Cooking for a global table
Fruit seller to Plettenberg Hotel chef, Martha Williams’s food is going places
She started her working career selling fruit and veg at a farmstall in Plettenberg Bay before being offered a job in a restaurant where she worked as a griller and then breakfast chef – and now she shows her inimitable Malay cooking style to spice-loving foodies across the globe.
Just back from Abu Dhabi where she was the star of the Cape Malay Food Festival, chef Martha Williams says Cape Malay food is something uniquely South African.The chef, who counts cumin, coriander, garlic, ginger, roasted masala, turmeric and dried chillies among the ingredients anyone wanting to whip up a decent Cape Malay dish must have on hand, said her Abu Dhabi experience had come about as a result of an invite from an former colleague. Williams said she had worked with the ex-colleague, now the food and beverage manager at the Abu Dhabi Hilton, in Cape Town some years ago.
She said: “October is a month of inviting different countries to share their culture in Abu Dhabi [and a] planned food festival celebrating South African food culture was organised this year.”
So off went Williams, whose dishes have long been celebrated in SA. Williams, who plies her trade at the five-star Plettenberg Hotel, in her home town, said she was drawn to Cape Malay cooking as curries were a staple for her family growing up.
“I started to learn [to cook] at a young age. I mostly love the spices and fresh herbs of Cape Malay food.“The aromatic spice of the food that you can’t get anywhere else ... it’s enjoyable.“It’s not too hot, not overly spicy; you can eat it any time of the year.”
Williams added that she had always been impressed with the way bobotie, which is made from leftovers, was now such a popular dish. Of the reception to her food in Abu Dhabi, Williams said: “They applaud South African food. They loved it!”
From September 28 to October 6, Williams cooked up a feast consisting of meals like bobotie, tomato bredie and masala fish with malva pudding and koeksisters on the dessert menu.
Williams said: “Food is an incredibly important part of Cape Malay culture. “Our food reaches into a rich history and our culinary traditions have travelled down foodways stretching around the world.
The Cape Malay style – a fusion of spice-rich and fragrant east Asian cuisines that developed in the kitchens of the Cape during the 17th century – worked for Williams with her innate understanding of flavours. That understanding and her hard work saw Williams get her big break when she was, many years ago, promoted to head chef at The Cape Malay restaurant in Cape Town. The restaurant was a huge success and Williams established a reputation that led to her being invited to present her Cape Malay culinary skills at a number of events in SA and abroad. She has travelled extensively to destinations ranging from Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong and Taipei.
Williams was “discovered” by Liz McGrath of The Collection – which now operates The Plettenberg, The Marine in Hermanus and the five-star Cellars-Hohenort in Cape Town.
Williams, who chuckles in a delightfully infectious manner, said McGrath had found her when she was working in a Chinese restaurant in Plett , bringing her to The Plettenburg before her stint at The Cape Malay. After her time at The Cape Malay, Williams returned once more to The Plettenberg, where she is now able to create the authentic flavour-filled dishes she loves and that draw on her personal story. On that personal note, Williams said she had grown up living with her grandfather who loved being in the kitchen, often baking delicious cakes.
“As a child I watched him ... my mother was also a brilliant cook, maybe that’s where I get it from,” she said.
Despite her affinity for the kitchen, Williams said she never in her wildest dreams believed she would be cooking for a global audience. Her favourite food to prepare is that which reflects her Cape Malay heritage – her beloved bobotie, pickled fish, using a firm white fish, and seafood potjies.
Recipe: Martha William's malva pudding
375ml (1½ cups) milk250ml sugar2 extra-large eggs30ml (2T) butter15ml (1T) vinegar45ml (3T) apricots jam500ml (2 cup) cake flour5ml (1t) baking powder10ml (2t) bicarbonate of soda1ml (pinch) salt
10ml (2t) vanilla or rum essence250ml soft butter250ml boiling water 250ml sugar410g Ideal Milk/ cream
Mix butter, sugar and eggs together, then stir in the remaining ingredients, mixing well.
Transfer to a buttered ovenproof dish (about 220mm-200mm) and bake at 180°C for 50 to 60 minutes.
For the sauce:
Combine all ingredients, bring to the boil and cook for five minutes.Pour the hot sauce over the warm pudding.