Award-winning S. African chef Zola Nene talks about food, China and the future

By Claudine Housen Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/12 18:53:39

Zola Nene Photo: Courtesy of Davie Verwey

What strikes you most about her is her open and welcoming personality. She is vivacious and down-to-earth, two traits that come out even in the way she talks about food and cooking.

"My food philosophy is food is for everyone. Because at the end of the day, we all have to eat, so we should all be able to cook," remarked South African chef Zola Nene to an intimate crowd of Chinese and expat food enthusiasts at The Bookworm in Beijing recently.

"My pet peeve is the type of chef who is very pretentious and is like, 'Oh no, no, only us chefs can do that. It's our secret. For me, there is no secret. We share everything." 

Nene was in town to give Beijingers a taste of South African cuisine and promote her first cookbook Simply Delicious after it copped two awards at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in Yantai, East China's Shandong Province several days before.

As a trained chef and food stylist who works as the resident chef on the Expresso morning show in South Africa, the Cape Town native competed against the best in the world to win the Best TV Celebrity Chef in English and the Best TV Chef Book in English at the awards.

After her win, Nene traveled to Beijing to participate in a food festival at the Village Café, showcasing South African flavors. The day before she was scheduled to leave China, she regaled Chinese and expat foodies with stories about the food journey she took to write her cookbook and shared funny titbits from her first visit to the Middle Kingdom.

The journey

A sort of diary with recipes and beautiful photos, Nene's 241-page cookbook chronicles her food journey "up to a certain point."

Simply Delicious is split into seven categories that pay homage to a different part of her life. For example, in "Nostalgic Nibbles" Nene includes recipes for the sumptuous meals she cooked and ate with her family over the years.

"It starts from the nostalgic food memories that I grew up with," she said. "So, the types of dishes that my grandmother taught me how to cook, the stuff my mom taught me how to cook."

One special recipe she included was the first dish her grandmother taught her how to cook, mealie bread or white corn, which she now cooks with her own twist since the chef has little time to "steam bread for four hours."

"So, it basically follows the journey of food in my life and how I became the chef that I am today," she said.

Chinese food

Nene told the audience at The Bookworm that her time in China "has been incredible" and was both eye-opening and inspiring.

"I learned how to make [Chinese] dumplings, and it was life-changing," she said. "I learned how to work the rolling pin a certain way, so I am definitely taking that back."

Nene shared with the audience her failed attempt at eating the black preserved egg known as a 100-year egg and talked about her experiences shopping at a local market and buying and eating durian.

"I wanted to try the 100-year egg. But then she peeled it and I ran the other way. I would have loved to try it, but I didn't," said Nene, to laughter from the audience.

Describing her durian experience, Nene said she was very excited to try the fruit despite people warning her about its strong smell.

"I went to the market, saw it, and was like, 'Oh my gosh! It's a durian. Let me try it.' Everyone said it smelled like wet nappies, but I was like, 'No it smells tropical," she said. "I went about my business in the market and about two hours later, I was like, 'Ooh, I have durian!' I took it out and it was ripe! I almost fainted."

She also told those present about her delightful experience eating authentic Sichuan hot pot.

"I had Sichuan hot pot, which blew my mind and my brain and my mouth," she said. "It was so spicy and loving at the same time. It was delicious. I kept eating even though I was in pain... The hot pot was so delicious. I also want to try and recreate it when I get home."

Showcasing South Africa

Her Chinese experiences aside, Nene also spoke of how gratifying it was for her to be invited to share South African food and food culture with the Chinese.

"It was my first visit to China and my first time cooking in China for Chinese people. The experience was great, getting to share my recipes and menu with the chefs at the Village Café was such fun. They were also eager to learn about South African ingredients and how to prepare dishes," she said.

"I did get to meet a lot of the diners, which was great. The feedback was wonderful, and I was happy with the way the food was received by people. It was a great introduction to South African food for Chinese people, I feel."

Paul Adams, a teacher and foodie from South Africa who has been living in Beijing for over three years, later joined other members of the audience in encouraging Nene to return and perhaps teach a cooking class or even post cooking videos on popular Chinese streaming platforms like - something she said she would consider.

"I think food is like music. It bridges gaps, breaks barriers and can reach people," said Adams. "I think Zola's coming to Beijing is the start of something special. It could potentially bring us together."

In the meantime, Nene is looking forward to hosting a Chinese dumpling party at home and coming up with Chinese inspired dishes. If fact, Adams got her on record saying that she would perhaps cook Chinese dumpling on her morning show Expresso.

"People back home are going to get tired of me talking about how fantastic my time here was," she said. "Naturally, I am going to sort of play around with all the skills I learned here.

Newspaper headline: Simply enchanting

Posted in: FOOD

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