It was a feast with friends featuring flavours I’d never tasted before: Swazi herbed goat curry, roasted rabbit, fried sweet potato fritters – and much more. A few days later I’m back at eDladleni (which in siSwati, means “in the kitchen”) – though this time, I’m literally in the kitchen. Dolores Gofferoy, septuagenarian chef, food activist and restaurateur, is observing amusedly as I attempt to separate a sack from the inert pig it contains (she collected it from a farmer this morning).
My job done, we leave the uncomplaining hog on a metal table and go to the terrace, where sunshine spills over us and traffic hums distantly.
“Swazi cooking is very bland. I give it a twist. A little lipstick and makeup. I make nice,” she says, her lilting voice husky from cigarettes.
Gofferoy sources ingredients from all over the kingdom, accenting these with Indian spices to create flavoursome dishes. She has been cooking all her life. When she was growing up, her Zulu mother (who died last year at 100), forced the whole family to work in the kitchen.
“She had a good mind; she never followed the rules in terms of what to cook, so the indigenous crops – the local crops – were always there.”
With two self-published cookbooks and a third one on the way, Godeffroy wants to educate both Swazis and visitors about “what we have right under our noses”. “Food and language make a nation: it’s the one real way of connecting with culture.” Her interest in indigenous food “hinges totally on my dignity”. “I don’t eat anything foreign,” she says, banging the table. “I refuse. Actually, I’ve even developed a psychological problem. Even when I eat out somewhere, I feel bloated, my tummy feels unhappy.” She’s never drunk a Coke or other fizzy drinks. “Europe started it long, long ago and I’m fighting back. I am really angry with them for trying to say there is no food in Africa – portraying us as hungry mongrels.
In Swaziland, the colonial-era perception that indigenous foods are “primitive” remains ingrained, she says. Deep-fried factory-farmed fare is rampantly popular, and she believes this is responsible for the high rates of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and colon cancer.
“If you’re rich you get sick because you have to have Kentucky,” she says.
Although eDladleni has been operating since 2002 in its spot tucked just off the busy highway between Ezulwini and Mbabane, it is not Gofferoy’s first restaurant.
After travels in Europe and America (in which she recalls hitching rides on fishing trawlers and cargo trucks), she returned to Mbabane in the 1980s and opened Ikwezi. It had a reputation amongst both locals and expatriates as “the ANC headquarters” – a sanctuary for South African struggle activists. She smiles mischievously. “Such a simple honest woman like me. How could I?”
She remembers the day Vlakplaas death squad commander Eugene de Kock visited with two colleagues. When he started asking about the whereabouts of various ANC operatives, she called her American husband who told de Kock: “Have your goddamn hamburger and get out of my wife’s shop.”
It wasn’t just the apartheid security apparatus that regarded her with suspicion. The Royal Swaziland Police, which had a sometimes-cosy relationship with the South African authorities, raided her “maybe 12, 13 times”. Semiliterate cops confiscated “one-third of my library,” she recalls – anything published by Peking Press or Moscow Press, although African Communist was left behind, because it had “African” in the title. “The poor RSP – at that time they couldn’t distinguish a Mandrax from a Panado,” she giggles.
She tried to offer indigenous food but patrons weren’t interested: she had to offer things like hamburgers instead. But she still used the best quality ingredients she could find, making her patties from scratch.
“Now I know I’ll never make money so I’m cheeky – I cook what I want,” she says.
After selling Ikwezi, she went into full-scale farming – including vegetables, pigs, chickens and ducks – until launching eDladleni. Today she works closely with farmers, lending them seed and getting recipes to fine-tune. She’s encouraging a few to grow imbuya (amaranth), a nutritious and antioxidant-rich staple which she dreams of propagating on a commercial scale. “I want to see it in Woolworths,” she says.
This article first appeared in the 25 October 2015 edition of the Sunday Times.