and Food Sciences students, a love of food, he walks you through the Future Africa gardens, still in their infancy but constantly evolving, and if you listen to him talk, have dishes rolling off his tongue.

“We developed a menu to celebrate and use some of these ingredients that we were able to harvest and include them in our menu (like water chestnuts and makataan),” explained associate professor Gerrie Du Rand in charge of the Hospitality Management Final year students who prepared the dinner also under the guidance of Dr Hennie Fisher.

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Some of the Future Africa indigenous gardens.

“What is also exciting about this garden is the fact that many of these plants are unusual and not freely available and it provided our students the opportunity to celebrate these ingredients in a challenging manner with an unusual menu.”

In fact, as Finxa explained, in case you’re wondering who did the harvesting of the products that found their way onto the dinner plates, they had to get into bathing costumes to pick the water chestnuts, but the results were well worth the effort. And the learning experience for the students, many of whom had never heard of some of these ingredients, was invaluable.

With a visiting professor from the US raving about the menu and resulting dinner, it was obvious that this kind of meal could have a huge culinary impact on foreign visitors. But also, local diners. How many of us would think of serving ting in risotto style?

UP menu advisor
Menu advisor Sandile Finxa

 

The menu was priceless. According to Finxa, the menu was inspired by the gardens of Future Africa. “Each item was made with the intention of highlighting the very rare, but indigenous plants of Africa found within our gardens,” she noted.

 

Calling our taste buds to attention, the amuse bouche consisted of savoury Msoba panna cotta, a pickled aloe aborescens and spekboom salad with wild African sage croutons. Sounds like a mouthful but the different flavours and textures combined brilliantly.

UP amuse bouche
Amuse bouche: savoury Msoba panna cotta, a pickled aloe aborescens and spekboom salad with wild African sage croutons. Dinner pictures by Marlow du Plessis.

Perusing the menu, she explained the different choices and methods selected. “Umsoba/Msoba, also known as nightshade/nastergal, are traditionally used to make sweet jam. The plant has a savoury flavour and beautiful purple hue and so we adapted it to create a savoury dish instead.”

But it didn’t come easy. After many mishaps to keep the beautiful purple colour, they added some vinegar to the process and voilá. The big-leafed spekboom mixed with the pickled aloe aborescence is a different version of the one that has become so fashionable these past few years and packs an even bigger punch.

UP starter
The starter: a panfried amadumbe gnocchi on African water chestnut mash with roasted balsamic beetroot, guinea-fowl and beetroot extract and biltong dust.

The starter, a panfried amadumbe (root vegetable) gnocchi was served on African water chestnut mash with roasted balsamic beetroot, guinea-fowl and beetroot extract and biltong dust. “Cornstarch was used for the amadumbe instead of flour making it gluten-free and the freshly picked water chestnut (à la swimsuits) with twice the nutritional content, has a sweeter, nuttier taste than the tinned variety and also retains a crunch after being cooked” which adds to the eating pleasure.

UP table deco
Imaginative table setting.

These two introductory dishes telegraphed the splendour of the rest of the dinner. With the mains centred on the seared sous-vide Kudu loin with ting (mabele/sorghum), prepared risotto style most spectacularly, it was embellished with butter-tossed waterblommetjies, rooibos-smoked carrots, creamed morogo and a venison red wine jus.

Showing off the versatility of ting was why it was done risotto-style and it worked magnificently. Could this perhaps be our first African-inspired risotto?

The amaranthus plant (known as Marog) is grown on the university campus and was served in a special Pretoria nostalgia-tinged way – creamed. It was a hearty and inspired presentation.

UP dessert
Dessert: milktart given a playful twist by turning it into a macaron filling with amarula.

Dessert was a traditional milktart given a playful twist by turning it into a macaron filling and with amarula, one of our most loved cream liqueurs paired to create an ice cream. Kiwano (commonly known as African horned cucumber) was turned into a gel, introducing a refreshing flavour and brightness to the dish.

With a sweet packet of glazed makataan as a take-home gift, a Cape-Malay koesister and coffee on the way out, the dinner represented an African taste sensation served in stunning style.
Robertson winery and Fat Bastard sponsored the beverages with grand aplomb.

Future Africa
The spectacular UP Future Africa Campus.

The innovative architecture of the Future Africa room, the flora and fauna from their gardens serving as table decorations, and as close to an early African summer night in Tshwane, mid-winter, all combined magnificently.

If this is where the culinary skills of our future chefs are focussed, bring it on. For too long, we have been serving often exquisite food to our foreign guests but apart from the odd braai or bobotie, not indicative of our very own culinary riches.

What these young students managed to achieve was a dinner flavoured and textured proudly South African.

Combining strengths and forces, Dr Hennie Fisher and Prof Gerrie du Rand and their Consumer and Food Sciences students, director of Future Africa Prof Bernard Slippers and his team as well as inspired botanist and curator Jason Sampson from the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, all from UP, have established a benchmark in South African cooking which should be expanded joyously.

It was one of the most visionary dinners held by The Department of Consumer and Food Sciences, and again, the head of Consumer and Food Sciences of UP, Prof Buys, in partnership with Chilean Gastronomic Engineer, Prof José Miguel Aguilera, is hosting an evening of indigenous African Cuisine prepared by the final year Hospitality Management Students.

The dinner will consist of four courses, each with a specially selected wine and will be held on Friday, 13 March at the Future Africa Hillcrest UP Campus. Dress is semi-formal, the dinner costs R350 per person, and booking will only be confirmed once payment has been received.

For further enquiries and bookings: email Taylen Kench at u17196982@tuks.co.za

 

 

Music and Magic at Market@theSheds

DIANE DE BEER

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Pretoria has some of the best markets in the country and one of those, Market@theShedsis probably still one of the best kept secrets in town.

Part of the reason is because it happens in the city at 012central, the trendy arts precinct in Pretoria CBD.

And importantly, first things first, there’s safe parking. Find free parking at 216 Sisulu Street which provides direct access to the market. Overflow parking is available at the State Theatre, 140m away from the main entrance at 381 Helen Joseph street.

Morayks
Morayks in concert

This coming market on Saturday is really one for music lovers. Best of the Sheds Music Festival is the grand finalé for 2019 and the emphasis is on local. Throughout the year, more than 60 talented local bands and musicians perform on stage at the monthly Market@TheSheds.

Once a year, people get the chance to see the year’s favourite bands and musicians with this action-packed Best of the Sheds Music Festival. It truly is Tshwane’s best showcase of the finest local artists and bands.

If music is your thing, this is a fantastic venue to catch the vibe. Join the festivities on Saturday (November 30) and see more than 10 live bands in action. What is described as the ultimate line-up includes The Muffinz, Brian Temba, Morayks, Pedro Barbosa, Gina Mabasa, 1520, The Tshwane School of Music, Lehlohonolo Ntsoko, Chievosky and Zebra.

What makes Best of The Sheds different from their usual market experience? It’s more than just a vibe-driven art, fashion, food and a designer show. Complimenting the music festival, there is a festive market with over 40 designer stalls stocked with colourful, locally produced products. It’s a perfect opportunity to shop the market streets and find quirky gifts while having a great time with family and friends.

Market@theSheds has always meant different things to different people. Personally it’s people watching and fantastic food for me although music is a big part of the market’s success. But if you want less noise and more kuier, it’s best to go earlier in the day rather than later, when the party really gets going.

Kudzaishe Gumbo (5)
Dancing in style at Market@theSheds Picture: Kudzaishe Gumbo

Pretoria’s hip inner-city market is where you will find delicious gourmet street food, craft beer, gin and cocktail stalls and the open-air courtyard with a jumping castle makes it fun for the whole family. But it’s also a place where those with true Tshwane style hang out – both the parents and their kids.

If you’re checking for classy street vibes or high-end individual style that seems ready to vogue, this is where you’ll find it.

Tickets can be bought on-line at Quicket. Online tickets are R120 pp and entrance at the gate will be R 150 pp. Kids under 12 come in free.

Gerrit Wassenaar
Picture: Gerrit Wassenaar

It’s time to shop, play, dance, be merry and have fun with family and friends.

Market@theSheds is the place to start the discovery of a city you think you know. It is a project of the Capital Collective, a non-profit organisation promoting rejuvenation efforts in the inner-city. And it’s working. Don’t miss out being part of this hidden jewel of the inner city. It’s a blast, every last Saturday of the month.

And this one will be happening with a music line-up of note.

 

Sally Andrew’s Tannie Maria in her Hair-raising adventure Death on the Limpopo

Sally dancing in the Karoo
Sally dancing in the Karoo

If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of Ladismith’s Tannie Maria, DIANE DE BEER tells you why you should, in this, Sally Andrew’s third in the series, Death on the Limpopo:

Cover Limpopo finalOn my first meeting with Tannie Maria, I knew that she was the real deal. It’s easy to lose your heart to any of author Sally Andrew’s characters because the storytelling and writing both have authenticity and a sensibility that make the Karoo and her characters sing.

And by now, says Sally, her small-town characters are well established and she can no longer simply push them around.

Tannie Maria is a kind of agony aunt for the local Klein Karoo Gazette in Ladismith and she tries to lighten her reader’s dilemma with a recipe which should add to a swifter solution of whatever might be bothering them.

Sally describes the other regulars as follows: Jessie, the fiesty young investigative reporter; Hattie a Mary Poppins-like editor and Maria’s boyfriend detective Henk Kannemeyer with the distinctive moustache who keeps a protective watch on the woman who has captured his heart.

Tannie Maria loves Henk (pic by Sean Brown)
Tannie Maria loves Henk Picture: Sean Brown

Much as the people are the ones that steal the show, the backdrop is the Klein Karoo, a landscape that’s always hovering and means as much to Tannie Maria as the food she uses as nourishment for a healthy mind as important as body. Soul food probably describes it best.

Sally and Bowen Picture Andrea Nix
Sally Andrew and Bowen Boshier Picture: Andrea Nix

Sally lives(most of the time) with her artist-husband Bowen Boshier in a mudbrick house in a nature reserve in the Klein Karoo. This is where she finds her inspiration, especially when she wanders off on her own and allows nature to play with her over-imaginative mind. It’s also that playful mind that goes into entertainment mode when she plays dress-up for her book launch and introduces some animal characters which she either forgets can talk or puts some words into their mouths.

The biker outfit she wears to these latest book launches, isn’t random. Her latest invention arrives in the Klein Karoo with a screech of tires in a whirlwind of dust on her black Ducati motorbike. Zabanguni Kani is an investigative journalist from the Daily Maverick described by Sally as “strong, black, no sugar”.

There’s no messing with Zabanguni even in this part of the world where she stands out no matter what and Sally views her as her “inner biker chic” but also “the voice of my hardcore activist youth”. It’s an interesting and lively strand that she introduces into a book that deals more than anything with fathers and daughters.

That is bittersweet but perhaps not coincidental as the author’s father was very ill during the writing of this book and sadly died before the Death on the Limpopo was published. “He helped with historical research for this book, sharing his memories, and recommending books and articles to me,” she writes in the Acknowledgements. “He then listened to the whole manuscript as I read him a draft on his sickbed, two chapters a day. He was my best listener and editor, offering insightful comments. He cried quietly at the good bits and snored loudly during the boring bits.”

None of the darker elements in the writing are a surprise. Because of the main character, one might be forgiven if you don’t take any of this seriously, but the essence of the writing is always hardcore as the writer tackles issues in all three Tannie Maria books including spousal abuse, PTSD and there’s a constant quest for healing as her central character deals with her violent past.

As interesting as her characters and story lines might be, what gives the writing weight is the fact that all of this (perhaps not the sleuthing although she does that in her head) is this unusual writer’s real world and the life she leads.

She and Tannie Maria inhabit the same landscape and encounter the same plants and creatures, all of which play a dominant part in their lives.

Then there’s the writing:

The tar ended, as if a black brush had just run dry, and the wheels of my bakkie gripped the earth beneath us. My bakkie loves dirt roads. My red veldskoene got excited too, and added speed to the accelerator. I slowed them both down. I don’t like to go fast in the veld. You never know where there might be a tortoise or a meerkat crossing the road.

It’s evocative as it creates visual pictures that result in a colourful reading as the story races ahead.

Weerligkoek complete PvS. JPG
Weerligkoek Picture: Peter van Straten

Sally tries all the recipes herself and for those she doesn’t attempt, she relies on the help of others and sometimes like for this latest book, she finds specialists like Mari-Louise Guy who with her brother has built a cake and recipe book empire in the Cape.

Tannie Maria's milktart
Tannie Maria’s melktert

Mari-Louise for example took the traditional Ladismith recipe provided by Hetty Smit, and then developed the Weerligkoek (Lightning Cake ) which, when reading the recipe, tells you throughout that it is do-able, but seems quite a tough ask. And Sally assures me that the Melktert in the first book is one of the best. And so all her recipes should be, they’re read and experimented with all across the world. Her books are extremely popular and have been translated into many different languages.

 

You also know, spending some time with the author, that she would not settle for anything but the best. Just doing an interview was quite a mission because she didn’t want to clutter the conversation I was having with her for the Pretoria book launch at Uppercase Books.

I didn’t mind because artists have their own ways, they know what works for them and that’s the right time to indulge their whims.

Anyone who can come up with the Tannie Maria stories and set it in an authentic South African landscape that makes sense, capture the wonders of this country and its people and then do it in a language that has its own rhythms for these particular tales, gets my vote.

poppy seed rusks
Poppy seed rusks

Hopefully Tannie Maria still has much life left in her and will keep sharing her stories rooted in the Klein Karoo (or introducing other nature areas as was done here). She has crept into many hearts as we listen to her advice, dreaming of a coffee and poppy seed rusk that comes from her kitchen.

The Fabulous Flavours of French Food are Celebrated by #SoChef! in SA

French flagFrench flag

French chefs and their cuisine will always catch the shine internationally. DIANE DE BEER explains the magic:

Vincent Lucas
Chef Vincent Lucas

Michelin-star chef Vincent Lucas is someone who expects diners at his Sainte-Sabine-Born (in Dordogne) restaurant to make a culinary leap and eat what he prepares on the night.

Chef-patron of Etinecelles (sparks), a restaurant that only seats 20 diners, he wants them to take a risk with his “adventures in the land of flavours”.

“That’s where I am King, and I decide for them.” Makes perfect sense to me because I have always thought when visiting a specific restaurant that one should defer to the chef. Especially when visiting Michelin-starred restaurants, it’s a time to experiment and play.

For Lucas it’s a case of challenging diners and not allowing them to become too comfortable. Currently in South Africa as part of So Chef! (A Taste of France in South Africa), this is your chance to meet four talented French chefs who will be travelling the country.

Showing off his skills at an informal lunch at the French Embassy in Pretoria courtesy of the relatively new French Ambassador to South Africa, Aurélien Lechevallier, Lucas talked a little about his food preferences. In South Africa, it starts with local produce.

In preparation for the lunch, he first talked to the resident chefs to find out what they had available. When he heard there was Cape lobster and fresh fish, he could start to play.

As a starter he used bouillon (one of his favourites) as an inspiration. “I love serving a bouillon, but it is very different to the traditional meat or fish-based varieties,” he explains.

Flavours and textures are a big part of his cooking and at home, he uses a wild apple in his garden which is too small to do anything else with. It’s about a fresh explosion and with this type of light, floral based bouillon it combined well with the lobster, onion, hazelnuts for flavour and crunch and mushrooms. Everything is very lightly cooked to keep the it all fresh.

This was followed by the mains; a fish I wasn’t familiar with, sourced from the Cape, called Denti. This was presented with deceptive simplicity with crisp greens including celery, peas and asparagus which was cooked in water used to prepare the fresh maize which pops up the in the dessert. All of this was lightly doused with a beurre blanc.

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Strawberries/Avocado lime green/unbaked meringue/almond crumble/Fennel flavoured fresh maize/Thyme

For many around the table, the highlight was the dessert combining contrasting ingredients such as strawberries in olive oil, lightly sauteéd fresh maize, sweet avo with lime and something he is very fond of, drops of raw meringue. Fresh sage added another texure and taste as we were told to eat the dessert with every ingredient on the plate on the spoon. It’s perhaps the one that most visibly captures his food philosophy which is creating an explosion of contrasting tastes. Sweet, sour and salty is something he’s very comfortable with.

Some of his other favourites include a peach studded with anchovies as an appetizer or a foie gras seared with coconut for dessert. He is also fond of rolling it in biltong powder for an extra meaty kick.

It was the perfect meal on a Friday afternoon and a thrill to get a taste of contemporary French cuisine. None of the stodginess of cuisine or chef that one might stereotypically expect in these circumstances and the ambassador cheekily suggested that the conversation was as charming as the cuisine and perhaps we should just linger at the table until dinner.

But the four chefs are much too busy for that. They are touring the country and Lesotho with So Chef! Offerings still available include eat-alongs which is an immersive food experience where the audience eat along with the participants in a chosen film. (October 16 in Cape Town; October 17 in Johannesburg); disco soupe which is a collective and open cooking session of scrapped or unsold vegetables and fruit to sensitise people to food waste but also to eat healthy and tasty food and to heighten the awareness of the fun of cooking together. (October 19 in Soweto , a brief that fits chef Lucas perfectly as he loves using everything – from the husk to the pulp): workshops to be held at schools through the partnership with the Department of Basic Education and their National Nutrition week; as well as for the general public more specifically at the Alliance Francaise network in South Africa and Lesotho; 4-handed gastronomic dinners to eat at partner restaurants to eat food that a French chef and the restaurant’s chef cook together. (October 18 in Durban at the Sugar Club Restaurant in Umhlanga);

The other three French chefs participating include Joey Atchama, one of the most promising chefs on Reunion islands having won this year’s Best Chef Reunion Island award. His focus is traditional cooking skills and mixing them with rigour and culinary techniques; Frédéric Jaunault who has cooked all over the world, has won the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in the “Fruitier Primeur” category, is French and European champion of sculpture art using fruit and vegetables. He now teaches at the Academy of Fruits and Vegetables and promotes France and its cuisine all over the world; Florion Py completes the quartet with a background of pastry and as head chef working in several 3-star Michelin restaurants. Currently he is teaching at his alma mater Lycée Hyancinthe Friant in the Jura wine-growing region. He is passionate about the history of gastronomy and eager to share his discoveries and his knowledge.

All of this is brought to the South African public and scholars by: The French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), The Alliance Francaise network in Southern Africa; Atout France; The Reunion Island Tourism Board; The Bourgogne-Comté Province; The Lycée Hyancinthe Friant and in partnership with the South African Department of Basic Education.

For general information on So Chef! contact mylene.loubiere@ifas.org.za; for more on specific events, thomas.vassort@ifas.org.za.

 

 

Japan’s Visionary And Versatile Food

 

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Bento boxes at train stations for long journeys

Pictures: Diane de Beer and Kanae Omote

On two recent trips to Japan, the first a holiday, followed by work, DIANE DE BEER experienced the visionary and versatile food of Japan and hopes any South Africans visiting during the 2019 Rugby World this month, next year’s Olympics or simply holiday, will be intrigued and inspired:

When the Japanese take you out to lunch, it is stepping up your cuisine kudos and when it’s dinner, it moves up yet another notch.

A furniture representative from the Philippines, Nicolaas de Lange from Designs Ligna who was visiting on a training exercise to acquire furniture from Asahikawa’s Conde House, questioned the uniqueness of Japanese craftmanship in comparison with the rest of the world and determined that it was their search for perfection that was so impressive. “They don’t do anything without reason, a sense of purpose,” he said.

In his latest gardening series on Japan, garden guru Monty Don has similar sentiments: “The Japanese have a unique culture. I’m struck by how deliberate everything is. Nothing is done by accident and everything has relevant points that you have to know about to fully appreciate. The meticulous attention to detail is as evident in their gardens as their sushi.”

“True,” said Japanese-born South African television presenter and entrepreneur Lalla Hirayama, when talking about food. “Nothing is done without purpose,” she explains as she points to the finely shredded daikon served with the sashimi. “It works against any bacteria that might be present in raw fish.”

That of course is also true in the presentation often linked to colour and precision. Everything is delicate and detailed never detracting from the textures or the flavours. Visually the presentation is as detailed as the preparation.

And like with so many Asian cuisines, the diversity is extraordinary. Whether you are going for everyday meals or something smarter, the approach is similar.

On my most recent press trip to explore Hokkaido, three meals specifically impressed and were very different to what we had enjoyed and savoured while on an earlier holiday.

The first two were restaurants in Asahikawa. Tenkin was our lunch option and the meal was dominated by raw fish and a hotpot with a steaming broth and rice on the side. Shabu-shabu (as hotpot dining is known) is a traditional Japanese way of eating and most often they have thin slices of raw beef which is dipped in a sesame-paste or soy-sauce with citrus. Tenkin’s hotpot however is uni-shabu, which is the more unique sea urchin shabu which is rare and thus more expensive.

We were also told, once we were finished with the raw fish, dipping it into the hotpot, we should take the leftover rice and add it to the broth. This was apparently a specialty of the restaurant. It’s comfort food deluxe because it tastes like the best chowder ever. With Japanese rice always of such superb quality, one could just wallow in the deliciousness when combined with the sea-urchin broth.

But so was the rest of the meal. Because the sashimi was simply dipped – once, twice and a third time – to give it a hot edge and because of the freshness and quality, it was melt-in-the-mouth.

Thu dinner
A fine dining extravaganza

The dinner at Koizushi’s was described as a traditional tasting menu. Some dishes, it was explained, were western in style, to make it easier for guests but naturally, it was the Japanese cuisine that we all found most intriguing.

The appetizer included a cigar kelp roll, a pretty yet peculiar persimmon and butter square and some edible salted sea cabbage; followed by a crab and tofu combo; sashimi comprising the best sweet shrimp, salmon, scallop and tuna; tasty grilled red rockfish; roast duck with orange sauce which I suspect is what they thought would please the visitors, but beautifully prepared; tempura (shrimp, Japonica and shishito green pepper) which is in a different class with the batter light as air; soba (buckwheat) noodles with  herring; and finally sushi with medium fatty tuna, yellowtail and salmon roe.

Japanese food at this level is incredible because of the freshness and quality of the fish and the overall superiority of the produce. Hokkaido produces much of its own food, market themselves as a food island and it shows. The meal was overwhelming in quantity and quality and a fabulous treat.

Seafood delicious
Seafood delicious

The following day we were off on another food adventure in the coastal town Otaru at the Canal Restaurant. They view this as quite a Western-type meal and when a group of Japanese girlfriends go out for a celebratory meal, they will often pick one of these companionable BBQ restaurants.

The picture perhaps tells the story best. When we arrived at the communal-type tables, there were trays packed with fresh fish next to what looked something like a hotplate on which the seafood could be cooked. Plenty of cooked sweet snow crab legs were also invitingly displayed with scissors handy for you to get going immediately.

As if that wasn’t enough, many food stations were included in the large dining space and here you could help yourself to anything from noodles in all shapes and sizes, salad ingredients, vegetables like the moreish edamame beans and meat including lamb which is very popular in a Hokkaido barbeque. It is referred to as Genghis Kahn and as the story goes, it is because of a belief that Mongolian people often eat lamb/mutton.

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A fish, crustacean and meat bonanza Picture: Kanae Omote

How anyone could turn away from the spectacular seafood available and done to order as you are in charge, is a mystery, the rest could simply be ignored. Usually though you will have to choose between either the seafood or the Mongolian BBQ. We had a choice of both.

All these meals mentioned above fall in a price range from R400 to a R1000 and most of these were special menus designed for the group. Setting out on your own cuisine adventure, can be a much cheaper and no less delicious affair as we did on our earlier visit.

We wanted to eat with the Japanese people and that’s not a tough ask because of their many different meal options; from ramen, the popular broth and noodle dish which has many different variations including a rich, burnt version, to okonomiyaki, the savoury pancakes cooked on a flat grill and described as a meal of left-overs as vegetables make up the bulk of the batter. All together it is then cooked to your taste at the table.

Dumplings very similar to what we get here, known as gyoza, are most often filled with ground meat and veg. It is wrapped in a thin dough and ingredients most commonly consist of ground pork, chives, green onion, cabbage, ginger and garlic with soya and sesame oil. But again, there are many different variations as chefs and diners experiment.

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Yakitori, a selection of mini skewers

Feel like some meat? Yakitori is a good choice as these mini skewers which in earlier days would have been made exclusively from chicken, now include pork, beef and fish and then dipped in a teriyaki sauce. It is viewed as fast food and most often served with beer or sake and in a bar-type setup.

Similarly, tempura, something the rest of the world is familiar with, is a fast-fried snack, but in Japan, the batter is something else. The popular ingredients are seafood or vegetables served with soy and ginger sauce.

Yummy!

You can’t visit Japan without eating sushi and sashimi often, as they are the undisputed masters. It’s the quality of the fish, the availability of tuna and yellowtail for example, but also the precision and the presentation of their sushi. All masterfully made by specialists in front of your eyes. Nothing like Japanese theatre!

And if sushi ain’t your thing, try Japan’s most popular snack, onigiri, more familiar to us as rice balls. “Sushi isn’t my favourite, but I can easily live on rice balls,” was a familiar refrain from one of our party.

The perfect Japanese snack, onigiri or rice balls
The perfect Japanese snack, onigiri or rice balls

Sushi aside, the thing with rice balls is that it is cheap, easily available at every convenience store or at every station, and painless to eat. It can be seen as the poor man’s sushi as it uses similar ingredients: the filling is chicken, vegetables, fish or pork, and then wrapped in seaweed with a few other flavours tossed in. It’s easy to get hold of, freshly made each day, and like everything in Japan, the quality is excellent, while you hardly notice the price.

Most of these meals would cost you little more than R100 a shot and the rice ball less than R20 each.

You will always bump into the latest trend when traveling. The first time it was matcha (green tea) and we discovered these in Kit Kats, ice cream, both commercial and artisanal, as well as the best of all, one of those old-fashioned ice lollies.

As all new things in Japan, hotter than hot, were commercial packet chips combined with chocolate and while that might not sound appealing, think of the combo of salted caramel for example. Another sweet deluxe item is mochi, made of a short grain japonica glutinous rice.

With all this cuisine swirling around, we have hardly scratched the surface, and that’s the real adventure.

If you want to do some browsing:

Tenkin: https://www.tenkin.info/

Otaru Canal Restaurant: http://www.comsen.jp/otaru/otaru_menu.html

*Following an earlier holiday in that country last October, Diane de Beer was the guest of  JETRO, (the Japan External Trade Organization, a non-profit parastatal under the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry of Japan), for a brief spell at the beginning of February to their northernmost main island Hokkaido.

A shorter version of this story was first published in the Sunday Times Lifestyle (food section) on September 15.

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