South Africa: The Meaning of Dorah Sitole, SA's Food Pioneer

The culinary icon had a close, motherly relationship with many aspiring Black chefs over the years. They reflect on the enduring influence she had - and will continue to have - on them.

In her recent cookbook, Dorah Sitole: 40 Years of Iconic Food, launched mere months before her passing early in January, the chef and culinary writing expert begins with a reference to her birth on 24 September 1953. The day is also celebrated as Heritage Day in South Africa. It is a commemoration of the vast and intertwined cultures that comprise the country's populace, and serves as a touchstone for her opening chapter, titled My Roots, My Heritage. It is a fitting start to a book already hailed a classic, and an apt summation of Sitole's body of work over the past four decades, which has prioritised giving voice - and a joyous one at that - to a much-maligned African culinary heritage in South Africa.

Sitole condenses her life in food in the 256 pages of her autobiographical cookbook. She covers a tough few years in Charterston Location in Nigel, a childhood spent in Soweto, her later adult years spent chiefly in Bryanston, Johannesburg, as well as her criss-cross travels around the country, the continent and the world.

Sitole leveraged her talent and curiosity as South Africa's first Black food editor in 1987 for True Love magazine by featuring African food regularly. This was in contrast to the Western, British and Afrikaner food given priority in the local media landscape. She applied herself conscientiously to the task and, by 1999, had travelled to all nine provinces of South Africa and 19 countries across the African continent in search of popular indigenous recipes, learning how to translate these for her readers along the way.

Cooking from Cape To Cairo, published in 1999, was the culmination of this exploration. The book was updated with more products of Sitole's African travels in 2009. Until this point, no other South African Black writer had been granted a platform to share the African gastronomic experience in the manner in which Sitole did - be it delele (okra) and mopane worm stew or jollof rice and Ghanaian goat-meat soup served with fufu.

From the pages of glossy magazines and newsprint to television broadcasts and cookery shows, and even demonstrations in malls and cookery classes, Sitole shared her enthusiasm for African food with a pragmatic approach. She was never oblivious to the fact that food is expensive and that most of her devoted readers had to be conscious of its costs all the time. Sitole herself was familiar with these struggles. In 40 Years of Iconic Food, she documents being well acquainted with hunger during her earlier childhood years. So, with a flair for invention and adaptation marked by her grace and generosity, she sought to share food that many would be able to prepare.

The heartfelt tributes shared at her online memorial revealed a career built around community and an active stance in elevating and encouraging multiple generations of chefs, home cooks and culinary professionals as they climbed the ranks, side by side with her. It is fitting, therefore, that the title of "Mam", or mother, was used by her mentees, readers and colleagues when addressing Sitole over the years.

Warm as a mother's embrace

For food activist and chef Mokgadi Itsweng, Mam' Do, as she called Sitole, played the role of a mother figure, particularly as her own mother Pam died the year prior to them meeting. "I'd just returned from New York and started to work as a chef for Woolworths. Mam' Do recognised the passion in me. She gave me this warm hug, and automatically a bond was formed," she says.

Theirs was a close professional and personal relationship, with Itsweng praising Sitole's "presence, motherly love and nurturing, positive nature". Says Itsweng: "For the next 20 years, she connected me to so many people, to business opportunities and the world of food writing." Sitole encouraged her to use her media background to forge a career in food media, making it possible for Itsweng to create several niches in the industry. "Mam' Do was a grandmother to my son too," she adds.

Zola Nene, television chef and cookbook author, reflects on Sitole's warmth and affectionate nature. "I'd equate my relationship to her with that of a second mom. Every time I saw her, it felt like a reunion with a close family member. If we met, talked on the phone or emailed, she always made a point of telling me how proud she was of me, and of the new generation of Black female chefs who are doing amazing work."

Nene refers to Sitole as the community's "cheerleader, championing for us all", adding that no question was too mundane. "She was always willing to engage, even if she was answering the question for the 100th time. She had a way of making you feel so special."

Millennial chef and cookbook author Mogau Seshoene, of The Lazy Makoti fame, who first met Sitole in 2015 at a demonstration where they were both working, says they shared a mother-daughter relationship. "I used to think I was Mam's favourite, and then at her memorial I learned we all were," she says, adding that Sitole always made time to talk, give advice and listen. "She was generous and loving and always a phone call away."

Siba Mtongana, celebrity chef and restaurateur at the newly opened Siba, The Restaurant at the Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town, dates her relationship with Sitole back to her own editing days at Drum magazine. "From a work perspective, Mam' Dorah played an instrumental role in helping me to navigate tricky situations without raising too many eyebrows. On a personal level, she was very motherly and encouraging in terms of work and family," she says. Mtongana adds that Sitole always availed herself for catch-ups when she called. "I'd call and say, 'Hey, Mam'D, I'm in Johannesburg. Let's do this or that.' She was always keen."

Lessons for the future

"The lessons I've learned from Mam' D are infinite," Nene says. "She was the pioneer. I think without her there wouldn't be Zola Nene, there wouldn't be a lot of the young Black chefs that you see today." She echoes what seems to be the consensus that Sitole's work paved the way for Black food professionals, particularly in the media.

"Because of her, we can walk this path," Nene adds. "Imagine, back then [in the 1980s and 1990s] she was championing African food on such a huge scale. I think people do not realise how world-renowned Mam' D is, and this is probably because she always downplayed her influence." Nene calls Sitole's effort with Cape to Cairo "revolutionary" for both the scale of the work involved and the period in which she accomplished it.

For Afrikaans food historian and cookbook writer Errieda du Toit, Sitole's generosity inspired her own body of work. "When I started writing about food and tapping into my own food culture, Dorah was a role model in terms of instilling in me the importance of documenting South African food stories." Explaining that at the time local food writing was focused on what was happening in Europe, America and Britain, she says: "But through Dorah, I realised how varied and rich South African food is. This enriched my food life and the stories that I subsequently wrote."

Seshoene credits Sitole's "incredible humility" as one of the most significant influences on her. "When I asked her to host my cookbook launch, she never stopped saying how honoured she was. Imagine that, the great Dora Sithole!" Seshoene says. "I'll always remember her being unpretentious, kind and in love with the work she did."

Itsweng says Sitole was a good friend to many. "Mam' Do was my confidante. She'd advise me when I needed to rant. She had such a gentle view of the world."

Even with this view, in the workplace Sitole always firmly maintained her stance, says Mtongana. "She was firm in terms of what she wanted, and even in her advice. I remember there was a time where I had been headhunted to do Siba's Table [a cookery show aired on Food Network], and I was feeling overwhelmed and uncertain," she says. "Mam' D encouraged me to accept that I'd been called for such a platform and to stop feeling doubtful and fearful. She would tell you what you needed to hear firmly, but in a way that was lovely and reassuring."

Itsweng equates Sitole with America's Julia Child, who brought French cooking to the American housewife in the 1950s and to a broader audience over a lengthy career thereafter. "Mam' Do took the lead around the African food narrative in South Africa and showed it in a beautiful light. Her example really taught me to follow what I'm passionate about, to find my calling, my voice within the food industry," Itsweng says.

Sitole was a teacher who led by example, she adds. "I want us to remember how she served Africa to the world, and taught South Africans how to embrace African cuisine."

A rich legacy at the table

"I often mention the fact that Mam' Dorah was the first [established] Black food editor [in South Africa]," says Mtongana. "I think that's important because, for people like me, there were so few people that you could look up to who looked like you back then," she says. Additionally, Sitole stressed the importance of making more space for new talent.

"Diversity is important because it serves to welcome you in. Mam' D did this at a time when our food was not necessarily something that was celebrated, so I see her as the doyenne of African food... [and our food specifically]."

Referring to her as "the original influencer and celebrity chef", Mtongana recalls cooks attending Sitole's classes with flip files of her recipes collected from True Love and other magazines. "She means so much to her readers because she established herself over decades and became a trusted voice."

For Uitenhage-born cook Pumla Brook-Thomae, a role model is gone. Thirty-five years ago, when she was just 12 years old, Brook-Thomae started collecting Sitole's recipes from Drum magazine. Around the same time, Sitole had become the group food editor of Drum Publications, which also included True Love and City Press. "I have vivid memories of sitting on the stoep on Saturdays, cutting out Mama Dorah's recipes. But, I had to wait patiently for my mom to finish reading the magazine."

She recalls a one-pot chicken recipe she attempted at age 13 that drew rave reviews from her family, who lived on a farm at the time. "My mom's confidence in me grew, not only because I could cook and I adapted the recipe for the stovetop since we didn't have an oven, but I successfully followed the instructions in English. The recipe soon became a family favourite."

Having met her cooking hero at a food conference in 2019, Brook-Thomae says that Sitole's "soulful, unpretentious cookery" and her ability to make anyone feel special are traits she hopes to emulate in her own career as a cook.

Nene explains that Sitole's influence transcended generational boundaries. "She was someone whose recipes my mom read and knew. My generation also knew and loved them. The fact that she hosted cooking classes for domestic workers and for newly married women to give them a leg up so that they'd feel competent and accomplished is just amazing," Nene says.

For Du Toit, Sitole's contribution to the culinary canon has established her presence in the lexicon - that of icon. "I will never be able to think of Dorah in the past tense, because her contribution and legacy is a national living treasure."

Mtongana says Sitole's passing came at the helm of her career. "It feels like we were just in celebration of her and clapping hands for the release of 40 Years of Iconic Food. I'm grateful that she wrote her story and shared her narrative in her own words."

For Itsweng, and all the chefs and writers interviewed, Sitole's memory will live on in her recipes, in well-thumbed copies of her cookbooks and in the splattered pages torn out of magazines, for generations to come. "I'm so happy that she was finally recognised and awarded by Eat Out and Food XX in her latter years," Itsweng says. "Mam' Do has been around for longer than most people in food media. She needs to be remembered in our history books as a cultural icon."

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