Chef Sheu Mhaka Wins Battle of the Chefs at Good Food Festival in Harare.
THERE was something for everyone at this year’s Good Food Festival, held last Saturday in Harare’s Botanical Gardens. Small-scale farmers got together with seed companies, research institutions and government departments to find ways to strengthen farmer-managed seed systems; a food court offered an impressive range of Indian, Western, Ethiopian, and traditional African cuisines, and two celebrity chefs went head to head in the Battle of the Chefs. Almost non-stop entertainment was provided by Mbeu and the Mhodzi tribe, while the Kids’ Zone organised fun and games and face painting for a host of young visitors.
Small-scale farmers are playing an increasingly important role in food security in Zimbabwe. Although white maize was once a favoured crop, climate change and uncertain weather conditions are encouraging farmers to grow the small grains that provided sustenance and a healthy life-style before colonial times. Assistance from projects like MELANA (Matabeleland Enhanced Livelihoods Agriculture and Nutrition Adaptation) and the FAO-managed LFSP (Livelihoods and Food Security Programme), is encouraging the current stewards of the land to grow rapoko and zviyo (finger millet), mapfunde (sorghum), mhunga (bulrush millet), mupunga (brown rice), nzungu (peanuts) and nyimo (round nuts). Many of these small grains and legumes can be grown in semi-arid regions, unlike chibage (white maize) that requires a regular pattern of rainfall. Crowds gathered at various small grain stalls at the Food Fair, where smiling women proudly showed off the crops that can promote a healthy immune system, lower the risk of heart disease,prevent constipation and reduce blood cholesterol levels.
The highlight of the festival at mid-day was the Battle of the Chefs, a cook-off between Chef Sheu Mhaka, executive chef at The Hide Safari Camp at Hwange, and private chef, De Ankarra Chef, who was last year’s winner of the contest. In the short space of 25 minutes,the contestants were asked to create delicious dishes using popped amaranth seeds (bonongwe), baobab powder, peanuts and sesame seeds. With a running commentary by vivacious Chef Carmen Vlahakis, the contestants tied on their aprons and set to work.
De Ankarra Chef had not always planned a career in the culinary arts, and graduated with a degree in finance from Solusi University in Bulawayo. It was a chance encounter, watching a colleague frying an egg, when he became fascinated with the process of transforming a raw egg into a delicious dish, simply by spooning hot oil over it. His interest in cooking piqued, De Ankarra packed his bags for Hermanus, just outside Cape Town, and enrolled at Warwicks Chef School. On completion of his diploma, Chef journeyed north, and spent two years absorbing the flavours and cooking styles of Ethiopia. The travel bug then took him to Italy, where he spent almost two more years working as a private chef in the Eternal City, discovering and enjoying traditional Roman cuisine. Eventually it was time to come home, and this diverse culinary artist is working again as a private chef, in between catering for small, intimate functions for up to 20 people.
For the cook-off, De Ankarra chef prepared a West African cocktail from milk, honey and baobab powder, adding a touch of Bailey’s Irish Cream Liqueur for an extra kick. Dumplings made with flour and ground sorghum were stuffed with chopped, spiced road runner chicken and garnished with chilli oil flavoured with Nigerian suya spice, ginger, star anise and Ethiopian berebere spice mix. For dessert, mealie meal flapjacks were served with mulberries and ice cream made from toasted amaranth.
Chef Sheu, who hails from the Midlands, completed his ‘O’ levels in Mberengwa, and left for England, where he would spend the next 14 years. Receiving in-house training in restaurants in and around East Sussex, he honed his craft in Brighton, a foodie hotspot sometimes known as London-by-the Sea. Coming home to Zimbabwe in 2016, he worked briefly at Cafe Espresso at the airport, before moving on to Changa Safari Camp in the Matusadona National Park. Living close to nature must suit Chef Sheu, who is now based at The Hide, in Hwange.
For the epic Battle of the Chefs, Sheu created a de-boned chicken leg stuffed with chicken mousse, garnished with carrot juice thickened with agar agar. A whipping siphon was used to transform a sesame veloute (savoury sauce) into a foam, served alongside the chicken, Sheu’s nod to molecular gastronomy. A dessert of dark chocolate truffles, some flavoured with baobab, other with peanut butter completed the offering to the judges.
Award winning Chef Steve Hyde and his two assistants sampled all the dishes and conferred together, before declaring a close finish, with Chef Sheu the winner. Uproarious applause and ululating followed. Appetites whetted, we left the cookery pavilion in search of the food court and lunch.
Each year the Good Food Festival attracts more and more visitors. It will be interesting to gauge the success of small grain farmers in the coming year, and to see what dishes adventurous chefs and cooks are able to create using local ingredients. A Matter of Taste with Charlotte Malakoff