New book: 100 Inspiring Young Changemakers!

Sign up for updates and more!

Portia Mbau and Lumai de Smidt: The Secret Ingredient

About the Episode

Portia Mbau and her daughter Lumai de Smidt are an amazing duo bringing the food and culture of Africa to the world. Together, they’ve created a delicious cookbook that connects people to their heritage.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and is based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Olivia Riçhard. Sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Abby Sher. Narration by Lumai de Smidt. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. A big thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team who makes this show possible! For more, visit rebelgirls.com. Until next time, stay REBEL!

Transcript

Once upon a time, in Cape Town, South Africa, there was a woman named Portia in her kitchen, mixing together some of her favorite ingredients…

(as PORTIA talking to herself

Let’s see, a cup of broad beans, then some leeks…oooh can’t forget the pepper and maybe just a little more garlic…mmm…

(as NARRATOR again

Portia loved experimenting in the kitchen…combining lots of different vegetables and spices, picking and pickling, slicing and dicing… 

(as Lumai) “Is everything ready?”

That’s Portia’s teenage daughter Lumai, who was setting up the long table in the next room, making sure each brightly painted plate was shining and the candles were lit. Lumai was very excited to let in all the guests. The dining room looked spectacular, with huge tropical murals on the walls and chandeliers that looked like multi-colored fireworks overhead. Lumai couldn’t help herself. She pulled out her camera and snapped a picture of the room just as the sun was setting through the bank of windows, turning everything a brilliant orange.

“Ma? Can I let them in?” Lumai called into the kitchen. There was a small crowd of hungry guests waiting outside, sniffing at the wafting scents of ginger, cayenne, and cilantro. 

“Yes, yes! Okay, let’s do this!” Portia answered, clasping her hands together.

Portia and Lumai both loved this moment so much…watching the eager new faces come into their home, their eyes growing wide with wonder as they took in the room. This restaurant that Portia had started was not just a destination for incredible food, but for a rich, immersive experience, where everyone shared stories, songs, flavors and laughter. Sometimes there was dancing, performances, or even face painting. It was a magical place called the Africa Cafe.

As Lumai opened the door, Portia added the finishing touches to her first platter. A crumb of cheese fell to the counter, and she picked it up and popped it in her mouth. 

Aaah, she knew this taste so well. The tangy flavor tickled her tongue, and filled her with delicious memories of how it all began…

Growing up in Swaziland, South Africa, Portia was surrounded by majestic mountain ranges, gigantic waterfalls, wandering rivers, and tall crests of ancient rocks. There were so many places for her to wander and explore. She was also surrounded by beautiful wildlife sanctuaries where she could see hippos, rhinos, elephants, and over 500 different kinds of birds. As a child, Portia travelled a lot with her family all over South Africa. Her parents wanted to expose their children to lots of different places and cultures.

“It’s where I got my itchy feet and explorer’s spirit,” Portia says.

She was amazed by the sights and sounds of all the different landscapes. She also fell in love with Africa’s different foods, festivals, and traditions. Her favorite food was  her mom’s pickled mango relish. Portia could still remember that first spoonful of salty sweetness like it was yesterday.

Portia followed her explorer’s spirit all the way to America for college. She studied at Oregon University, where she made a lot of friends from Ethiopia, Cameroon, Nigeria, and Mali. One day, when the university was celebrating African culture, Portia’s friends made traditional dishes from their homelands and she was amazed! How had she lived so close to them and never experienced these mouth-watering flavors before?! Mbanga soup and cassava leaf; fakoye and jollof rice. Every time she took a bite, Portia felt like she was being transported back to South Africa, the Ngwempisi Wilderness rising up around her, the Hadeda Ibis squawking overhead, or the rush of Victoria Falls coursing through her veins.. All of these sights and sensations  were somehow inside the herbs and spices, the butter sauces and lemon dressings.

Portia had never realized how powerful foods could be, connecting her to all of her other senses. She was so inspired. She needed to share this discovery.

After college, Portia moved back home to South Africa and there she fell in love with a man named Jason de Smidt. The two of them got married and went on many adventures together, road-tripping all over the continent, hiking up rock formations and canoeing the Niger River. They loved walking through towns they’d never seen before and buying fresh fruit at the open-air markets. But South Africa was still suffering under apartheid, which was a system of discrimination. It was a time where there was intense segregation between Blacks and whites throughout South Africa. Since Portia was Black and Jason was white, they felt like they weren’t always welcome. So they decided to move to Cape Town and make a place where all people could gather together and share delicious meals and traditions. In 1992, they started a family restaurant in their dining room, called The Africa Cafe. They only had enough room for ten people to sit around the table and an old gas stove to cook on, but they were thrilled to give it a try. They went door to door passing out flyers for their new cafe and their first customer was a little old lady who booked a spot for the following night. Portia was thrilled to start cooking, as she says, “letting my taste buds and curiosity guide me.”

1992 was a very big year for Portia and Jason. Not only did they open up their dining room to be a restaurant, but they also had a baby girl!

They named her Lumai, which means the humming of birds wings, and Lumai is just that — a force of nature, calm and yet, adventurous. From the very start, Lumai was filled with creative energy. She was good at entertaining herself, drawing and painting and making up silly stories. And she was always up for hanging out in the kitchen and sampling her mom’s delicious treats, especially the desserts. Lumai loved decorating the restaurant with bright fabrics and dishes. She traveled with her mom to gather ingredients and was fascinated by the stories that went into each recipe. Soon, the cafe became a hotspot not only with the locals, but also with visitors from all over the globe! In fact, Portia had to move the restaurant to a bigger location so they could keep up with all the people who wanted to eat there. 

Portia and Lumai made the new space spectacular with large murals and patterned walls, light fixtures that sparkled like stars and big arches filled with colored glass designs. Everyone who walked through the doors of the Africa Cafe got to experience the tastes, smells, stories, and songs from different parts of Africa. They served Moroccan herb salad, Malawi mbatata, Soweto chakalaka, Nigerian suya, and Malagasy calamari. Portia made sure to use healthy and organic ingredients in everything she made, chopping her cilantro with the utmost care and adding extra garlic and chili peppers to her sauces to make sure they had a spicy kick. Some of her dishes were recipes passed down through generations and for some she took an older idea and added a twist, like layering in different herbs, or letting her sauces marinate for days. She made sure to put her veggie kebabs over a special clay stove called a jiko, just as she saw it down in eastern Africa. It gave them a special smoky flavor that was unique to that part of the world. 

The Africa Cafe had a constantly changing menu, but a few things always stayed the same — everyone was a welcome guest and every drop of food was delectable. Customers kept coming back and asking, Can you give us your recipe? What’s the secret ingredient?

Portia smiled. It wasn’t a secret ingredient that made her food so special. It was the whole process of exploring Africa, discovering new plants and wildlife, talking to people about their different cultures and traditions and then bringing that to the food on their plate. But how could Portia possibly put all that into words?

I know how, said Lumai. What if we write a cookbook together? Lumai had already been studying design and photography. She loved taking pictures of all the exotic places they traveled together as a family and the light coming through the restaurant’s large windows. Putting this together with her mom’s recipes seemed like the perfect way to share these experiences.

Portia was excited about this new idea too. She started looking through her piles of recipes. It was so hard to decide what to include! She knew she had to share her customers’ favorites, like Egyptian ta’amiya, which are broad bean patties, and Ithanga fritters, which are like sweet pumpkin pancakes. She wrote about how the ingredients were sourced and her personal connection to each dish she chose.

Then Lumai went to work, designing the book from cover to cover. She took pictures of her mom in action at the kitchen counter — sometimes sprinkling bits of spiced sugar on a cookie or slicing open a ripe pineapple. Lumai arranged all the food on different plates, decorating it with bright lillies or stalks of maize. She spent days styling the foods, making sure all of the colors and textures complemented each other. Each dish photographed was so yummy looking, it felt like you could eat it off the page. Lumai also included photographs of herself and her mom on all of their journeys, standing in front of majestic trees, mountain ranges, or markets piled high with melons and bananas. She even wrote poetry to include in the book. It was about the honor of sharing Africa through these tastes and smells. 

Together, Porta and Lumai made sure that as many African countries as possible were represented in the cookbook and that the recipes were easy to follow. The Africa Cookbook came out in 2019 and it has been a great success. Not only has it drawn more people to the cafe, but it’s also made Portia and Lumai’s dream of sharing their love of Africa come true.  Each story they’ve included about their relationship to the food feels meaningful and unique.

Today, Portia and Lumai continue to create art and food and food that is art together. They’ve recently started their own brand called Food of Africa. They make special sauces, relishes, teas, chutneys, and spice mixes for people to buy so they can cook delicious African meals at home. Portia and Lumai have also started having an afternoon tea live via social media so people can gather virtually even during the pandemic and share whatever is on their minds while they enjoy an afternoon treat together. 

Whether you’re walking through their front door or opening a jar of their special jungle dressing, you are always welcome in Portia and Lumai’s colorful, delicious world. This has been their mission from the start — to share and celebrate the beauty of Africa and its women, past, present and future.