Meet Chef Cola: Zimbabwean and vegan

Written by Brent on March 22nd, 2018

Next pop -up dinner: 27 March at The Station on Bree Street.


Chef Cola (centre) at The Station on Bree Street, accompanied by Afro-soul singer Tatenda wekwaTenzi


Nicola Kagoro, better known as Chef Cola, is a Zimbabwean vegan chef and she is on a mission to popularise and spread veganism. Although she is not a strict vegan herself, she believes forthrightly that veganism is essential if our planet is going to survive.

She is part of a worldwide movement that is convinced that industrial meat production is destroying the global environment and the overconsumption of meat is ruining the health of millions of people. She believes Africa needs to join that movement.

Yet veganism would seem to be incompatible with traditional African culture, where animal slaughter is an integral part of rites of passage and animal sacrifices are an essential element in ancestor worship. There is also a strong patriarchal discourse around eating meat – the “macho steak” as Cola puts it. Women seem to be the leading voices on veganism in Africa.

But Cola says she is not disrespecting anyone or anyone’s belief nor dictating to others how they should live. Rather, she is trying to persuade people to adopt a vegan lifestyle for the sake of the world and their health.

Cola is originally from Harare and she didn’t have a traditional childhood. Part of her upbringing was on Roosevelt Island, Manhattan, New York, from the age of three to 11. Her mom was a diplomat, now retired, and a single parent. “New York shaped me … My work ethic … I move with speed,” says Cola.

It was while studying Hospitality Management at the International Hotel School that she realised her calling was as a chef. She trained as a line chef at first. Then for several years she worked at Plant, Cape Town’s first exclusively vegan restaurant, and honed her skills on the job. Her time spent at Plant opened her eyes to the health and environmental issues raised by veganism.

She returned to Zimbabwe in 2016 with her vegan ideas. She says there was some “backlash” to her proselytising veganism which is often thought of as “this white thing”. For instance, in the midst of the movement to decolonise the University of Cape Town and the heightened awareness of intersectionality, there was a racial spat after Professor David Benatar of the philosophy department proposed that no meat nor any animal products be served at faculty events. He had in mind an inclusive approach to vegans but was unmindful of excluding people who see eating meat as part of their cultural identity.

Cola isn’t too bothered by the “white culture” accusation. The current levels of meat consumption and its attendant farming practice is anything but traditional,  and African cities are bursting with urban populations whose beliefs and ideas are increasingly removed from the old ways.

Another objection Cola has encountered is the misperception that veganism is very expensive. To counter this, she started a movement called African Vegan on a Budget, suggesting easy and affordable recipes.

Cola started her pop-up dinners in Zimbabwe in 2016. “It is a proud thing for me to have a brand that started in Zimbabwe,” she says. She sees it as a testament to the country’s resilience, energy and entrepreneurial spirit.

“If it wasn’t for my family it wouldn’t have happened,” she says. The whole family pitched in and pop-up ‘Dinner with Chef Cola’ were held at the family home.

She has now brought the concept to South Africa, with a three-course vegan dinner once a month at The Station on Bree Street, accompanied by Afro-soul singer Tatenda wekwaTenzi.

At her first February dinner in Cape Town she served a Vietnamese roll as a starter with the rice paper interleafed with baby spinach. The filling was vermicelli, carrot and red cabbage, accompanied by stand-out zesty lemon, basil and herb pesto sauce with roasted seeds.

Cola says she deliberately looked East; she doesn’t want to be boxed-in as a black chef expected to produce traditional African meals which happen to be vegan or to make vegan versions of African cuisine.

The main course was her signature dish, “beet-wellington”, a vegan take on a British colonial favourite, beef Wellington, with a whole, red beetroot baked inside crisp, puff pastry. It was served with caramelised baby corn, roast cherry tomato, butternut, and chargrilled broccoli, with a pea and coconut purée.

Dessert was a flute of very sweet champagne-lemon granita.

Cola hopes to hold pop-up dinners in cities across Africa and eventually have her own television series.


O’ways always

Written by Brent on March 8th, 2018

I have been going to the O’ways Teacafé in Claremont since it was first opened in December 2010 by Lisa Tsai and her husband, tea merchant Mingwei Tsai. Staff have come and gone, but O’ways has managed to maintain its high standards. I admit, however, that I tend to always order the same thing these days – the dim sum platter for two, which includes a choice of any one of the myriad of teas. The selection of specialised tea is quite overwhelming. I usually select one good oolong tea and one ornamental flower tea and share with Munchkin, my lunch companion.

The ornamental tea ball before it is immersed

The tea flower when it has opened

The interior has become more pared down over the years, but remains warm and welcoming. O’ways still offers table games to play for your amusement in anticipation of the meal, the gong to ring as you exit, and the piano on which Lisa Tsai sometimes treats customers to an impromptu recital.

When ordering the dim sum platter specify that it must be vegan. O’ways is vegetarian; the only thing they need to remove from the regular platter is the egg.

Here is what you can expect: an amuse-bouche of cauliflower fritter with hummus; soya mince dumplings; delicious bao (perhaps the best in town); panfried tofu; mushroom  tempura; whole edamame; cauliflower, broccoli and mushrooms; cabbage filled spring rolls.

My only real criticism is the sauces. There are three served in a very small, shallow, compartmentalised dish. They are awkward to access and are always insufficient. But you can ask for more.

O’ways Teacafé, Shop 2, Heritage House, 20 Dreyer Street, Claremont 7708. Tel: 021 671 2850


What is wrong with Kauai?

Written by Brent on March 4th, 2018

Vegan options such as this were removed from Kauai’s menu after Real Food bought the franchise

You tell people and they look at you incredulously. “Yes,” you repeat, “that’s right, Kauai doesn’t even have a salad that’s vegan.” In fact, they actually took away their vegan options and even removed the little vegan icons that used to dot the menu.

Promoting themselves as a “food revolution”, Kauai seems to have missed the vegan boat. Kauai’s idea of healthy living appears to be eating more chicken. Want a Tropical wrap? Chicken. Spicy Burrito? Chicken. Princess? Chicken. Moroccan? Chicken. Thai Crunch? Chicken. Mexi? Chicken. Kale Cesar? Chicken.

There isn’t a single wrap, salad or warm bowl on the menu that does not have meat in it. How can you not have a single vegan salad?

Other than a bowl of plain fruit there isn’t a single vegan breakfast either, except in some stores you can have smashed avocado on toast.

In fact, Kauai has gone in the opposite direction. When giant Real Foods (Pty) Ltd bought Kauai in 2015 they removed the vegan icons on the menu and also the few vegan options available – such as a Moroccan red lentil soup and the vegan super food salad. They also used to offer Fry’s vegan chicken strips instead of chicken meat.

Now, you are supposed to customise your meal if you are vegan, but guess what – they don’t allow substitutes, so you either get charged the full rate for less food (the most expensive ingredient usually has to be removed to make it vegan) or you have to pay extra to make it a meal, such as asking for more avocado in the Harvest wrap after the feta has been removed.  (I have several times at Rondebosch asked for extra avo in the Harvest wrap to replace the feta and they have charged me full price R52 without feta and added on R10 for the extra avo making it R62. I no longer go there.)

The company will no doubt point out that you have the “design your own” option where you can laboriously crack your brain dreaming up your own vegan bowl, wrap or salad. However, there is no tofu or vegan protein option. Vegans presumably must only eat carbs.

The company claims to have “re-looked our entire healthy food ecosystem”, but clearly they have a huge blind spot. The company claims: “We’re aiming to inspire a ‘real food’ revolution in South Africa, where Kauai is the ‘better place’ to be. We make health and healthy eating habits accessible and exciting.”

Without any vegan consciousness this claim rings hollow. It’s almost as if Kauai doesn’t believe in its own company’s philosophy; as if it is scared that in talking up healthy living it might be perceived to be a place only for vegetarians.

But Kauai is missing out. There is the vegan veto. Circles of friends who are food and health conscious and concerned about such things as GMOs, ethics and fair trade – which falls into Kauai’s target market – are highly likely these days to include a vegan or two in their number. So, when friends say, “Let’s grab a bite, how about Kauai?” I say, let’s go somewhere else, and Kauai loses the entire group not just me.

The only time I do go to Kauai is for my free smoothie courtesy of Discovery insurance. Apparently, I’m an excellent driver and I get a free smoothie almost every week at Kauai.

Of course, besides a few simple fruit and veg juices, Kauai only has one vegan protein smoothie ­– Nature’s Protein, which is all I ever order with my free Discovery wi-code. If they had something for me I’d probably order a wrap or bowl to go with it. The whole idea is to lure me into their store after all. But they don’t have a vegan wrap, bowl or salad, so I take my free smoothie and go and eat somewhere else. Kauai Kloof Street might be interested to know that having just counted my Wi-codes on my phone, I can confirm they have missed out on 41 meals already and counting.

Apparently I’m a good driver. Phone screenshot.

I have not approached Kauai for comment. This blog post will be updated if they take any notice.


Going vegan root to shoot at nose-to-tail La Tête

Written by Brent on February 28th, 2018

It might seem an unlikely place to be vegan, but La Tête has some scrumptious vegan offerings.

Read the review here.

Perfect broccoli


Vegan high tea at the Twelve Apostles

Written by Brent on February 15th, 2018

More and more hotels and restaurants in Cape Town are beginning to not only accommodate vegans but to actively court them. The latest is the Twelve Apostles Hotel with a vegan high tea.

High tea, a British colonial idea stretching back to the 19th century, when Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford (d. 1857), who is credited with its “invention”,  would serve cakes, scones, crumpets, cream, jams and tarts in the afternoon. Although there were cucumber sandwiches even back in her day, they were invariably spoilt with butter. One wonders what she would make of Executive Pastry Chef Gina Marziani’s vegan high tea in the leopard print bar of the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa.

Vegan cakes and vegan cheeses are not always successful. There are a lot of very poor efforts out there. I am pleased to say Marziani and her team have done quite well with their vegan spread, and it certainly eclipses the Mount Nelson’s vegan high tea reviewed here last week.

There is a great list of teas. I recommend a pot of leaf infused Sencha Fukujyu green tea which is strong enough for several pots. You might for fun also try the tea-bagged Indian masala chai. There is soya and almond milk available for those who want to do that to their tea.

The food arrives on a fancy, two-tier cake plate, with the savouries underneath. These include a guacamole wrap with micro-leaves, which has been lightly toasted so it holds together better; and various sandwiches of olive tapenade and pesto with green pepper and tomato; a pickled sandwich on sweet potato bread, and a spicy hummus sandwich. There are also crudités of cucumber, carrot and tenderstem broccoli.

The sweets include a rather rigid but convincing coconut panna cotta with granadilla; a slice of banana and nut bread; and an oat and date cookie. The blueberry cheesecake is a bit mealy and the texture needs improvement. The scone is somewhat solid but comes with delicious berry compote and strawberries. The chef is apparently still experimenting with alternatives to cream. Soya cream would work, but it is rarely available in South Africa for some reason.

The highlight is the perfectly, airy textured Valrhona Manjari chocolate and hazelnut cake and delicious forest jelly with quince and apple. There are also bitter chocolates.

The Atlantic views are splendid from the balcony. Twelve Apostles is the perfect stop on the way to or from Sandy Bay, the beloved beach of free-thinking vegans of course.

The Vegan High Tea is available daily in the Leopard Bar and Conservatory from 10am to 4pm at R375 per person. 24-hour notice is required.

To book: or call 021 437 9029.

Brent Meersman was a guest of the hotel.


Vegan High Tea at the Mount Nelson

Written by Brent on February 8th, 2018


In a previous life, fresh out of university in 1990, aged 22, as a stop gap I landed the job of being put in charge of the lounge and high tea at the Mount Nelson. I won’t go into the gory details of what managing the lounge meant back then, but it entailed incontinent billionaires wetting the upholstery, a procession of exceedingly rich people gorging themselves to the brink of cardiac arrest, and a seemingly inexhaustible chocolate mousse cake that would be returned to the kitchen fridge each day until it began to separate on the buffet table.

It also involved various wealthy members of society stealing the tips left for the very poorly paid waiters in my charge. One individual, who given any opportunity had a habit of filching the tips as soon as his friends or colleagues left, had the cheek to complain to management of poor service. That individual is still known to me. So secure was he in his class in the 1990s, it probably never entered his head that the working class lad from the wrong side of the railway tracks who was waiting on him, would one day be sitting across the table from him at pompous dinners and ambassadorial functions, and remembering him stealing tips from indigent waiters.

The waiters were mature, middle-aged men with families earning R450 to R650 per month, less than the price of a bottle of Don Perignon which they served every other night to guests of the hotel. I should add workers were unionised, but the union was no better. Every night in the main dining room the shop stewards would accumulate and pocket nearly all the tips, hundreds of rands for themselves, while handing each waiter R20. I wonder where those union officials are today in our democracy.

On the face of it working conditions are better these days and the relationship between staff and patrons far more egalitarian, respectful and less stuffy. The colonial pretences are muted. The clientele more varied. But it is apparent from the service that although the staff are eager to please, management has continued to under invest in their training.

The opulent lounge table still groans with vast quantities of cake, but there is now also a vast selection of teas and a far more sophisticated and refined approach to tea brewing and drinking.

Funnily enough, I was an oddity back in 1990 because I was vegan. Veganism was considered utterly bizarre. I remember there was only a bit of iceberg lettuce and leftover tomatoes for me to eat in the staff canteen. But a few decades later, here is the Belmond Mount Nelson Hotel offering vegan high tea.


The savouries are now brought to the table on a double-decker cake stand, starting with cucumber sandwiches on white bread and a tomato sandwich reminiscent of school lunch. Both benefit from a little salt. As does the rather bland sprout taco and the artichoke and tomato skewer. There is an authentic guacamole with lime not lemon juice and falafel served on a gem lettuce leaf.


The second tier has a sweet potato and carrot savoury (a bit dry), a thimble-sized quiche, a spicy pakora and a flavourful mushroom pasty.

If you’re having the vegan high tea then the sweets are also brought to the table. At first glance, the plate looks rather like a kids’party with its bright food colouring.

There was only one disaster in this course; what should have been a meringue (and could have been made beautifully with aquafaba) was a rather disgusting, chewy, bubblegum-like, sickeningly sweet mess. This must definitely be removed from the tea spread.


The rest was passable: a macaroon; a lemon lime tart with cashew cream and lime zest; a date based cashew mousse cake which rapidly became a puddle on the plate; a fruit cake spiced with allspice and cinnamon; and apple pie. The carrot cake was the tastiest item. To finish there was a fruit skewer with very dry pineapple core. More attention needs to be paid to selecting quality fruit.

Overall, I was underwhelmed by the vegan offering and I know the Mount Nelson can do far better. However, the beautiful, newly decorated solarium and the serenity of the space was unspoilt and high tea at the Nellie makes for a very pleasant (and filling) afternoon.


Tintswalo launches vegan tasting menu

Written by Brent on February 1st, 2018

Read the review here.



No one listens to vegans

Written by Brent on July 25th, 2016


Photo: Shayne Robinson

Photo: Shayne Robinson

“Nobody listens to vegans,” a good vegan friend warned me. “People think Vegans come from Planet Vega. We are out there with people who are transgender.” Indeed, a couple of years ago, after telling somebody in Garies in the Northern Cape I was vegetarian they smiled and offered me chicken.

Now, I’m quite comfortable with being considered abnormal, unpatriotic, and a danger to animal husbandry. I’m less happy being considered an extremist, a borderline eco-terrorist, and a danger to myself. I’m definitely unhappy to be thought of as militant, wrong and illogical.

Going vegan has been almost like a second coming out. You sit at a typical suburban gathering, ribs and sausages sputtering on the braai nearby. People are offering beer to their badly behaved dogs. Everyone is salivating at the sizzling smells.

Do I tell them now? Start gently, you think. “I forgot to say,” you apologise to your hosts, “I’m vegetarian.”

Cutlery falls into paper plates; you are the party pooper. You get looks that say: you think you’re superior to us, don’t you? How are we supposed to enjoy ourselves, knowing you are looking at our fatty fingers and the grease around our mouths? Why must we feel we have to defend ourselves in our own backyard?

Someone laughs. Somebody always says how much they love their meat and how they could never give it up. One of the men gets up in disgust and goes and pokes the fire. He gives a chop to the dog; something he’d never normally have done.

“Well, there’s salad,” says a maternal person taking pity on you, nudging the mixing bowl filled with iceberg lettuce in your direction.

You thought you’d get away with salad, but absolutely nothing has been left untouched by feta, mayonnaise, shavings of parmesan, and tiny bacon bits. Even the baked potatoes were dolloped with butter the second you turned your back to fetch a drink.

“Actually, I’m vegan,” you reply timidly, “and that has blue cheese and yoghurt dressing.” It takes them a while to clock the problem.

Someone cracks a joke – why does vegan cheese taste bad? Because it hasn’t been tested on mice.

Most vegans sit quietly and don’t evangelise, yet they are thought of as humourless and extremist. In my experience, it is the meat eaters in this situation who usually become aggressive and defensive, who pick your beliefs to pieces and try and persuade you that you’re actually barking mad. Isn’t it enough just to be punished by airlines?

After school, I went vegan for five years and vegetarian for a further nine years. And then, there was a burger in New York. Since that fateful day, I ate meat but was never really at peace with it. For the last 15 years then, I’ve lived in a kind of false consciousness, the not too closely examined life. After all, everyone is advertising and eating meat around you all the time and on a vast scale, so how can there be anything wrong with it? Right?

I compromised. I tried to always eat “ethical meat”, “free range” and whenever given the option, I picked venison. I’d seen first-hand what lions do to buck in the wild and a bullet seemed like a mercy killing.

And mostly I blamed the health risk. True, towards the end of my 14 years of not eating any meat or fish, I seemed to get every bug, cold and flu that came along.  But instead of interrogating my diet, I jumped to conclusions. I thought of myself, perhaps disingenuously, as a vegetarian trapped in a meat-eating body. Only recently, I realised why my health became an excuse for eating meat.

It goes back to when I was six years old and living in Belgium in the 1970s, a country that back then had never heard of an avocado pear never mind a vegetarian. Our family had just moved back to Antwerp and we were vegetarians. After two years, my mother, who had a long history of schizophrenia, lapsed back into psychosis. It was a terrifying experience as a child in an alien country. We had to fly back to South Africa for her to be hospitalised. We kids were told it was her diet. She was anaemic. The connection must have stuck.

Eating eventually became a profession. Writing, researching and thinking about food forced me to re-examine the issues. I could no longer live in denial.

“How are you going to review restaurants?” asked a friend when I finally came out to him as vegan.

I explained that in the last couple of years I had steadily progressed to pescaterian (I’m still not convinced of the sentience of oysters) to vegetarian to vegan. Readers hadn’t it seemed noticed that meat was hardly ever mentioned in my reviews – from the 5-course   vegetarian tasting menus at Azure, Mount Nelson Hotel, and Makaron, to places such as Hemelhuijs and the obliging chef at Haute Cabrière. It was easy to get away with dim sum. Then there were columns on raw food, Krishna temple food, veganism, foraging, eating seaweed, mushroom hunting, health food cafés, sprouting and so forth.

At promotional events, I’d have to notify the PR people. Other food writers started to give me suspicious glances at table. One astute blogger, eyeing my plate, asked what was going on. I said all would be revealed in time, and here it is – my swan song.

I haven’t nearly run out of things to write about   for Once Bitten – there is still a cornucopia of worthy subjects – the many vegan options presented by the cuisines of India, South East Asia, Mexico and the Levant; the meaning of the vegan revolution in Israel; the new, intriguing vegan artisanal food movement, including fermented and age-matured vegan cheeses.

But readers expect reviews of the latest places, chefs and trending foods, and I’ve largely exiled myself from that world. My inbox is full of invitations for steak, but I’d rather tell you about seitan. I wonder if you’re interested.

This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian on 15 May 2016


Saving the planet: kelp is on the way

Written by Brent on July 9th, 2015


We were in luck. It was new moon and the tide was at its lowest. The swell was also gentle that day, giving us plenty of time to explore the intertidal rock pools near Scarborough beach on the Cape Peninsula.

It all started when Hiromu Jimbo, a young Japanese man who’d spent three and a half years travelling from Istanbul through Europe and then down through Africa on a bicycle, turned up at the Good Hope Gardens Nursery, Cape Point.

He came for 10 days and landed up staying a hundred. Jimbo introduced Roushanna Gray to “the joys of eating and preparing seaweed”. Coming from a country where seaweed is a daily food and a highly prized delicacy, Jimbo was amazed that South Africans were oblivious to what was on their doorstep.

The South African coast has more than 700 species of marine algae. Out of all of these, there is only one inedible species – acid weed (Desmarestia firma), a fan-shaped brown algae with serrated edges that contains sulphuric acid.

Gray now runs teaching expeditions on coastal foraging. Before embarking, she gives us a brief introduction and talk on sustainability. Always collect as close to the tide line as possible. Never detach seaweed from its holdfast on the rock; rather trim no more than a third with a pair of scissors. It will then regrow; some of our kelps grow a centimetre a day. There are kelps that grow more than half a metre a day. It is a highly sustainable food source.

But you must have a permit, which is easily obtainable from the post office for R95 and is valid for a year. Take your ID. And another word of warning – never turn your back on the sea. Waves have a way of sneaking up on you.

My experience of consuming seaweed hadn’t gone much beyond nori. I had also eaten salt marsh samphire (Salicornia meyeriana) or sea asparagus at chef Kobus van der Merwe’s marvellous spot in Paternoster.

Wild nori or purple laver (Porphyra capensis) grows abundantly along our coast in stacked sheets that look like black plastic when dried out at low tide. Its cousin, Porphyra yezoensis, is the Far East nori familiar to us in sushi.

Many of us also know and use agar (popular as a gelatin for vegetarians). Agar-weed (Gracilaria gracilis) grows along the west and south coast, some of it is exported from Saldanha Bay. Agar is found in many gelatinous red algae, and local saw-edged jelly-weed, which is harvested commercially. The seaweed industry is currently worth a few million rand to South Africa, but it’s a pathetic drop in the ocean, compared with its economic potential.


The least weird to eat for novices is ribbon sea lettuce (Ulva fasciata) and rigid sea lettuce (Ulva rigida). Gray uses it in sea biscuits, chilli bites and couscous salad. I’ve since added it to miso soup for novelty and colour.

Slightly more courage is needed at first to get to grips with red slippery orbits (Pachymenia orbitosa). Gray says these are good for wrapping roasts or in soups.

Split fan kelp (Laminaria pallida) and sea bamboo (Ecklonia maxima) can be put through a pasta machine and turned into a seaweed tagliatelle. If you boil the whole leaves for two hours you can use the sheets as lasagne. Gray also makes glass noodles by shredding a jelly created by freezing the leftover liquid after boiling red seaweed.

But my favourite seaweed is hanging wrack (Brassicophycus brassicaeformis) which can be used raw in coleslaw, together with “mermaid’s hair” or Cape cord weed (Chordariopsis capensis). If the latter is hair from a mermaid I think I know from which of her regions. You can also drizzle it with soy sauce or sauté in butter with garlic.

Being of Belgian extraction, I was looking forward to collecting mussels. First thing, though, you must be absolutely certain that there is no red tide about. Foragers should also take care that they do not pick our indigenous black mussels, which are being rapidly displaced and outcompeted by the alien Mediterranean mussel.

One good, unintended consequence of their success, though, is that oystercatcher bird populations have recovered thanks to the Mediterranean mussels. The species are not too hard to tell apart, once someone has shown you the difference. To my mind, the local mussels have more elegant lines. As for flavour, I challenge anyone to tell them apart in a blind tasting.

If you’ve ever wondered about the different colours of mussel flesh, dark brown or orange are female; off-white and pale yellow are male, depending on the species.

We also picked a few limpets to add to the shellfish mix. Gray makes sustainable limpet and periwinkle samoosas. Goat’s eye limpet is popular (too popular, in fact) along the Eastern Cape coast.

After our morning on the rocks, we hike up to Gael’s Beach Cottage with our foraged sea edibles to prepare an alfresco lunch in the backyard. Every­one pitches in.

While we wait for the rinsing and boiling, Gray prepares a face mask from dead-man’s fingers (Splachnidium rugosum). The swollen, tubular stems are filled with mucilage (which protects the algae in the sun at low tide). Squeezed out and applied to the face it seems to be absorbed after a while and your skin feels unusually plump.

Then comes the scary, hairy red algae called tongue-weed (Gigartina polycarpa). It works well as a loofah to exfoliate after the facial. Its carrageenan is also used as a gel.

And if you don’t quite look the same afterwards, you can be sure that you will never look at the sea rocks and kelp the same way again.


This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 26 March 2015.


The Noakes cult

Written by Brent on November 30th, 2014
Prof Tim Noakes speaking at the event

Prof Tim Noakes speaking at the event


In September I attended a private trade event hosted by PR-Net and Original Eating at which Professor Tim Noakes was apparently going to brief journalists on the latest research underpinning his LCHF (low carb, high fat) diet.

There is no doubt that the “Banting” diet works and it has taken the country by storm, but there is a big step between seeing it work and believing why it works. I arrived sceptical of the science behind it and, after listening to Noakes, I left even less convinced. He played too fast and loose with facts and peppered his talk with personal anecdotes.

For starters, there are all my skinny vegan friends whose diets are over 80% carbohydrates. Then there are all the people I know who shed 10kg simply by cutting out booze.

Buy the Book

I could see why Noakes has been so successful, as he spoke off the cuff in the middle of a circle of food company reps marketing LCHF product lines. The fact that Noakes used to promote a high-carbohydrate diet and was as convinced of the science behind that as he is of its opposite today, ironically only strengthens his message in the fruitcake world of diets.

The Noakes narrative has all the elements needed for a quasi-religious story. First, he lived in misguided ignorance. Then he had a Damascus road experience while out jogging. He actually used the words “it was like I was reborn”. There are none so convincing as the repentant. As a true believer, he must share the good news: you can eat fat. Positioning his diet as a social revolution rather than an eating plan, he believes we can all help to redeem mankind.

Noakes even invokes an idyllic, innocent, long-lost paradise when our ancestors ate hippo fat. At 65, a veteran of 70 marathons, saviour Noakes is living proof of his convictions — successful, apparently healthy and brimming with good feeling. And, as with any religious story, we need evil forces to fight, in this case a conspiracy between the devilish medical profession and giant global food corporations. Finally, we are facing an apocalypse thanks to diabetes; only revelations can save us.

To complete his message, Noakes singles out an individual in our midst for us to applaud, someone who has miraculously lost a lot of weight after years of struggling to little effect on the treadmill.

All Noakes needs now is an element of martyrdom and persecution, something I’m happy to provide.  Setting the pseudoscience aside, the consequences for the planet if populations in their billions went off rice and pursued Noakes’s protein-rich, high animal fat diet would be catastrophic.

It flies in the face of everything we know about greenhouse gases, water scarcity and environmental pollution, not to mention growing concerns about biological hazards and an emerging consensus on ethical issues attached to ever greater industrial meat production.

Under the guise of a specific health issue — the diabetes pandemic — all Noakes has really done is reinvent the Atkins diet (officially called the Atkins nutritional approach, first written about by Robert Atkins in 1972 and since refined several times) with a recipe book for the chattering classes who are struggling with their weight because of their overconsumption.

It is also foolish hubris on his part to want to extend his dietary experiments to farmworkers and their children. Then again, doing “good works” among the poor is essential to sustain and grow believers.

The phenomenal success of Noakes and his The Real Meal Revolution has already made itself felt on the restaurant scene in Cape Town, which is probably where his diet belongs.

Diners used to be indignant if there wasn’t the obligatory basket of free bread on the table when the drinks came. Nowadays, in Cape Town at least, waiters are told to “take it away” and patrons ask whether they may have their steak without the potatoes. In more than one establishment in recent months, I’ve been pre-empted by a waiter asking: “You want that without rice, I suppose?”

One of my regular sushi spots, Fugu, now offers a “slimmer’s platter” — mostly sashimi with maki rolled with carrot and cucumber slices instead of rice. My local Knead bakery is doing a rather convincing low-carb bread for R55 a loaf; it’s sold out by noon.

The Wellness Warehouse is struggling to keep up with the demand for flax crackers. The corner Italian restaurant is serving pizza with a chickpea flour base, which is mistakenly thought of as providing a low-carb alternative. Almost scandalously, coming from the land of the potato, Belgian restaurant Den Anker has introduced a low-carb weekend menu. The Kauai chain is planning low-carb wraps and even Butler’s Pizza is toying with home delivery of a low-carb pizza base. I had a sneak preview taste and it’s the most successful of the alternatives to flour dough I’ve tried.

Now two restaurants with Banting menus have opened. Once Bitten will review these next time to see whether chefs can make low-carb meals delicious, even if the science is hard to swallow.


Also see: DEN ANKER’S PALEO MENU (published March 2014)

Carbohydrates are suddenly back in fashion in Cape Town as the city overflows with “carbo-loading” cyclists gearing up for the 109km Cycle Tour of the Peninsula.

The health clubs are advising that you need 30g to 60g of carbohydrates for every hour of cycling. Gyms are recommending for “post-race munchies” burgers and wraps, energy drinks and fruit juice — a full horror list of carbohydrates for the ever-growing number of converts to low- and no-carb diets.

It may have all started with a morbidly obese London undertaker, one William Banting, according to The Real Meal Revolution by Prof Tim Noakes, nutritionist Sally-Ann Creed, and “chef-athletes” David Grier and Jonno Proudfoot.

The low-carb high-fat (LCHF) diet is also known as Banting, with strong similarities to John Durant’s “paleo diet” and the Atkins regimen. Banting made it into the Oxford dictionary, though by its definition “Bantingism” also excludes fat from the diet. William Banting thrived on Dr William Harvey’s eating plan and lived to a ripe old age.

There is a lot of evolutionary mythology and mumbo jumbo around carb-obsessed diets. I believe in a balanced diet of all the food groups. But whatever the scepticism, limiting carbs to between 25g and 100g a day, while still satisfying the body’s need to feel sated, does seem to work for weight loss, though probably not for the pseudoscience reasons given by its pedlars.

Just as artisanal bread-making is exploding on the local scene, along comes the demonising of carbs. It must be equally threatening if you’re in the beer business. After all, beer has long been considered liquid bread.

With this in mind, chef-patrons Doekle Vleitman and Rejeanne Vleitman of Den Anker restaurant, recognised for its Belgian beer and potatoes, and followers of the palaeo/LCHF diet at home, are introducing a palaeo menu on weekends.

The Vleitmans and Lies Bouckaert, founder of Den Anker with her late husband Denis, invited me to try their carb-free lunch menu, with the option to “drink your carbs” instead of eating them. In pursuit of a balanced diet, naturally I had to drink the beer pairings with the food courses.

I expected mussels sans pommes frites, marrow bones without baguette, and ice cream without waffles. What I got was more inventive.

For starters, seared tuna with sesame seeds, thinly sliced radish, a sprinkling of tiny shrimps (a distinctly Belgian touch) on a spread of “Banting mayonnaise”, which is made without using seed oils, and spiked with wasabi.

The carbohydrates came in the form of what my Antwerpenaar father called a bolleke, a glass of De Koninck beer, amber-coloured and top fermented from barley and organic Saaz-Saaz hops from the Czech Republic. No added maize or brewing sugars keeps this beer at 3.2g of carbohydrate per 100ml.

Then there was a choice of Wagyu steak tartare (an excellent option for protein junkies) or perfectly seared salmon with cauliflower mash, green asparagus (a Flemish passion) and caramelised shallots.

The carbs for these were a Maredous Blonde soft, malted beer (4.6g of carbohydrate per 100ml) and my favourite Belgian tipple, Duvel (3.8g of carbohydrate per 100ml). If you know how to pour this one the way I was taught in Belgium, a standard Duvel bottle just fills the glass with a large creamy head of froth coming up two-thirds of the glass to the rim.

It is beer refermented in the bottle for a fortnight in warm brewery cellars and then chilled for six weeks. The total brewing time for a Duvel is 90 days.

Dessert was a Liefmans sorbet from Liefmans Fruitesse beer (5g of carbohydrate per 100ml), a beer I personally can’t abide, along with chocolate cheese (not cheesecake), a block of which I once saw quivering in the glass counter of a Brussels fromagerie.

Liefmans is made with cherries, strawberries, raspberries, elderbe-rries and bilberries.

Den Anker has taken a lead, and we can expect to see more chefs, restaurants and menus responding to the changing eating habits of the well fed.