Sharing what and how we eat can forge powerful connections between people, cultures and nations. A blend of these three legs of the potjie did a recent palate pirouette at Africa’s longest-running dance festival in South Africa’s Indian Ocean city of Durban.
People, cultures and nations came together via a collaboration between Finland and South Africa, both on and off the stage. At the heart was chef Jade Klaasen and her menu, a whisking together of authenticity, diversity, adaptation and distinctive Nordic flavors.
A little over two years ago, the culinary whizz, who like many in the world had been thrown off kilter by COVID, knew essentially nada about Finland that was seemingly chilly and distant way up there in northern climes, far from the heat and dust of much of the land of her birth, South Africa.
But now, two years into her appointment as the private in-house chef for the Embassy of Finland in South Africa’s administrative capital, Pretoria, the enterprising and passionate chef can wax lyrical Finnish food with authority as if born to it and prepare a spread for 200 guests, which she was doing when we met.
The thing is, both Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry advocate for what they call “food diplomacy.” That is, they understand that food has an extraordinary ability to transcend cultural boundaries, break down barriers, bring people together, and showcase a country and Chef Jade is at the forefront.
Cultural Connections Through Finnish Food
“Private chefs at the country’s embassies around the world are involved in introducing Finland via the food. We are seen as ambassadors of Finnish food,” she explains. Finland also practices cultural diplomacy, which accounts for the dance element.
So it is an invitation from Anne Lammila, Finland’s ambassador in South Africa, that invites me to an evening at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in honour of her embassy’s partnership with the Jomba! Contemporary Dance Experience and a collaboration between Finnish choreographer Virva Talonen and the Flatfoot Dance Company, a top-notch Durban-based dance troupe known for their politically and socially charged work, who are performing at Jomba!
With an aperitif, a dessert or my main course, I will get to “enjoy a taste of Finland” at a cocktail party, which is where Klaasen comes in.
“The ambassador takes care of the country. We, the chefs, play a supportive role,” she explains. As such, her task is to introduce people to Finland through the food, the flavours, the ingredients.
This might involve catering a quiet dinner for 16 to 24 people at the ambassador’s residence, sometimes a one-on-one or one-on-four more intimate meeting, perhaps a business breakfast.
Or, as what happened last Finland Independence Day (December 6), her menu might be for a celebratory gathering of 400. In between, the talented young chef — who to date has been to Finland twice — handles embassy functions around South Africa.
I meet Klaasen for the first time in a prep kitchen space work at the Sica’s Guest House—a family-run suburban hotel less than a 10-minute drive from where I live in Durban— where she’ll work for two days, along with two assistants hired to assist.
When I arrive, she is still buzzing from her fun 5:30 a.m. first-ever visit to Durban’s Fresh Produce Market. Sica’s owner-manager took her to the legendary sprawling and bustling market, which supplies businesses, restaurants and urban, suburban and roadside market traders.
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She went for blueberries, in season in South Africa, but needed to go elsewhere to buy them as she only found strawberries, also in season but not on her menu. She got baby potatoes for her Finnish potato salad, though. Finns are big on potatoes, she tells me. I read online that “The variations of new potatoes available in Finland are seemingly endless…You’ll find that Finns can talk about new potatoes forever.”
She bought a lot of in-season root vegetables to honey-roasted in traditional Finn style. She is happy to share Finnish foodie revelations when she takes a break, and we sit away from the heat of the kitchen in a quiet hotel lounge.
One of the things that especially struck her was that it’s the norm for Finns to forage in the forests for berries and mushrooms. “I tried this small strawberry someone had picked that had the flavor intensity of ten regular strawberries. And their Chanterelle mushrooms. Incredible.
“What I found so interesting, they have something called Everyman’s Right. The law allows anyone living in or visiting Finland the freedom to roam the countryside and forage. So you can go into any forest and pick berries and mushrooms. In summertime, people go and collect, for instance, berries they will preserve for the winter and mushrooms, some of which they will pickle for the winter months.”
Blueberries are favourites, hence the Finnish traybake she is making with blueberries for dessert. For her blueberry mousse, she is using blueberries from Finland in powdered form.
Salmon and Springbok
Watching Chef Jade in the kitchen, I inadvertently learn how to smoke Norwegian salmon to serve it warm and how to cure salmon the Finnish way, using a coating of salt and sugar. Also, how to prepare springbok, as in venison, as a substitute for reindeer, which is a major diet staple in Finland, available in many creatively prepared ways.
Her Norwegian salmon order of five enormous fish arrived whole. By the time I saw them, she had them skinned, filleted and cut in half.
Five halves were for curing, “basically cooking the fish” is how she described it; wrapping them in cling wrap after coating them top and bottom with equal parts of course salt and sugar. At the same time, she ran her fingers over them, checking for missing bones. Removing the few she finds with tweezers hefty enough to pluck a giant’s chin hairs.
She will return the fish to the refrigerator for the night. “Tomorrow, we will rinse them, dry them on racks in the refrigerator and then slice them.”
The other halves will be smoked in a borrowed smoker in Sica’s garden the next morning. As for the venison — the springbok she has ordered — she is marinating with salt, pepper, all-spice, rosemary and bay leaves. The meat will rest overnight in the fridge. “Then seared in the morning, medium rare and sliced to serve. My alternative to reindeer here in South Africa is springbok.”
She confirms that she has eaten sauteéd reindeer, which I read is a Finnish treat eaten throughout the country. “It is kind of like our venison,” she affirms. She ate bear once, prepared like beef jerky. “It was unexpectedly soft,” she recalls.
Fish dishes are at the heart of the Finnish diet. “And the water in Finland …is amazing. I drank from a river where they had a cup available and encouraged people to use the cup to scoop and enjoy this ice-cold drinkable water.”
The pureness of nature in Finland also left its mark on her; the emphasis on where the food comes from, as in what farm, before it makes its way onto the shelves. “Their care and focus on sustainability is mind-blowing.”
Mixed Cultural Place
Klaasen acknowledges, with humor and pride, her deep roots in South Africa’s mixed-race pot-pourri. “My grandmother, who is 99 and still kicking, came from Botswana. My one grandfather came from Namibia, the other was from England. South Africa is such a mixed cultural place. Twelve official languages, all mixed up.”
The youngest of four siblings, Klaasen was keen on leaving school to pursue a degree in hospitality, but financial constraints led her to a security company for three-and-a-half years. Then one day, she saw an ad for the Chef’s Training and Innovation Academy.
“I went to their open day. Fell in love with the idea. Resigned. Took my savings, put them all in.” She spent the next four years earning two impressive diplomas. Then it was on to a line-up of fine dining restaurants, catering companies and wedding venues before the pandemic shut down just about everything.
As things limped back, through a recruitment guru, she was called to interview for two positions, one being to run five restaurant kitchens at an entertainment venue. The other being the Finland Embassy position.
Back then, “I just knew about the Northern Lights and that Finland was where Santa Clause lived,” she jokes.
When Chef Jade was called back a week after her first job interview, it was to ask her to do a cook-off for 20 people, including a vegetarian, a vegan, a pescatarian and regular omnivores “including someone heavy on the meat.”
She did her research into Finnish food and came up with what turned out to be a winning menu.
It included a salmon soup starter, which I learn online is a Finnish favorite and crusty rounds of straight-from-her-oven rye bread, given that self-baked bread was listed among the requirements.
For dessert, she chose to make Runeberg cake. “It’s named for a Finnish poet (Johan Ludvig Runeberg: 1804–1877). The story goes that his wife created this dessert and it was his favorite.” The Finnish torte, flavoured with almonds and topped with a ring of icing and raspberry jam, is typically eaten around the February 5 anniversary of Runeberg’s birthday. “I met him on my recent trip to Finland,” she laughs. “Met him” as in visited the Runeberg statue in Helsinki.
Jomba! and Flatfoot Dance
Back to the dance-cum-culinary event where Klaasen and Finnish food took center stage along with the dancing. The Flatfoot Dance Company began in 1994 as a part-time program with no funding but a lot of goodwill and a commitment to offer dance training to those historically and economically denied during apartheid.
The company went on to win numerous awards, commissions, and invitations from around the world and continues to “grow” dance and dancers.
The Jomba! dance festival, meanwhile, presented by the Center for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and the platform under which Flatfoot performed, is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
This milestone is viewed as a testament to a generation of African dance-makers who, alongside dance partners in Europe, America, India and Brazil, have dug in — and despite pandemics, rising global disregard for critical arts and losing space for live performance — are hanging in and flourishing.
This year’s festival saw dancers bring beauty, humour, pathos and politics to stages and hearts with 13 days of world-class contemporary dance performed by artists from Mozambique, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Madagascar, Uganda, Romania, Finland, Germany, the U.K., Brazil… and of course the best South Africa has to offer.
“The best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture — and a people — is via your taste buds and your stomach.” These words by coincidence, are from my Cuisine Noir author notes. It is very cool to experience this in Durban within the swirl of the dance through Chef Jade and Finnish food.