South Africa's Pop-Up Rock Star, Khanya Mzongwana

Khanya Mzongwana — aka Yulu Oz Ishii — creates meals that are sublimely sensual. That tell stories. That make people comfortable even when they are rocketed right out of their comfort zones.

And that is just talking about what she dishes up at Off The Wall Pop-Up Restaurant, a monthly happening she hosts in collaboration with her business partner and boyfriend, South African soul man and vinyl junkie Sakhile Ndlazi, aka DJ Bubbles.

Among other things, Mzongwana also creates recipes and styles food for South Africa’s most visually stunning food magazine, Taste, is in demand as a restaurant and menu consultant and almost every day puts foodie pictures on Facebook that have her fans, including this one, drooling.

Mzongwana’s pop-up restaurant takes place each month at +27 Cafe in Pretoria, South Africa’s administrative capital, known for its government buildings, universities and jacaranda trees that create mauve canopies and carpets in the streets before the onset of summer.

“I consult on menu design and in the kitchen at +27 Cafe. We have a cooperative relationship. They’ve given us a beautiful space. I started the pop-ups with my boyfriend (an iconic figure in the local dance music scene) in June 2014. He’s the sound guy.

“We do themed food — always in some way fused with a South African food element. This year we decided to do different culinary-rich countries of the world. Egypt, Japan, India, Korea, Japan, South Africa; we’re about to do Greece. We celebrate the culture in question and for those who dine, it’s a learning experience.

“It’s all really cool and interactive in the sense we talk to the guests about what they’re eating. For non-English-speaking countries, we have the pronunciations on the menu. We’ll discuss how a dish should taste; when it should traditionally be eaten.”

Ndlazi, meanwhile, plays funk, soul, jazz, and hip-hop. “When we had a Brazilian theme he played a lot of afrobeat and bossa nova. He plays what he feels is right. People love it.”

Mzongwana, 27, exudes a delightful mix of style, flamboyance, and unadulterated spontaneous “niceness.” Her food is a visual treat. The colors, creativity and freshness of the dishes she dreams up (Taste magazine pretty much gives her free reign) make you want to play with it and photograph it as much as eat it. Food in her world is a conscious thing. An expression of who she is, what she feels about life, where she comes from; her black South African-ness.

As for South African food, “I find it difficult to describe in words. It’s wholesome. Starchy. There’s lots of meat. The flavors are clean, simple and approachable. I like to play with the flavors. There are a lot of grains and pulses.” She also is intent on communicating that “there are no rules, that food is about nourishment and enjoyment.”

She attributes her passion and the celebratory quality that infuses her style to her “family of women,” in particular her grandmother and mother. “I grew up (in the coastal city of Port Elizabeth) in an environment where food was always being prepared. Where every Sunday was a celebration focused on food.

“I come from a highly creative family: food, fashion, crafts. These were the go-to things for my family. I’ve always been artistic. I always knew my career would be an artistic one.

A calling card, she says, was working at Three Fat Fish in (South Africa’s world-acclaimed surfing spot) Jeffreys Bay under the mentorship of Brent and Emmy-Lou Mills.

“They taught me so much. How to be relaxed around ingredients. It’s difficult to put into words, the valuable lessons I learned. Brent was a huge part of why I cook and the way I cook. I don’t know if he knows this.  Instead of focusing on my mistakes, he’d say, ‘This is a good mistake. Why don’t you just try it that way.’”

She’s never traveled outside of South Africa but the extensive research done for her international pop-ups, she says, “makes me feel I’ve traveled the world.”

“A lot of the dishes I cook look super-fancy. But I have random ingredients in the pantry and I want to show how you can make something magical with a can of beans. To make a memorable meal, you don’t need something special.”

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Long-time Cuisine Noir contributor Wanda Hennig is an award-winning food and travel writer, an author, a blogger and a life coach. A native South African, she believes we are what (and how) we eat (and drink). Thus, she says (only a little tongue-in-cheek), the best way to truly understand a country, a city, a culture—and a people—is via your taste buds and your stomach.