Heritage Month: Chef Mokgadi Itsweng’s tips on cooking with impepho

Chef Mokgadi Itsweng. Picture: Supplied

Chef Mokgadi Itsweng. Picture: Supplied

Published Sep 2, 2022


Let us talk about impepho and its use in the kitchen!

If you are not familiar with impepho, it is a traditionally important indigenous herb, perhaps best known as a ritual incense used during healing ceremonies. It has many uses - as an antiseptic, insecticide, anti-inflammatory, and pain reliever.

The parts of the plant used are mainly the leaves, stems, flowers, and sometimes the roots.

As much as it is popularly known to be used during healing ceremonies, food activist, chef, gardener, and cookbook author Mokgadi Itsweng has taken things top notch and has introduced them into her kitchen.

Born in Durban and growing up in Mamelodi north of Pretoria, Itsweng has always been exposed to food.

Her maternal grandmother worked as a cook at a hotel in Durban and her paternal grandmother was a subsistence farmer and grew a lot of food.

Itsweng said what makes her unique is that she is a very conscious chef. Everything that she does she thinks about and she consciously puts it together and curates things that are relevant, applicable and authentic to her.

“Cooking is not just the only thing that I do around food, but I also work in sustainability. I studied sustainability and I am very much part of the big global network of chefs that talk and fight for sustainability and locality.

“’I am very aware and conscious about what I put on my plate, that it needs to be sustainable but also good for the planet so that is what sets me apart from other people,” she said.

Itsweng said cooking with impepho is something new in that we as Africans are only waking up to indigenous things and food now.

“Impepho has always been there but it is new in that we are reviving it or we are finally acknowledging this indigenous knowledge system and using it within our kitchens as chefs, and healing as people.

“For the first time, impepho has become something we are not ashamed of and that we can claim. The flavour of impepho in food is amazing. It brings an incredible, very earthy but smokey taste. I use it a lot when I smoke vegetables and it brings such a beautiful flavour to the vegetables.

“You need to play around with it to really get the flavour but it is deep, earthy, herby but delicious. It just transforms anything that you cook with it into something that is very special,” she said.

Impepho smoked cauliflower with red pepper sauce


1 whole cauliflower head

A handful of dried impepho herb, for smoking the cauliflower

1 garlic clove, crushed

¼ cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

For the sauce

2 red peppers, left whole

2 tbsp olive oil

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 tbsp smoked paprika

¼ cup lemon juice

1 tbsp brown sugar

Salt and pepper to taste

A handful of fresh parsley or thyme, chopped


Preheat the oven to 200°C.

Bring a saucepan of water with 1 teaspoon salt to a boil, then add the cauliflower head. Cook for 10 minutes, then drain and set aside.

Smoke the cauliflower by placing a hot charcoal disk inside a small foil container, then adding a handful of dried impepho herb. When the impepho starts smoking, place it inside a kettle braai with the cauliflower. Close the kettle braai lid and allow to smoke for at least 10-15 minutes. Remove from the kettle braai and set aside.

Quick hack: Use your oven as a smoker. Place the impepho on an oven tray, light it, and when it starts to smoke place the tray on the bottom rack of the oven. Then place the cauliflower on the rack directly above the impepho. Close the oven and allow to smoke for 5-10 minutes.

Mix the garlic with the olive oil and brush over the whole cauliflower. Season with salt and pepper. Place on a baking tray and roast in the preheated oven for 30 minutes until crisp on the outside.

While the cauliflower is roasting, make the sauce by first roasting the peppers in the oven until the skins are blackened.

Remove the peppers from the oven and place them in a bowl, cover with cling wrap and allow to cool for 10 minutes.

Once cooled, peel the skins off and blend the peppers, then set aside.

Heat the oil, then add the garlic and paprika, and cook for 2 minutes on medium heat. Add the blended peppers and cook for 5 minutes, stirring continuously to ensure that the sauce doesn’t stick and burn.

Add the lemon juice and brown sugar, cook for a further 2 minutes, then season with salt and pepper.

To serve, slice the cauliflower into steaks or leave it whole, then place it on a platter. Pour the sauce over the cauliflower and top with chopped herbs.

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