JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s trailblazing Black food writer Dorah Sitole’s latest cookbook was widely hailed in December as a moving chronicle of her journey from humble township cook to famous, well-traveled author.
The country’s new Black celebrity chefs lined up to praise her as a mentor who encouraged them to succeed by highlighting what they knew best: tasty African food.
Now they are mourning Sitole’s death this month from COVID-19. She was 65.
In “40 Years of Iconic Food,” Sitole engagingly described how she quietly battled South Africa’s racist apartheid system to find appreciation, and a market, for African cuisine. Her book became a holiday bestseller, purchased by Blacks and whites alike.
Sitole’s career started in 1980 at the height of apartheid when she was hired by a canned foods company to promote sales of their products by giving cooking classes in Black townships. She found that she loved the work.
In 1987, Sitole became the country’s first Black food writer when she was appointed food editor for True Love, one of the few publications for the country’s Black majority.
The magazine, and its competitor Drum, were known for giving Black writers, photographers and editors the freedom to write about the Black condition and experience.
With stories that were about much more than food, Sitole described how traditional African dishes brought pleasure to families and communities in troubled times. She was known for her distinctive takes on well-known recipes and tips on how to make them on a budget. She won an avid readership and became a household name, even as South Africa’s townships were roiled by anti-apartheid violence.
When apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, Sitole found new opportunities. She trained as a Cordon Bleu chef and got a diploma in marketing. She traveled across Africa to learn about the continent’s cuisine, producing the book “Cooking from Cape to Cairo.”
In interviews, she pointed out her East African fish dish with basmati rice that she developed while traveling through that region, and the seafood samp recipe, which is basically a paella using chopped corn kernels instead of the traditional rice.
In 2008, Sitole’s success was acknowledged when she was appointed True Love’s editor-in-chief.
Sitole’s warmth and generosity is credited with opening doors for many Black chefs, food writers and influencers who are thriving in South Africa today.
“Mam (mother) Dorah’s approach to food was a mixture of things. First, it was something that was driven by her background, she was very true to who she was,” said Siba Mtongana, one of South Africa’s brightest new chefs, who started out as food editor for Drum magazine and now has a television series and cookbooks.
“She would take what we grew up eating and add a twist to them, and add flavors that we would not ordinarily have thought of putting together,” said Mtongana who has opened a restaurant in Cape Town, featuring food from all over Africa.
She said Sitole imbued her with a passion for exposing the world to Africa’s many cuisines saying she loved describing to her readers what others enjoy eating across Africa, and around the world.
Another chef who credits Sitole for assisting her is Khanya Mzongwana, a contributing editor for food retailer Woolworths’ Taste magazine.
“Mam Dorah wore so many hats — she was a writer, a creator, a mother, a friend, a real artist. I remember just how awesome it was to see a Black woman blazing trails in food media. Nobody was doing that,” said Mzongwana.
“What made Mam Dorah the best was definitely how she could fill a space with pleasantness,” said Mzongwana.
“She was so generous with her resources and wanted to see all of us — her daughters — win. Paying it forward in meaningful ways is something I saw Mam Dorah do first,” she said. “She loved and respected everybody and made what seemed like such a wild dream appear so reachable and normal. She was one of the most impactful Black women in the food world.”
Sitole received numerous awards for her contribution to South African culture.
In one of her last interviews, Sitole said the highlight of her four-decade career was her trip across the continent.
“I had always wanted to travel through Africa and I had no clue what to expect,” she said on Radio 702. “It was almost like you don’t know what you are going into, and then you find it. I loved every moment and every country that I went to, I loved the food and the experience.”
Sitole is survived by her children Nonhlanhla, Phumzile and Ayanda.