An edible journey through culinary heritage reminiscent of comforting home cooking from other lands…
It’s not very often that you get the chance to sample authentic African cuisine here in the South West. But Malcolm Riley (The African Chef) is on a mission to bring the flavours of Southern Africa to the West Country with his exciting range of sauces and condiments.
“They used to call my mother ‘The Flavour Queen’”, Malcolm told me, as he added a pinch of ground ginger to a pan and began chopping coriander leaves, “People just knew she was a fantastic cook”.
There are countless jars of vibrant sauces and chutneys stacked high on the countertop of his modestly sized kitchen, and the heady aroma of spices and cloves is out of this world. For the past few years, Malcolm has been developing a range of condiments inspired by his home country, Zambia, and today he is using them to make an authentic dish of Minced Venison Curry with Buttermilk & Apricots. From savoury marmalade to chakalaka sauce, his health-conscious The African Chef range is proving to be a huge hit with the British market and he credits a lot of this culinary success to a childhood spent in Africa and the influence of his mother, Aida, also known as ‘The Flavour Queen’.
“When I was growing up, my friends would always look forward to dinner at our house,” he recalled fondly. His mother was of mixed heritage – with an Indian father and a Zambian mother – and so she benefitted from a real mix of culinary influences. “We had a lot of foodie traditions at our house. Every Sunday, without fail was a roast. Curries were also very big. But what was most important was that everything was cooked from scratch. Nothing was bought. Even the bread was baked down the road and we’d harvest a lot from the land. Food was the heart and soul of our home.”
As an aspiring young foodie, Malcolm left the multicultural hub of Zambia in his twenties and boarded a one-way flight to London with nothing but a suitcase and £200 in his pocket. “Things weren’t easy to begin with,” he explained. Living in a council flat with his aunt for the first few months, he worked hard to sustain himself on a meagre income from a paper round. But his lasting love of food prevailed and he soon landed a job as Produce Assistant at Planet Organic on Westbourne Grove. For years Malcolm knuckled down and learned the ropes of the industry before fate had him meet his partner Sophie, who delivered regular Riverford Organic boxes to the London store. Malcolm confessed that during his years spent in London he had longed for the safari and for the tranquil fishing trips of his youth. So the rolling hills of Devon seemed like the perfect remedy to his homesickness and he and Sophie decided to take the plunge and make the Devonshire town of Newton Abbot their home.
At this point in the story Malcolm placed something on the countertop. It was greenish, fuzzy and not dissimilar to a cacao pod. It was a baobab – the fruit of Africa’s ‘Tree of Life’ and he went on to explain how this unusual fruit changed his fortunes.
“One night I was watching a documentary on the San Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert and I saw that they were using the baobab. It was at that moment that I thought ‘this is a great product that the British public need to try’”. So, he did his research and discovered a lady named Margaret Zimba of the Mthanjara Women’s Cooperative, who was making baobab jam in Zambia and donating the surplus to children with HIV. Malcolm jumped on a plane back home and learned the art of creating the baobab jam for himself, before deciding to throw caution to the wind and import the fruit into the UK.
Malcolm wasn’t wrong about the demand for baobab and within weeks of starting his new business, Selfridges were on the phone asking to stock his product. “I nearly collapsed” he laughed, “I did not expect them to be interested”.
But getting an order from the prestigious store was only the first hurdle. As a self-confessed perfectionist, Malcolm recalled labelling each jar of baobab by hand. He had done all the measurements, but the labels he had ordered just wouldn’t stick. “I remember sitting up all night wondering what to do,” he explained, as he drained a large pan of yellow turmeric rice, “eventually I had to cut the labels a little to get them to work. I was up until 5am cutting and shaping them, until finally I managed to deliver the order on time”.
As predicted, baobab was an overnight hit. The product completely sold out in Selfridges and they were inundated with requests for the fruit elsewhere. But Malcolm’s true moment of inspiration was when he realised that customers loved to eat baobab jam with cheese. It seemed that by combining the authentic flavours of Africa with familiar ingredients that the British public know and love, he was onto a winner. So, Malcom set about building his own The African Chef product range with this ethos in mind.
“My real passion as a self-taught chef is about sauces, condiments and their role in cooking. It’s all about how you can have something bland and just by adding the right sauce, take it to a whole new level”. For example, he makes something called Safari Style Mash Potato for his three children. While he concedes that “ordinary mashed potato is alright”, he likes to caramelise onions and add a dash of his African gold preserve to make a flavoursome, healthy meal.
Each of The African Chef products has taken Malcolm around a year to develop and perfect. He blends familiar condiments, such as marmalade and jam, with the spices and soul of Southern Africa. There’s everything from curry ketchup to peri peri pesto in the range and when Malcolm served up our curry lunch – complete with a spoonful of carrot and ginger relish – I couldn’t help but think that ‘The Flavour Queen’ herself would be proud.
But what’s next for The African Chef? Will we be getting our hands on a Southern African cookbook? Perhaps a video series? It would seem that Malcolm is keeping his cards close to his chest, but he does seem to be more passionate than ever about getting West Country folk to embrace the tastes of Africa in 2018. “It’s hard to keep up with all the orders from my little kitchen, but I’d love to do more to promote The African Chef online this year. Above all else, I want to create products that bring out the flavours of home-cooked dishes and provide family recipes with a little bit of an African flair”.