Chef Mokgadi Itsweng is determined to disprove the myth that healthy food is expensive while also showcasing both indigenous South African ingredients and plant-forward dishes.
Itsweng – a protégé of the late, great Dorah Sithole – has nearly 20 years’ experience in the local culinary industry as a chef, food writer and published author, entrepreneur and activist.
She was also one of the headline chefs at The Plant Powered Show, which took place in Cape Town at the CTICC at the end of May 2022.
Itsweng was also one of the guest chefs on the recently screened MasterChef SA where she had the finalists cooking with indigenous ingredients such as foxtail millet, whole grain sorghum and bambara groundnut.
Last year she published her debut cookbook Veggielicious, highlighting plant-forward recipes from the tshemo (garden) of her dreams.
“The book is basically a guide to adding delicious plants to your plate and demonstrates how easy it is to create amazing plant inspired meals. Most of the ingredients in the recipes are easily accessible and items you should have in your kitchen or at your local supermarket that are inexpensive. Eating healthier does not mean that you have to spend more money,” she explains.
So why is Itsweng such a vocal activist for a plant-forward food culture?
“I actually promote planetary health which takes into consideration the health of humans as well as the environment. A plant-forward lifestyle confers both improved health and environmental benefits, so for me that’s a win-win situation. It involves conscious eating and knowing where your food comes from.”
“I believe in good food for all and proudly advocate for it. It is a human right, not just for a few but for everybody. We also need to alert people as to what good food is. Many of our indigenous ingredients are ‘good food’ but we just don’t know it. Many poorer people eat highly processed foods purely because we’ve been conditioned to think that it is cheaper. I want people to understand what real food is and what is easily accessible – that is my advocacy.”
She’s also passionate about showcasing homegrown ingredients in exciting new ways.
“There is so much more to so-called local ingredients than pap and maize which isn’t really sustainable! Quinoa became popular with consumers because of the chefs promoting it on television or in magazines, so I believe that education starts with the chefs. If they are educated about local indigenous ingredients, then they can become the champions of them and create ‘sexy’ dishes with them. This leads to a chain reaction – people ask for them in supermarkets and farmers start growing them because of the demand. The revolution starts with the chefs and our food heroes.”
So what is Itsweng’s quick and easy go-to dinner after a long day?
“I love anything on a roti, a flatbread or a wrap. For me, a quick meal would be my grilled mushrooms with chimichurri sauce, stuffed in a wrap with a quick slaw made from red and green cabbage, green apple and dressed with vegan mayo or lemon juice.”
Grilled Mushroom Skewers with Chimichurri Sauce
Here she shares her quick and easy recipe for Grilled Mushroom Skewers with Chimichurri Sauce (taken from her book Veggielicious published by Human & Rosseau) which can be taken off the skewer and used in a wrap.
12 small wooden skewers
250g mushrooms (button, oyster or any of your choice)
20ml (4 tsp) olive oil
1 tsp seasoning herb salt
¼ cup (60ml) chimichurri sauce
Soak the skewers in water for at least 30 minutes so that they do not burn during grilling. Wipe the mushrooms with a paper towel to remove excess soil or dirt and then place them in a bowl (do not wash them as they absorb water). Drizzle olive oil over the mushrooms, making sure they are all lightly coated. Skewer three mushroom on a wooden skewer. Heat a griddle pan until smoking and grill the mushrooms for three minutes on each side. Remove from the heat and sprinkle with the seasoning herb salt and arrange them on a platter (or in a wrap). Pour over the chimichurri sauce and serve immediately.
Seasoning herb salt
This salt is my kitchen staple. I use it as I would salt and pepper. The addition of moringa packs in extra nutrients. Makes 1kg.
150ml onion powder
150ml garlic powder
200ml dried rosemary
200ml dried thyme
50ml moringa powder (optional)
500g sea salt or Himalayan salt
50ml black peppercorns, roughly crushed
Blend all the ingredients together until combined. Decant into a jar and keep sealed and use for general seasoning.
The best sauce to use on grilled tofu, bread and roasted vegetables. Makes 2 cups.
250ml extra virgin olive oil
125ml red wine vinegar
10ml crushed garlic
Handful of flat leaf parsley
Handful of fresh oregano
1 large tomato, finely chopped
5ml cayenne pepper
5ml ground cumin
Seasoning herb salt to taste
Combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend until everything is well combined. Transfer to a clean jar and refrigerate for two hours before serving. Store in the fridge.