Luke Dale Roberts. Picture: Supplied
Luke Dale Roberts. Picture: Supplied

All it took was a tin of tomatoes, an onion chopped in half and a colossal wodge of butter to send me into a meditative trance. As steam rose, clouding up the icy window panes above the stove, I’d occasionally intervene in the simmering pot by breaking up the tomatoes. 

Mostly I stood staring into the rich red reduction, thinking of nothing.

Making Marcella Hazan’s famous tomato sauce from The New York Times is dead simple and calming, but critically, the finished product is exquisitely comforting. It is perfect on penne with a lot of grana padano, but it’s also great on big chunks of sourdough (my favourite comes from Ti Amo Italian Deli), or straight up like a heavy soup. It is a balm. 

I’m staying at home to dodge the torrent of Covid engulfing Gauteng and food has taken on a disproportionate importance for me. I’ve been reading about it, watching Instagram videos of it, talking about it, and cooking it. 

Comfort food, and the comfort of food, are getting me through this scary moment. Food is escapist, laden with good memories, celebratory, and  great for sharing. And its endorphin-boosting powers are like a big hug at a time when there are not a lot of those going around. 

Comfort food also falls into a unique judgment-free zone. Is pilchard pie with a side of strawberry Steri Stumpie your jam? Bring it on. Irrespective of how basic, indulgent, or peculiar a dish is, if it makes you feel better, go for it. Grab the crumbs of joy where you can. 

In this spirit, I asked some of SA’s top food types to reveal their ultimate comfort meals. Beyond your beloved banana bread, there are plenty of choices to inspire — and it’s an intriguing glimpse into the kitchens of people who live by the knife and gas flame.

Globally admired chef Luke Dale Roberts says his wife and business partner, Sandalene, is “the queen of comfort”. “She does a navarin of lamb with lots of tomato and cheesy polenta that is just amazing,” he says. The duo have it on the menu at their new restaurant, The Test Kitchen Fledglings, and it’s getting rave reviews.

Tapiwa Guzha, the founder of Tapi Tapi, the Cape Town café and food initiative, looked to what his grandmother cooked for him as a child. “Mashakada is not a universally Zimbabwean dish, but certainly some tribes in the country enjoy it,” he says. 

At its core, it is peanut butter rice, served with pumpkin leaves, creamed in peanut butter, with a dose of peanut butter chicken too. “As you can tell, peanut butter is a strong theme here,” he laughs. 

Mpho Deane’s catering company, Food I Love You, is one of the best options for ordering home-style food with heart in Joburg. By default, the meals she makes are soulful, but Deane says a good curry or vegetable and bean stew takes the comfort cake.

Right now, Peter Tempelhoff has a cassoulet on the menu at his Cape Town restaurant Beyond, which, according to his business partner Jennifer Hugé, “tastes just like France in winter”. 

She should know – she is French. But Tempelhoff says his favourite comfort dish “must be the gorgonzola gnocchi at A Tavola in Claremont — it’s rich, creamy and delicious”.

You’ve probably eaten Carmen van der Merwe’s beef curry or melanzane at a friend’s Sunday lunch and didn’t clock it. Her take-home meals from the Service Station restaurant are stalwarts — but when she’s in need of a food fix, her go-to is slow-cooked lamb shoulder with crisp roast potatoes.

Like all good Italians, Saverio Cardillo, who owns the Parkhurst institution Bottega Café, says his feel-good dish is a bowl of gnocchi with fresh pesto. I’d add the café’s pasta la nonna to my list.

Wandile Mabaso, the brilliant chef at the helm of the Les Créatifs kitchen, goes for “braised lamb or any other slow-cooked meat”. He adds: “The broth is filled with vitamins which help with immunity.”

If anyone in Gauteng makes a better almond croissant than Shakil Khan and the Tonka Bean Bakery, I’d like to know. Khan says his idea of reassurance on a plate comes from a small Syrian-owned place in Laudium called Lime Tree Express. “Their fattoush salad and chicken wrap!” he pinpoints without hesitation. 

David Higgs might be the co-owner and chef at Marble and Saint restaurants, but when we chat he is cooking oxtail at home. He picks a lamb neck tomato bredie. “It’s very difficult to beat that, with a lovely potato and green bean sort of smash, with loads of white pepper,” he says. “My mouth is watering after describing that,” he adds.

As you can imagine, mine is too, and I’m now absolutely ravenous — so if you’ll excuse me, I have some stores of buttery tomato sauce to plunder.

Buitendach is contributing editor at the FM

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