Recipes as Archive: Sanza Sandile
"Yeoville is a place of food for thought and for sharing experiences that build lasting bridges with all those who come through."
We spoke to three chefs based in London, Johannesburg and New York City for whom cooking and communion are closely linked. Here, Sanza Sandile reflects on 20 years spent cooking for a diverse and vibrant community of migrants in Johannesburg’s Yeoville.
Food, like spaces, can hold significant memories. In an interview with dezeen earlier this summer, Sumayya Vally, this year’s Serpentine Pavilion architect said, “Recipes are such important archives in telling us where we come from and how we’ve evolved.” Vally’s design for the pavilion is based on past and present places of meeting, organising and belonging across several London neighbourhoods. These locations include cafes, bookshops, community centres, hair salons – and of course, restaurants. Inspired by Vally’s long-term interest in recipes as maps for human evolution, we asked the three chefs to also share a recipe that reminds them of their community.
Chef Sanza Sandile is the founder of Johannesburg’s Yeoville Dinner Club, a space for tasting Pan-Afrikan futures while sharing a dinner table. The suburb of Yeoville is known as one of the most diverse districts in Africa and is home to many South Asian and Muslim migrants. The area holds particular significance for Vally’s research on communities and gatherings in relation to food.
When is your earliest culinary memory? How has this memory informed your practice?
Oh yes! I carry so many fond ‘food and fooding’ memories from growing up in the turbulent Soweto of the 1980s. Memories of street-forced foods, a history of kitchen segregation and also, memories of food to come home to, food that makes you feel home. From our Soweto kitchens, we made the jungle a home. Not alone, but with our defiant gogos, our matriarchs in full heat-control over their coal stoves. They were cooking straight from the heart, making ends meet, keeping the home fires burning.
But Sundays were best home-cooked, well-done and well-dressed in seven colors. For once in that long week, we cooked and mixed the colours. We ate the world in living colour. In full colour. We created, innovated and celebrated. We mixed and matched our remaining ‘Black’ food with the available ‘white’ food and gave to the world our ‘Seven Colour Sundays’ family lunch tradition.
I am a proud product of the spirit of this township, taught from my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchen tables to break bread in colourful style. I recall that on a random weekday, maybe on her favourite, Thursday, my gogo would whip up a mean cottage pie from leftover meat, chicken stew, or simple tinned pilchards in tomato sauce, baked from her classic coal oven – the wonder was still in the creamy potato mash browning on top. I learned my trade from her dignity. She did things her way and created experiences. This is where we come from, and who we are as the Yeoville Dinner Club.
We are honouring our Pan-African food cultures and we are cooking our unique story with and from our memories. We make an open table of Pan-African delights with dishes and stories, eating the colours of the world and sipping concoctions from ancient wells – or just red wine. That kind of home, the memories in action, is where our heart cooks towards”.
Can recipes hold memory? Do they have the potential to heal ancestral trauma?
My recipes are like pieces of a dream. They hold powerful memories. Like all powerful stories, recipes are shared, mixed, cooked, plated, table and shared around the world. The diaspora is still learning and taking from the African way and from the African recipe of life. There’s a growing collection of ancestral secrets that is celebrated in recipes and cookbooks. I can remember Yemisi Aribisala’s Longthroat Memoirs: Soups Sex & Nigerian Taste Buds, a powerful memoir of African food stories and recipes. Her recipes carry such heavy memories and beautifully cooked and brewed stories of her ancestral heritage finding form in her culinary style. She remembers and shares intimate details and uses memory to serve us well. Memory is a weapon against forgetting where we have been eating from.
How can food act as a catalyst for self-exploration and community building?
In food we trust! And, with food we celebrate. Living and learning to cook in African migrant-centric, sensuous Yeoville for the past 20+ years has been a great part of my self-exploration, both personal and communal. Food can develop one’s good taste for life; it’s a refinery, a philosophical school. No big words, but big taste. A taste for new flavours to test new futures. A natural gift that keeps on giving. Food is a cultural force and the fibre of society. Food is the song we continue to sing. Food is a lesson in sharing and building strong collectives: We can start by not only smelling but maybe also taste the good coffee, and build food banks, start co-ops, write cookbooks and preserve recipes. Food is a community builder and community is everything. From these old playgrounds of political upheavals, cultural boycotts and social segregation, Yeoville has answered the natural hunger for social cohesion, and the hunger for Jollof rice has grown even stronger. It’s not about identity, but about creativity, the bliss of mixing, of curiosity. Yeoville has become the Matonge square with its diverse food cultures and history and is fast becoming the African ‘China-town” of Johannesburg.
What does Pan-African cooking mean to you?
Pan-African cooking to me is being a part of the African songbook. It’s perhaps like being a drummer, juggling a number of delicate melodic pots, stirring the sharp hot sauce here, keeping time and beating the porridge drum, collectively and harmoniously dishing nourishing rhythms of life to society. A loud rumble and a bang here and there, but it’s all in good taste and tune, taking you elsewhere while strictly being present. My lessons and memories of Pan-African cooking are like what musos call “playing”, even while working hard. Pan-African cooking has sharpened my talents to always improvise on the themes that flavours and dishes give me, and develop new tastes. That’s not like what we know of French cooking, it’s taking off from the theme. Pan-African cooking food is jazz, it’s enjoying the sweat of a night well played; it is colourful, loud, with a penchant whiff and most definitely best enjoyed by hand.
Does the architectural design of the Joburg/Yeoville influence your work? How?
Yeoville is a buzzing, crowded African migrant enclave with a vibrant high street of aging buildings patched with a fast-growing number of converted retail shops. Rockey Street lines up as a long stretch of mid-century architecture that doesn’t speak of us. Yet now it has become a big ship sailing the most colourful mix of Africans from almost every part of the continent from Cape Town to Cairo. This iconic neighbourhood, the first northern Johannesburg suburb to “integrate”, even before the official whatever “new” South Africa, boasts a rich history of diverse migrant stories; of Eastern Europeans arriving in the 1930s, the communists of the 1950s, and the Hippies of the 1970s, as well as now, the ‘noir wave’. Though Yeoville has been abandoned and politically neglected, we still make the jungle home, and slowly preserve these Havana ruins by the beauty of our lives.
What prompted you to start the Yeoville Dinner Club?
The Yeoville Dinner Club concept has been cooking and bubbling from ashrams that taught us not to count rice grains to the soup kitchens that have nourished the lost and the found likewise. It started as a home supper club during my student days. Passing the test of time and pot, and jumping between pop-ups and tasteful cook-outs, Yeoville Dinner Club now dishes for whoever is ready for the bold stories of the Yeoville market culture-vultures. Yeoville is still a buzzing, crowded cultural enclave with almost every corner of the African continent and diaspora represented mostly by the young and travel savvy. The Yeoville Dinner Club concept celebrates that spirit as a special contribution to our beloved Johannesburg culinary scene.
How can we build bridges of cross-cultural understanding and respect through collaborative cooking that lasts beyond the dinner table?
Yeoville is the centre space of African migrationology. We commune. We co-op. We collaborate. And we co-exist. As poet Joy Harjo says in one of her poems: The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live“. The social cohesion tools that exist in Yeoville, as much as it is in the old Sophiatown, come from pleasure, food and music. It can always be sharpened. Yeoville mirrors all things beautiful about the continent. Rockey Street remains the Pan-African silk route, running its delicate threads right through Johannesburg into the continent, and beyond. And much like silk is built from the delicate taste of a little creature; we feast on beauty. Yeoville is a place of food for thought and for sharing experiences that build lasting bridges with all those who come through and come again and again-academics, visiting artists, tourists groups, and mostly the cream of young South Africans. From our dinner table, we rise. We become Yeovillites and keep coming back to further feasts and dreams.
How does the recipe you have chosen act as an archive for your own cultural experience?
The Okra & Tomato dish I share here is layered with the same culinary signature I have been developing as a slow-cook, traveler and culinary storyteller. It’s essentially simple, yet stuffed with top tips and stories of cooking the various chosen ingredients really slowly to achieve the truest taste. One of the well-kept secrets of building a thick and jammy tomato base is from the old River Café cookbook. The sauce holds memories reminiscent of Ghana’s ‘Shito’ and Ethiopian ‘Shiro’ with a sprinkle of naughty and vinegary capers to masquerade as a Neapolitan Puttanesca sauce. And finally, the nutty and rounder chickpeas (the North African pearls of Nefertiti) are also slow-cooked to a perfect soft crunch in a salty cumin broth. Okra fingers, either cut in half if they are long to be mistaken for string beans, but normally kept long and thin like, so they own their “granny’s finger” nick-name. Slow fried with thinly sliced red onions and cracked black pepper to avoid the slime, the mighty okra is slightly stirred into the tomato, chickpea and capers sauce. The signature scent here is sweet basil leaf. A true Pan-African and diasporic vegan delight that’s revered by those who feast as we do.
Recipe: Sanza’s (Really) Simple Slow Cooked Tomato Sauce with Fried Okra, Red Onions, Chickpeas and Capers
4 jam tomatoes or two cans of tomatoes
Salt & pepper
Black mustard seeds
Serve with bread of your choice
- Cook four chopped jam tomatoes or two cans of tomatoes and begin to fry in a bit of oil. Add garlic and chili, salt and pepper, and a little paprika, a teaspoon of sugar and leave the mixture to slowly fry/cook until it sticks nice and thick to the pan.
- Soak a can of chickpeas (if soaking is needed) and set the tomato-based mixture aside. In another pan, fry one small red onion, throw in some black mustard seeds and a handful of okra fingers, until everything gets a little crispy then add some capers before stirring it together with the tomato sauce.
- Add fresh basil leaves for extra perfume and flavour. Serve with bread (ciabatta/roti/magwinya/injera or whatever you prefer)
Chef Sanza Sandile is the founder of the famed Johannesburg Yeoville Dinner Club, a space for tasting Pan-Afrikan futures while sharing a dinner table. Each night, he opens a carefully curated table in his spot on ever-buzzing Rockey Street that serves as the temporary home for the stories his guests bring to it: Safe, savoury and clever. Dubbed a culinary smuggler and the “El Bulli of Yeovillle”, Sanza Sandile affirms the dignity of encounters by his unique twist to otherwise well-known African dishes, such as vegan Egusi or Okra-stews. His mixology of flavours, tastes and stories speak to his early career as a radio DJ and selector at YFM and other radio stations of crucial importance in the sonic history of South Africa. His home, inspiration and utopia is Yeoville, the famed Johannesburg suburb called the “most diverse hood in Africa” in a recent feature in the Economist (2019). It is here in Yeoville that he gathers ideas for dishes based on stories of migration and belonging, and taps into the wealth of knowledge of the local, abundant food market and its protagonists. All comes together at the table of the Yeoville Dinner Club, which is both an archive of routes and stories, soon to be turned into a book.
Follow Yeoville Dinner Club on Instagram: @yeovilledinnerclub