Asha Maharaj creates dishes that honour her heritage, bringing its complexity and flavour to the homes of millions over the years who savour the richness of South African Indian cooking.
My father makes a mean lamb chops chutney. By looking at it, you would never guess. There is nothing molten, red or sinus-assaulting about it. No "mother-in-law" or "father-in-law" masalas are complicit in its concoction. The first time he cooked this chutney, it was approached with apprehension. It looked nothing like my mother's version, which is a perfectly reduced volcano of lamb-on-the-bone, generously topped with dhania (coriander) and nothing more. But what his dish lacked in redness, it made up for in a surprising richness, tenderness and spiciness. It did not look like what I had come to expect "traditional Indian food" to look like but is now one of my favourite home-cooked meals.
Sifting through my father's kitchen drawers many years ago, I came across a yellowing newspaper cutout. On it was a small square photograph of an Indian woman with a broad, proud smile: Asha Maharaj of the Ask Asha column in the Sunday Times Extra - a newspaper supplement that almost exclusively covered news related to KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa's Indian population. Maharaj's weekly column would offer solutions for the cleaning and cooking dilemmas South Africa's homemakers were enduring.
Beneath Maharaj's image was an excerpt of a letter from some distressed soul halfway across the country asking her about an alternative recipe for none other than lamb chops chutney, the source of my father's recipe. While he had always credited his mother for his cooking, she, too, was a long-time collector of Ask Asha clippings. She had likely passed this recipe on to him. Such is the nature of creating heritage through food, culture and memory. We are influenced and taught by those who taught and influenced our teachers.
Is anyone still asking Asha?
Like many South African-born Indians, Maharaj's roots extend from India to the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal in a history steeped in colonially sanctioned mercantilism. These roots now extend through Asha in her career as one of South Africa's best known chefs, food columnists and ambassadors of all things spice and Tastic Rice. This is no mean feat for a woman born to a conservative Hindu family in a country that only extended economic opportunity to black people when it proved profitable to do so.
Pragmatic describes Asha's introduction to food. Her first encounters with cooking took the form of daily chores, while her palette was engineered towards vegetarianism long before her birth.
"I first started learning to cook when I was 12 years old," explains Asha. "[My siblings and I] would come home from school each afternoon, wash our school uniforms by hand, do our homework and then we would get to the kitchen and help [our] mom peel the garlic and sweep the floor. Slowly but surely, I hung around the kitchen long enough to knead the dough for the roti and to know when to put the salt in the dhal."
On the influence of Asha's family's caste-heritage on her culture around food, Asha looks to her grandfather. "[He] was a Brahmin, so he only ate vegetables. Growing up, we grew our own vegetables. Only when the next generation was born did 'non-veg' get introduced," she says.
Although she would go on to study catering and hospitality - where she would learn to handle all types of meat - vegetables still reign supreme on Asha's menu. "Contrary to many people's beliefs, I think vegetarianism gives you more variety than any dish. You can cook vegetables on their own or as fresh vegetables and dehydrated vegetables. You can cook them in combination with other things. They all marry well," she insists.
She may have been raised vegetarian, but Asha's fondness for vegetables is also tied deeply to a love of the land. "We have a country of plenty - what more could you want?"
Five minutes of fame at a time
In her personal life and career, Asha wanted for a lot more than easy access to fresh vegetables. In 1960, at the age of 16, she was married to a "suitable man" - then a law student - in a marriage that had been arranged when she was 12.
"Because I got married so young, I did not finish high school. My husband did not believe that any woman, or any housewife, should be housebound. He sent me to study again. I said, 'Look. I'm a practical person, so let me finish my matric, but then I want to do catering.' I wanted something more structured that I could continue as a career," explains Asha.
Against the tides of the times that defined her youth, the financial and moral approval of Asha's husband was catalytic to her career. Despite being the only married woman in her catering and hospitality classes at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon in the early 1970s, she "would spend extra time developing recipes with the lecturers" while her husband worked as an attorney. Her commitment to being the best would earn her the hotel board's top honours award, after which she was approached by the general manager of the newly opened Southern Sun Maharani Hotel on Durban's beachfront "to grace the hotel as their hostess".
In her 12 years as the Maharani Hotel's first hostess, Asha's profile as a national tastemaker grew. She travelled to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, with Southern Sun's management to promote Durban as a tourist destination. Her task: wear a sari and cook a lunch. In 1977, she was recruited by the SABC to introduce Indian cooking on South African television screens for the first time in a five-minute cooking demonstration. She headlined "Indian Week" at Johannesburg's President Hotel after that. She became an ambassador for a German appliance maker, as well as a string of spice and confectionery brands. Then came Tastic Rice.
"They had never had an Indian in their team as a home economist," Asha says. "Their head of marketing said, 'If we do open up this avenue of employment to Indian and Asian women, we have to get Asha Maharaj.'"
As a "home economist", Asha's role was to develop, test and promote recipes using the brands she was being paid to use. Tastic bought five-minute segments on Lotus FM - KwaZulu-Natal's Indian community radio station. Five minutes on radio once a week soon became 15 minutes five days a week. That radio show introduced her to Devi Sankaree Govender, then the editor of the Sunday Times Extra. From there, Ask Asha, the food and lifestyle column was born.
"People started writing in and the mail bag got so big they had to hire a secretary just to handle my mail. There I remained for 10 years. Every recipe is as clear as day," recounts Asha with a laugh.
At this point, Asha had become a household name - a confidante and a culinary savant for homemakers across KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa's Indian population. This status brought with it a level of public recognition that would lead her to hold a seat at the tables of the South African Chefs Association and the International Gastronomic Society based in Paris.
Asha is not starry-eyed. She views her work as a means to sharing knowledge of generations bygone and cultures nearing erasure through assimilation - knowledge she believes herself "lucky enough" to have received. It is an approach to work that may be deeply rooted in her family's cultural heritage as religious leaders: to be vessels of guidance and learning.
'I can never say I've arrived'
Asha's resume reads like a series of inevitable breaks for a woman who actively advanced her own career and brand as a media personality. It also shows that there is no clean route to social and economic freedom within a capitalist framework - not for black women in society.
Her perception of her journey offers some insight into the complexity of making a home in a commercial world that has little room for people like her. She is knowledgeable about the correct order of things, such as the fact that "turmeric in fancy bottles is nothing new", or that "so-called Western dishes like kedgeree (kitchery) and buttermilk soup (kadhi) have a lot of their roots in Indian food".
However, she stops short of railing against cultural appropriation. Instead, she leans on the unwritten rules of innovation in food: everybody is always learning from everybody else.
"Who can stop innovating around food preparation?" Asha points out. "As it is right now, we borrow ideas from other people. We adapt and interchange ideas." Having accepted the permeability of gastronomy, Asha's food philosophy offers an example of humility in abundance.
"It gives me great pride to know that I have started something that other people will use and continue to pass down to other generations. That people will make and eat my fish curry and not just fish and chips, if you know what I mean," explains Asha.
"Knowledge is of no use unless it is passed down. I can never say I have made it," she concludes.
Except that, in more ways than one, she has made it, passing down recipes on yellowing paper cutouts in the kitchen drawers of who knows how many South African homes. Through Asha's almost academic approach to researching, testing and sharing recipes of all kinds, we learn that it is less about who a recipe belongs to and more about honouring the full journey of the recipe itself.
My father's lamb chops chutney appears even richer now, coloured by history and textured by the many hands that have held that recipe.