Posts tagged people
A Mini Road Trip Movie with Topsi Venter

Exploring | Cape Winelands, South Africa 

 
 
 
 

Topsi Venter was the Grand Dame of South African cuisine. Topsi, whose real name was Pauline Venter, was a living legend among her chef colleagues. No matter who you asked, all roads in South African cuisine seem to lead to her.

 

I wasn't even aware of her when I met her for the first time in her restaurant. I had just visited Margot Janse in the award-winning Tasting Room in the Quartier Francais when she said that I just had to go to see Topsi since she only lived a few houses further down on the same street. Sometimes when you go through a door you have no idea that something important is about to happen. Awaiting me that afternoon was a high-speed journey into the past, the present and the future of South African cuisine.

A few days before, I found out that Topsi was an old woman who, due to an operation, could barely walk and talk... yet it turned out that this was only partly the truth. When I entered the house, Topsi was stood right in front of me on her crutches. Margot Janse had apparently just been on the phone to her and so she knew that I was on my way. "So, young man", she said "you’re interested in South African cuisine? Where are you from?" "Actually," I answered, "I’m half from Spain, half from Austria, and..." "Spain...?" She didn't let me finish my sentence " a famous Spanish chef spent a few weeks in South Africa. How was he called?... Oh yes, Ferran Adria, and I cooked something for him – he was quite nice and just as curious as any child. But follow me, let me show you something." She went limping into the kitchen. "Oh, my knee hurts! she said," I’ve just had an operation"

"...a famous Spanish chef spent a few weeks in South Africa. How was he called?... Oh yes, Ferran Adria, and I cooked something for him – he was quite nice and just as curious as any child...

We went briefly into the kitchen, greeted her daughter Danielle, who was just cooking a Bootie -a South African national dish with Malaysian origins - and then we went right on through into the next room. It was a library. The room was filled with shelves stacked high with cookbooks, cookbooks and even more cookbooks. As if she could read my mind, she knew that this was something quite extraordinary for me.  "This is my treasure trove!", said the trained architect and art historian, which is where her love for eating turned into a love for cooking.

She showed me the books, many of which were beautifully illustrated. I was fascinated and intrigued. She took yet another one from the shelf read it to me.  "This is by C. Louis Leipoldt, a South African poet... listen to this: and there is the art of cooking, which is one the greatest expressions of culture and civilisation, because it converts food from a mere necessity into a social delight and rejoicing in being alive, however cold the day and dark the night...." She took a long pause and looked at me and said: "What I thought now, is that we should go to Renata! Come on, get your things. I’ll fetch the car keys!" She limped quickly towards the desk. Somewhat shocked I thought, "Oh my, are we really taking the car? Seriously? If she can barely get around, how on earth can she drive?".

Approaching the desk with difficulty, she carefully opened a drawer and suddenly a parrot appeared, "Can I introduce you to Miss Oscar Wilde?" said Topsi "I think he's gay.

Approaching the desk with difficulty, she carefully opened a drawer and suddenly a parrot appeared, "Can I introduce you to Miss Oscar Wilde?" said Topsi "I think he's gay. Now where the hell are those car keys?" she cursed loudly.  We got in to an old, rusty brown Mercedes.  "You’ll have to keep hold of the door while we’re driving – it sometimes flies open", said Topsi. "Where are we going? And who is this Renata?" I asked.  "To the past and into the future!!!" Topsi replied. Renata Coetzee – as Topsi told me while driving at full throttle through the Winelands – was a food historian, also 80 years of age, who knew ten times as much about South African cuisine as any other person. Her area of research was the oldest cuisine in the world, the thousand-year-old cuisine of San and the Khoikhoin people. It had become her life mission. She had even documented the plants and herbs of this original cuisine - Fynbos vegetation. "Then we could drive down to see Shoeman", Topsi said. "Guys like him embody the culinary future of our country. He cooks with these completely unknown plants and herbs in the Fyndraai Restaurant. It will open up a completely new universe of tastes and smells. You'll see". "I hope so!" I think, as I regard the rickety door of the Mercedes with something approaching panic.

 
Topsi Venter in her old Mercedes Benz

Topsi Venter in her old Mercedes Benz

 

"Where are we going Topsi? And who is this Renata?" I asked.  "To the past and into the future!!!" Topsi replied. Renata Coetzee – as Topsi told me while driving at full throttle through the Winelands – was a food historian, also 80 years of age, who knew ten times as much about South African cuisine as any other person.

 
 
 
 
A present from the dessert for me: Kalahari Truffle (peeled), "the potato of the Koihsan".

A present from the dessert for me: Kalahari Truffle (peeled), "the potato of the Koihsan".

"...Guys like Shoeman embody the culinary future of our country. He cooks with these completely unknown plants and herbs..." 

Topsi Venter

Indigenous herbs: Koekemakranka, or Kroekemakrank or also known as Gethyllis was a plant used in one of the most ancient kitchens of the world: the one of the Khoisan people, who live in the south-west coastal strips of Africa (actual Southafrica and Namibia). The may once have comprised the majority of living humans on the planet, for much of the past 150,000 years. Today, The ripe fruit is sometimes used to impart its special aroma to brandy. More Illustrations  here

Indigenous herbs: Koekemakranka, or Kroekemakrank or also known as Gethyllis was a plant used in one of the most ancient kitchens of the world: the one of the Khoisan people, who live in the south-west coastal strips of Africa (actual Southafrica and Namibia). The may once have comprised the majority of living humans on the planet, for much of the past 150,000 years. Today, The ripe fruit is sometimes used to impart its special aroma to brandy. More Illustrations here

 
 
 
In memorian: Topsi Venter passed 2016 away at the age of 85. Thank you Topsi for this awesome day!

In memorian: Topsi Venter passed 2016 away at the age of 85. Thank you Topsi for this awesome day!

© Text, Artwork and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist

 
 
 
Food under the Rainbow

Exploring | South Africa

Downtown Johannesburg, Siverwright Avenue, underneath the motorway. At a braai (grill) station a woman serves Phutu Pap (maize and porridge), which is always served with chakalaka (a relish dish) as a side dish with braais.

Downtown Johannesburg, Siverwright Avenue, underneath the motorway. At a braai (grill) station a woman serves Phutu Pap (maize and porridge), which is always served with chakalaka (a relish dish) as a side dish with braais.

 

- Fieldnotes - 

The rainbow nation’s rainbow cuisine (south african cuisine): A melting pot of various races, cultures, backgrounds and cuisines.

Some quick notes... 

 
"I have curry in my veins", says Goolam Habib Madaris who runs a spice shop in the Victoria Street Market in Durban, South Africa. This Market is unique in South Africa. Barrels of Indian spices and incense infuse the air. A visit is essential for those who want to experience Durban's relaxed Afro-Oriental atmosphere. The city of Durban is home to the largest population of Indians descents outside Asia.

"I have curry in my veins", says Goolam Habib Madaris who runs a spice shop in the Victoria Street Market in Durban, South Africa. This Market is unique in South Africa. Barrels of Indian spices and incense infuse the air. A visit is essential for those who want to experience Durban's relaxed Afro-Oriental atmosphere. The city of Durban is home to the largest population of Indians descents outside Asia.

Downtown Johannesburg

Downtown Johannesburg

 
 

© Text, Artwork and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist

 
 
 
 
The Chinese Darth Vader
 

Jet lag

It's late at night in Shanghai and I cannot sleep. My hotel, not far from the colonial Grand Boulevard “The Bund", is only 100 metres from the "House of Jazz & Blues”, where according to the receptionist, they play good music every evening. I decided I wanted to find out for myself and so made my way there... 

 
 
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The Metropole Hotel at the Bund

The Metropole Hotel at the Bund

eatnologist_sketchig_food_shanghai_DSC_8313_96.jpg
Fearless watermelon vendor

Fearless watermelon vendor

 

...Red lanterns lined the neighbouring alleys where sellers manned their makeshift food stalls until late into the night...

 
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Entrace to a Club at The Bund

Entrace to a Club at The Bund

 
 

Red lanterns lined the neighbouring alleys where sellers manned their makeshift food stalls until late into the night. Upon opening the door to the jazz club, I felt that I'd stepped back in time to the Shanghai of the 1930s. A band was already playing. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a cocktail. A thick cloud of smoke drifted towards me; I heard a deep, dark voice and turned around. Next to me sat a Chinese man wearing a light-coloured suit, white leather shoes and an Al Capone style hat. He was puffing away on his pipe and conversing with the bartender. I must have looked pretty baffled for he looked at me and smiled briefly; lifting his wineglass, he said, “Cheers… where are you from”?

 

 
The House of Blues & Jazz Ba. At the left side: Mr Lin Dong Fu.

The House of Blues & Jazz Ba. At the left side: Mr Lin Dong Fu.

 

A handshake later and I discovered more about this man with his strange, yet impeccable look… he was the owner of the club. In addition to his impressive voice, Lin Dong Fu also has incredible charisma, the kind that you can’t quite put your finger on. In fact, this diverse dandy has countless hidden depths and facets and for this evening, Lin Dong Fu acted like a bridge between the West and the otherwise sometimes impenetrable Chinese culture. Quite simply, it was fascinating listening to him as he started explaining about his world, China and the Shanghai of his memories that no longer exists. Lin Dong Fu, however, loves Europe and in particular Hamburg. He often goes there to meet his old and good friend Undo Lindenberg – everyone on the streets had better watch out then if they decide to go out for the evening together. He explains, “I especially like to go to wicked bars with good music when I'm in Europe. We don't do that so well in Shanghai. Everything moves too quickly here. The Bohème, as it’s known in Europe, does not exist in the same way here. There is so much that we Chinese cannot understand of the Western world, and it's the same the other way round. Many Westerners just can't get to grips with our culture. Much of it is pure imitation. But then there are still some things that we can learn from, because new paths and interpretations can always open up and that is a good thing.” As has long been the case, a good starting point is really getting to know the traditional aspects so that you can then create something new from a foreign culture, like from art or cuisine.” “By the way”, he asks me, “are you interested in dining? Chinese food… I mean real Chinese food?” Then I told him my story. 

 
Lin Dong Fu

Lin Dong Fu

 

Lin Dong Fu is multi-talented and very well known throughout China. He makes music, paints pictures, owns a jazz club, is a TV presenter and actor, and also lends his Chinese voice to Darth Vader and Sean Connery in films.

 
 

The next day, a limousine sent by Lin Dong Fu was standing outside my hotel. His chauffeur opened the door and Lin Dong Fu got out of the car and came towards me. A passer-by recognised him, and bowing nervously, she handed him a card, requesting an autograph. Lin Dong Fu smiled kindly and wrote something on the card. All of a sudden, the woman seemed to be very excited and said goodbye to him, moving backwards all the time while bowing even more.

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During the journey, Lin Dong Fu told me more about our destination, Restaurant Fu 1088 in the Shanghai French Concession. Fu 1088 is located in an extravagant villa with 17 private dining salons in the style of the 1920s, so private that even the staff wait outside the closed door. 

 
 
 

Fu 1088 is located in an extravagant villa with 17 private dining salons in the style of the 1920s

 
 
 

A good half an hour later we're sitting in a dining room. Lin Dong Fu looks critically at the menu and orders a number of dishes, while giving additional instructions to the staff. It's almost scary the way in which they obey, as if they were actually receiving orders from the real Darth Vader. "By the way, I'm a big fan of Star Wars," I confess, "but only of the first and second series". "I agree", Lin Dong Fu says thoughtfully. "Have I messed up? Oh no! It’s certainly nothing to do with the dubbing work that he has done. Shhhh...”, I tell myself, and feel like I'm turning a deep shade of red.

...By the way, I'm a big fan of Star Wars," I confess, "but only of the first and second series". "I agree", Lin Dong Fu says thoughtfully. "Have I messed up? Oh no!...

After a while, the door opens and several waiters enter. The dishes that we have ordered all arrive at the same time. Lin Dong Fu stands up. He crosses his arms behind his back. He bows forward as if he were a general in front of a model of a battlefield, and he carefully looks at the food on the round glass table. He asks the waiters several questions and without exception, the waiters all nod. He appears to be satisfied, and with a subtle wink, he lets them march back outside. The doors are closed and the feast can begin. We eat Hua Jiao Luo Bo Pi, which is a crispy radish, marinated in a Szechuan-pepper sauce, Chen Cu Hai Zeh Tou, a salad of pickled jellyfish, which have roughly the consistency of gummy bears, and Hong Sao Rou, which is cubes of pork belly cooked in several spices, soy sauce and rice wine – it has been cooked for so long that the meat has reached a jelly-like consistency. This dish was Mao Zedong's favourite dish and still there are yet more dishes, each as good as the first. Lao Shang Hai Xun Yu, a fish fried in nugget form, could well be the culinary and somewhat more lethal incarnation of the famous carrot and stick saying. This is because if you eat the fish carefully, then you will be rewarded with an incredibly delicate taste. And if you don't pay careful attention, the X-shaped bones can lodge themselves in your neck, putting you at risk of suffocation and death. 

 
 
Sesame Jellyfish Salad

Sesame Jellyfish Salad

 
Lao Shang hai xun y - Shanghai "smoked" fish and Hua Jiao Luo Bo Pi- a crispy radish, marinated in a Szechuan-pepper sauce.

Lao Shang hai xun y - Shanghai "smoked" fish and Hua Jiao Luo Bo Pi- a crispy radish, marinated in a Szechuan-pepper sauce.

 

"Do you know why chinese people eat with chopsticks?" asks Lin Dong Fu. "I know that there are apparently different theories," I reply, as I taste a mouthful of all of the dishes. He told me that "these theories are most certainly all rubbish. Look, I will show you my own theory". He lit a cigarette, took a puff, and then at the same time, picked something from his plate with the chopsticks. "Did you see that? Eating and smoking, both at once. Twice the pleasure and yet it still appears elegant.  Besides, it's practical isn't it?"

"Ok, but you can do that with a fork too" I say. "Yes, but not that elegant!" he replies.

We laugh, and I realise that at long last I have the opportunity for which I've been waiting since yesterday.  "Mr. Lin Dong Fu, could you please say something in your Darth Vader voice?" I mutter shyly.

 

...Mr. Lin Dong Fu, could you please say something in your Darth Vader voice?" I mutter shyly...

 

"What for?" Lin Dong Fu asks curiously. "Luke, the fork will be with you, and that’s the same in English and Chinese".  "Darth Vader never said that, it was Obi Wan Kenobi!" he replies. "Yes, I know, but it works just as well". “OK, great", he says. He does a little warm-up, and his deep voice echoes through the room. "LUKE; THE FORK WILL BE WITH YOU", I hear in English and then the same expression in Chinese, which sounds to me just like the sound of mewing with a smoke-filled, drunken hangover. I would like to laugh, but there’s no air. I clutch at my neck, frightened. “Very good youngster, very good! You don't need to give any kind of Star Wars performance here, though” he said.

© Lucasfilm

© Lucasfilm

It really did feel as if there was no air. "Don't joke!" he tells me in a severe tone. I shake my head desperately, willing him to understand that I'm really not the type of person who would pretend to be strangled by Darth Vader. “Oh my God, was that a fish bone?" asks Lin Dong Fu, pointing to the fish. Lin Dong Fu's eyes widen as I cannot give an answer. For a brief moment, time stands still but suddenly I can breathe again and everything seems to be fine. Either I just swallowed it, or it really was the stupid fishbones. "I think I’d best leave the fish", I remark, gulping in large quantities of air. We laugh.

 

© Text, Artwork and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist

 
 
 
 
 
 
Gaudi, Food and Religion

Exploring | Barcelona, Spain

 
 
 

Barcelona | Spain

A conversation with Etsuro Sotoo, sculptor-in-chief of the Sagrada Familia about the links between him, Antoni Gaudi, architecture, religion and food.

I met the Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo at his studio not far away from Gaudi’s crypt, in the non- public space of the Sagrada Familia, surrounded by an infinity of sketches, drawings, plans and miniature models. Sotoo has made it his life's work to carry on the master's project since 1978, when he began as a stone mason. Later on, as sculptor-in-chief of the Sagrada Familia, he was commissioned to follow Gaudi's unmistakable style –”but there were times where I did not know how to follow him“, confesses Sotoo to me on a short walk through the construction site.

In fact, Gaudi did not leave detailed plans for the many high reliefs that decorate the fantastical façades when he died, so designing new sculptures can be sometimes “a monumental headache”, as Sotoo says. He himself has often felt hopeless and confused and not known how to follow Gaudi ´s mostly non-existent guidelines for the design of the church. One day, while standing in front of Gaudi´s tomb, Sotoo heard a voice. ”The voice said to me: ‘Don’t look at what I have done, look at that what I would want to look at.’ He showed me a path that I could follow. Since them I speak to Gaudi every day. Now I have the formula to interpret and continue Gaudi’s work. “

 

 
 

Gaudi did not leave detailed plans for the many high reliefs that decorate the fantastical façades when he died, so designing new sculptures can be sometimes “a monumental headache”, as Sotoo says.

 
 
 
The Sculptor Etsuro Sotoo in his Studio with Gaudi's death mask: "One day, as I was in front of Gaudi´s thomb, I heard a voice. „The voice said to me: Dont´ look at what I have done, look at that what I would look at. Since them I speak everyday to Gaudi. He gave a path that I could follow. Now I have the formula to interpret  and continue Gaudis work."

The Sculptor Etsuro Sotoo in his Studio with Gaudi's death mask: "One day, as I was in front of Gaudi´s thomb, I heard a voice. „The voice said to me: Dont´ look at what I have done, look at that what I would look at. Since them I speak everyday to Gaudi. He gave a path that I could follow. Now I have the formula to interpret  and continue Gaudis work."

 
 

Etsuro Sotoo has since converted to Catholicism and he is known to many people as the Asian reincarnation of Antoni Gaudi. However, the Japanese national, who is Spanish by choice, is not only devoted to the religion but also to Spanish cuisine. His love for Iberian cured ham lead him to work together with Joselito, one of the best –if not the best –Spanish cured ham manufacturers: he has been in charge of designing a luxurious chest for the company with the ancestral Japanese technique of urushi.  The otherwise silent and reserved Sotoo glows when it comes to food: “One thing I really love about Barcelona is that you get very good quality fish at reasonable prices (compared to Japan)! And tuna sashimi. I love those superb tuna blocks in the Boqueria market. “Stone blocks, tuna blocks, stone cutting, Iberico ham cutting..., hmm, I assume there are some parallels between his work as a sculptor and his preferences as a foodie.

 

And what about Gaudi and his preferences for food? Is there also a connection between his work and food?

 
 
 
 
After the meeting with Etsuro Sotoo I went to Cal Pep for a Tuna Tartare.

After the meeting with Etsuro Sotoo I went to Cal Pep for a Tuna Tartare.

And what about Gaudi and his preferences for food? Is there also a connection between his work and food? Who else if not Sotoo could give me an answer:  “Gaudi lived as an ascetic and refused the joy of food. There are some stories about that. Food was apparently not important for him”- says Sotoo, continuing:-  “But I have been thinking about your question since the day  you contacted me, and yes, maybe there are some links between food, the Sagrada Familia and Gaudi. Can you see those semi-finished sculptures of fruits and cereals over there? You will see many of them all around the Sagrada Familia. Here, at the lower part of the Church you will find sculptures of buds and sprouts, but in the upper part you will see sculptures of all those sprouts blossoming and the very top fruits and cereals, the result of the harvest.  What do you think Gaudi wanted to say to us with that? “, asked me Sotoo. “I don’t know” I replied. “For me –continued Sotoo– the symbolism is now clear. To grow physically you need food, to grow spiritually you need religion.”

 

© Text and Photography by Fred Mel / Eatnologist