Siba’s sweet taste of success

The global cooking-show phenomenon has a new foodie in its ranks. Sibahle Mtongana isn’t only qualified and gorgeous, she’s also a new mom and host of the Food Network’s Siba’s Table.

It was a good deal for both sisters: Siba didn’t like cleaning but Zanele didn’t mind it at all; Zanele disliked cooking, but Siba was crazy about it, even back then.

‘So we swapped chores,’ recalls Sibahle Mtongana, of how she and her sister came to an agreement about who made dinner when they were teenagers growing up in Mdantsane near East London.

It was a natural start to what would become not only a passion but a highly successful career. Barely ten years on, the vivacious Food and Consumer Sciences graduate has her own show on the Food Network, Siba’s Table.

‘I learnt how to cook from watching my mother,’ the 28-year-old beauty says. ‘Once, when she was making umphokoqo – what most know as phutu pap or krummelpap served with maas – she took a pinch of salt, weighed it in her hand and added it to the water. I asked how much salt it was – a tablespoon, a teaspoon? She said, ‘‘You just feel it with your hand.’

While mom made breakfast and school lunches, Siba cooked the evening family meal.

‘It was traditional food – always rice or samp and beans, meat, gravy and at least three vegetables. My mother is diabetic and is very big on eating vegetables,’ Siba says. ‘We call her Mthombo wo lwazi, ‘‘the well of wisdom’’. I always go to her for advice. I know she’ll tell me how it is, but caringly and with a kind heart.’

This stable home life, deeply rooted in Christianity and under the loving guidance of mother Noliza (a retired school teacher) and father Mncedise (who worked in the leather manufacturing industry), prepared Siba for life in the big city.

Although the she yearned for the bright lights of Jozi, she went to Cape Town to study because one of her sisters lived there and would be able to keep an eye on her.

It was a fortuitous move: a young graphic designer called Brian was living in the same apartment complex as Siba’s sister, and would later become her husband.

Siba now fondly refers to Brian as ‘the head of my advisory board’. He’s also the proud father of Lonwabo, who has just turned one.

Today Siba sits at a popular fast food restaurant in Green Point, Cape Town. As a staunch advocate of healthy – but still innovative and tasty – eating, greasy take-aways are not what Siba chooses to feed herself or her family.

‘But I appreciate that fast food places are making an effort to offer healthy alternatives to burgers and chips,’ she says.

‘When I was a student, we had a popular food outlet strategically placed on our block and, because I don’t like cooking for myself, I often resorted to take-aways.’

But even then Siba would opt for chicken wraps, salads and orange juice rather than super-sized hamburgers and sugary drinks.

‘Because of my mom’s diabetes we were taught to steer clear of saturated fats as children,’ she explains, adding that she’s by no means a paragon of virtue when it comes to ‘forbidden’ foods.

‘I went through a stage of obsessing about desserts,’ she says. ‘At one point vanilla pod ice cream was my favourite – but to stop myself from feeling too guilty, I eventually re-created it as a low-fat sorbet option.’

Getting into print

While studying at Cape Technikon (now the Cape Peninsula University of Technology) in the early 2000s, Siba’s facility with both English and Xhosa made her the perfect tutor.

‘There was an influx of black students studying the [food technology] course and there weren’t enough English-Xhosa tutors,’ she recalls. ‘Part of my job became to explain the language of food to students in Xhosa, and then help them translate it into English.’

Even this additional workload, however, didn’t keep the go-getting young woman busy enough.

Just as she was becoming ‘bored with lecturing’, she heard Drum magazine was looking for an assistant food editor and applied for the position. Her easy manner and keen knowledge of food won her the post that she held for over four years.

A face for tv

Siba may be a brilliant cook, but she’s also a beautiful woman and former hair model.

So when the magazine decided to launch a food show on DStv’s Mzansi Magic channel, Siba was the obvious choice. Cooking with Siba was an instant hit. Featuring some of Mzansi’s best-known celebrities, it concentrated on their favourite dishes, which Siba gave her own twist.

Her unique approach to food made for compelling viewing.

‘One of my creations is pappizza,’ she says, by way of example. ‘It’s a pizza with a pap base.’ Another is mfino fritters.

‘Mfino, which is a traditional dish made with spinach and maize meal, is something we used to eat as an afternoon snack. I turned that into a fritter and I usually top it with soya mayo and smoked salmon.’

In 2011 the show began broadcasting on the UK’s Africa Channel. One British critic called it ‘a breath of fresh air’ and added that Siba was giving Nigella Lawson a run for her money.

And in March this year, Cooking with Siba won a South African Film and Television Award for best variety and lifestyle show.

Siba goes global

It was no surprise that Siba made the bigwigs at Food Network sit up and take notice.

She is dynamic, passionate about food, and audiences love her – ‘everything that’s important to the Food Network brand,’ said Nick Thorogood, senior vice-president of content and marketing.

But when the Food Network approached Siba with the idea for a second South African cooking show (following on the heels of Jenny Morris’s Moroccan offering), Siba already had another major project in development: she was pregnant with her first child.

It was a measure of just how much the satellite channel wanted her as the face of their new programme that they agreed to wait until her son was born to begin preparation for the show.

Earlier this year Siba was ready to commit herself to Siba’s Table, a 10-episode cornucopia shot in Cape Town – fittingly, home to the planet’s most famous Table.

The series, filmed by the Food Network’s 16-man crew (which included specialist food cameramen, stylists and preppers who have worked with Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay), gives viewers a unique insight into Siba’s treasured childhood dishes with her signature twist.

Siba’s responsibilities go well beyond developing the recipes, sourcing the ingredients, prepping and cooking.

It’s also her special brand of glamour that gives the series its appeal, as she serves her creations to family and friends in a variety of settings and circumstances – a traditional seven-colour Sunday lunch, a beach picnic, cocktails with girlfriends, a weekend brunch, a braai on the balcony…

And if you wonder how she does it all with such unaffected ease, it’s simply because it’s all completely real. ‘This is really who I am,’ she says. ‘It’s acting out my own life. It feels completely natural.’

Siba on…

Celebrity: ‘I didn’t pursue celebrity; it found me. This is my job, first and foremost. Being a celebrity is by chance. I’m still the same old Siba.’

Beauty: ‘In the beginning, on Cooking with Siba, people thought I was just a pretty presenter who knew nothing about cooking. Then my husband said to me, ‘‘Siba, you have nothing to prove to anyone.’’ He’s right. I work really hard and my work speaks for itself.’

Healthy bodies: ‘One of my issues when I was growing up was being curvy. My mother would say to me, ‘‘You need to love yourself the way you are. You are Sibahle, a beautiful black woman, and being curvaceous is part of who we are, so embrace it.’’ Because of that encouragement, I love my body.’

Being a mother: ‘It’s awesome! Being a parent makes you want to do good in the world. What makes me happy is seeing my husband and my son playing together. They have a very strong bond. It’s such a wonderful thing.’

Favourite foods: ‘It changes. Currently I’m loving beef goulash. But last winter it was anything Thai. And I don’t really have much of a sweet tooth, but I do love baked crème brûlée with a fruit topping!’

Kitchen staples: ‘Garlic and ginger. Canned tomatoes. Maize meal. Veggies.’

Culinary heroes: ‘I have so many! Dora Sithole – I modelled myself on her for a long time. Carmen Niehaus from You magazine – I used to tear out the cooking pages and try those recipes. Jenny Morris (below right) – I love that she turned her passion into a successful career. Delia Smith – I’d watch her on TV when I was young. Jamie Oliver (below left) – because he goes beyond just good food. Nigella Lawson – she made cooking sexy.’

What she’s reading: ‘I Dare You: Embrace Life with Passion by Joyce Meyer. One of my favourites is Battlefield of the Mind by the same author.’

Siba’s responsibilities go well beyond developing the recipes, sourcing the ingredients, prepping and cooking. It’s also her special brand of glamour that gives the series its appeal

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