To Siba Mtongana, host of Food Network’s Siba’s Table, cooking is not only a necessity—it’s an art. The South African celebrity chef has gained a loyal following worldwide with her unique twists on simple cooking. Siba’s Table airs in over 130 countries in twelve time zones worldwide. This year, Ayiba named Siba one of the “Top African Chefs Cooking Up a Storm.” Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng chatted with Siba about food, family, and the sweet taste of success.

When did you first fall in love with food?
It was in my mother’s kitchen, her cooking and her beautiful backyard garden that enticed me to cook while I was a very young girl. I used to help her pick vegetables from the garden and rinse them. I loved her intuitive way of cooking as everything was always felt with her hands and never had any form of measurement in site. So I can say I first learnt how to cook through observation. In high school, I enjoyed math, science, biology, and home economics and wanted to study something which had a combination of those subjects. That lead me to study for my degree in food and consumer science where I majored in food, food science, and nutrition.

How did your degree in food and consumer science prepare you for your work now?
Studying an academic course in foods laid a solid foundation as the deeper understanding and knowledge of food played a significant role to what I’ve managed to achieve this far. It also equipped me with skills that came in very handy when I was Food Editor of the iconic Drum Magazine, my previous show Cooking With Siba which won a SAFTA (South African Film and Television Awards), and now Siba’s Table. The information and knowledge I share with viewers on my shows comes mostly from that academic foundation with food and of course experience as I constantly explore and experiment with food in my kitchen.

What ingredients can you always find in your kitchen?
Different kinds of salt, spices, and dried and fresh herbs. Fresh garlic, ginger, and onion. Spanish Chorizo ring, fruits and vegetables, chicken fillets, pesto. Canned tomatoes and baked beans, pastes, and, of course, maize meal.

What would you consider essential components of South African cooking?
Bold flavours, colourful and vibrant food with influences from the different cultures we have within South Africa. Must always have wood and fire to be ready for a Braai as we are a meat-loving nation. We Braai for all occasions when we celebrate, meat and veggies alike.

SIBA MTONGANAWhat have you learned about food as you’ve travelled around the world?
It’s that one language that can help you connect with someone else’s cultural background. Food can make your senses travel to a place that you have never visited. I’ve also learnt that people are very proud of their national cuisines and they constantly ask you to try this and that, etc. It can bring strangers together.

Why did you decide to focus on South African recipes?
For people to learn what we eat, but at the same time I give my food an international flair or twist so it can be appealing to all who watch Siba’s Table on Food Network and didn’t necessarily grow up with such food. It’s fusion food really, which is the new world cuisine!

Has your approach to food and cooking changed since becoming a mother?
Definitely, I’m a lot more conscious about cooking healthy. I plan my meals more ahead of time and I try to introduce as much new things as I can to train their innocent tongue to a varied diet. It’s not always easy cooking for kids as some tend to like the same things prepared exactly the same way—but I keep trying so they can have an open palate to all kinds of food.

Today there are some many food blogs and people writing about food, but the quality of that content varies. Writing about food isn’t as easy as people might presume. What are some essential components of good food writing?
Well, I’m more experienced in food writing for magazines and not much as a blogger. But in short, what I can say about food writing in general is that food photography is just as important as the writing part, as a picture can say a thousand words and it’s mostly the amazing images that draw people to one’s work and make them follow or  try out a recipe—at least most of the times. So food styling and photography is a worthy investment. Knowledge about food is also vital as bloggers have so much influence these days, therefore they have a huge responsibility to make sure they know what they are talking about and not cut and paste other people’s work. I must say, I’ve seen some great bloggers out there!

What’s your process of recipe development?
I’m inspired by my travels and just everything around me and this forms one portion of my research and recipe development idea stage. I also research and observe current trends and upcoming ones for relevance and to give a nod or recognition to what’s happening in the food and nutrition space at the time. I also cook what I love eating so every recipe I create is something I thoroughly enjoy.

Which chefs do you admire?
British legends Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson, and Nigel Slater, and locally in South Africa, Dorah Sitole and Ina Paarman.

Would you ever open your own restaurant?
Yes, I think a restaurant is a natural progression for any chef.

What has been your toughest moment in your career?
After varsity I was unemployed for nine months and that was one of many difficult moments in my career. I guess since I’ve always been a high achiever at varsity I expected things to flow far quicker than what life gave me at the time. I had to find any kind of job so I could earn something and I ended up as an assistant manager in a boutique fashion retail store. I was even offered a higher position more than three times which I refused as I knew that taking the position would have been a huge distraction from following my true passion and my career choice which is and was the food industry.

In her book Year of Yes, Shonda Rhimes — the award-winning black female television show producer — discusses the price of being a “what she calls an F.O.D., a “First Only Different.” What has it been like for you as the first black South African to have an international cooking show?
It’s really humbling as Siba’s Table airs in more than 130 countries in Africa, Europe, Middle East, USA, Asia, and Australia. The reach is very vast and sometimes I find it hard to believe. For instance in the USA alone it airs on the Cooking Channel to over sixty million homes. I really feel blessed to have such platform and worldwide reach.

siba mtongana COOKBOOKSiba’s first cookbook, My Table, is available online and at all Woolworths stores in South Africa.