There is a flurry of activity and joy in her kitchen. In one corner, Malies Ice Cream is being churned, while in another, a lemongrass and caramel-infused cake is covered in a sweet marula nut glaze.
“We make everything from scratch, from the actual raw ingredient, and so that's always tricky, it takes time, and it takes a whole lot of love,” she says. She designs everything to be nutritious, ideally low in sugar, and gluten-free, yet entirely delicious. The cake, for instance, takes almost two days and a significant amount of effort to make, but this is a reflection of great care with the ingredients instead of overly processing them.
The mantra of the Modern Traditions brand, says Nelwamondo, is that “it's always tasty, indigenous, and healthy at the same time”. Her products are available in health food stores and markets across Johannesburg, as well as online, but her passion started close to home.
...tasty, indigenous, and healthy...
When she started cooking for her young son, she knew she wanted to give him strong options that connect him with traditions but avoid some of the obesity and health problems that run in her family: “I didn't want him to inherit the sort of upside-down curved relationship that I've always had with food.“ She started experimenting with some marula nut powder and came up with a vegan ice cream. The business grew from there.
Nelwamondo is a practising doctor and is clearly passionate about people taking care of their bodies by eating well, but without guilt. “We've been living in a society where food is seen as a token; it's seen as something that you get to enjoy once you've done something good,” she says. Instead of depriving themselves, she hopes to guide people towards filling up on whole foods in a mindful and enjoyable way.
Nelwamondo is also baking loaves of gluten-free sourdough bread made from indigenous grain like sorghum and millet. “It's what my grandmother would have made if she had an oven,” she says. She calls it a “modern tribute” explaining that she has used the same starter traditionally used for the breakfast porridge she grew up with. “So instead of actually making porridge, we are making bread, because that's what the modern society and we enjoy.”
African flavours are bold and bossy while being warm and hearty.
Celebrating traditions goes beyond the kitchen. Stepping into the garden, there is a wild farm scene unlike most in suburban Houghton with the reds and purples of heirloom maize growing alongside indigenous grains and sunflowers. Nelwamondo calls it a forest-like “organised mess” because she trusts the natural processes to regulate the ecosystem and brings in traditional methods of composting and farming.
Her emphasis on these indigenous ingredients isn’t just about nostalgia and health but keeps seasonality in mind and tries to use as much of a plant as possible. For instance, she uses the leaves from pumpkins to add green colour to her mint-choc ice cream. “Modern Traditions is about taking cues from what was traditionally enjoyed and giving it a modern translation because how delicious is it to actually introduce somebody to pumpkin leaf through ice cream?”
Beyond what the brand farms itself, other ingredients are also sourced with care and integrity. The majority of the marula nuts are sustainably sourced and come from a community of women in Venda, who crack them for Nelwamondo.
...how delicious is it to introduce somebody to pumpkin leaf through ice cream?
One of the Modern Traditions staff members, Phumudzo Munyai, explains that because the women are being paid directly, she can see it has a great positive impact on them: “They’re doing a fine job and they're so happy.”
When Munyai was first sent to collect marula nuts she was surprised, because she had grown up in that area eating the nuts but had not thought of it in the healthy, delicious way Nelwamondo does. Now she praises the brand and jokes that she has to hold herself back from overindulging when they are testing new ice-cream flavours.
Nelwamondo’s work is doing a lot of different things at the same time, but at the core it is proudly appreciative of the source and tradition of African food. “This is Africa fierce,” she says. “It is okay to be proud of where you're from and it's also strengthening an inheritance for the generations to come, because this is integrating or reintegrating Africa, putting back African food on its people's table first, because it doesn't help us to actually go out and have everything exported, and people enjoy what we have in Africa, whilst we haven't really appreciated it.”
She explains that African flavours are bold and bossy while being warm and hearty. For her, this is a taste that should be enjoyed deeply and widely. “I can't wait for this to be a revolution,” she says. “It's just a matter of time – there's no way such deliciousness can just stay in Jo’burg in Africa. This is gonna take the world!”
Dr Tracy Nelwamondo is the owner of Modern Traditions, a brand that sells healthy and delicious food based on South African traditions and raw ingredients. She is also a GP who qualified at Wits. The business sells to various shops around Johannesburg and directly to customers online and at markets.