Parusha Naidoo’s cookbook builds community

Least Effort Most Reward contains 21 beautifully illustrated plant-based recipes to inspire you to cook easily for yourself and to share meals with others.

Parusha Naidoo’s cookbook is a fascinating newcomer to the South African scene. Her food philosophies and the curation of her recipes are not mainstream but are conscious of the times, the inherent power dynamics of the European (and male) dominated world of recipe books and gendered roles in the kitchen, while also offering an answer to these issues. 

Harnessing all her creativity in one project – having done all the illustrations and design herself – Naidoo presents us with 21 colourful and beautifully illustrated plant-based Afro-Asian recipes in Least Effort Most Reward. The dishes are easy and delicious, and made with accessible ingredients. 

Her chilli noodles deliver high-impact flavour but take only five minutes to make and Naidoo’s recipe for muriwo unedovi, a Zimbabwean dish of leafy greens cooked in peanut butter, uses just four ingredients and takes about 10 minutes to make. If you have a little more time and are looking for comfort, you can cook something like the aloo fry, which feels like “a hug from the inside and soothes the need for real, human hugs in a time when being held can be so scarce, inaccessible, dangerous and even banned.” The book was created as respite from the Covid-19 pandemic, when money might be short, energy low and time limited. 

What is unique about this cookbook is that it emphasises eating together and how sharing a meal heals, creates and strengthens community. By choosing simple, flavourful meals that can be made in generous portions – langsouskos-style dishes – the focus is on sharing meals alongside the cooking. “Less time in the kitchen, more time at the table,” writes Naidoo.

For those who cook for a group or their community, Naidoo wants you to have a stress-free experience. Cooks can improvise using what they have and not worry about strict measurements. Many of the recipes do not have rigid rules or ingredients and provide a good basis for understanding the core concept of a dish. Her 3 + 3 curry, for example, is an easy way to remember how to make any curry dish by providing the foundation of how to get started. 

Finding healing through food  

While she enjoyed being in the kitchen growing up, when Naidoo started to realise the sexist nature of the role of cooking in many households, she resisted it. “At gatherings, men seemed to have carefree fun – talking, drinking and watching sport – while women sweated over hot stoves, ran after children and then did all the cleaning up.” It wasn’t until she was in her 20s and sharing a home with six other young women, where they’d spend time cooking for each other and enjoying meals together, that she came back to the idea of cooking. “They unknowingly helped me to unpack my ideas about being an empowered woman and cooking. It was not something to do to please or serve men, but something to do if you simply enjoy eating.”

Through the years, food became a passion, especially since becoming vegan and being unsatisfied with the vegan food options and recipes available at the time. She started experimenting with different recipes and opened a South African vegan pop-up dining experience in Berlin, Germany, where she was living at the time, using the concept of “desegregating the plate”, or trying to include as many cultures as possible on one plate. Naidoo comes from generations of progressives: her grandfather is celebrated writer Ronnie Govender and her mother is feminist and political activist Pregs Govender.

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The recipes Naidoo has chosen show the complexities of her identity as an Afro-Asian person. Her family heritage is Indian and Burmese, spanning six generations in South Africa. As somebody who has spent time living abroad, her identity as a South African Indian has bewildered people. She found that it is not well known that there are large Indian historical communities across Africa. She hopes that her cookbook will increase people’s awareness of this global diaspora and community. 

One recipe, for a healing broth named russum, made with things like tumeric, garlic, onion and tamarind, honours both her grandmothers in different ways. “My grandmother Sanna (whose full name is Sakunthala) said I had to include russum in the cookbook. My other grandmother Kay (or Kamalam) used to always serve this to us, her grandchildren, when winter hit Durban. We drank russum and inhaled sambrani (a frankincense-type of incense) to clear out our lungs. It’s one of the practices that connects me to my ancestors so this recipe is dedicated to my grandmothers and everyone who has come before me.” 

Building Afro-Asian solidarity 

While she includes family recipes that reflect her Indian heritage, Naidoo makes a point of not focusing on that alone but also including recipes from across Africa. These recipes reflect the community she has built and grown up with, and the cuisines she wants to learn more and share her knowledge about. 

In the early days of the pandemic, she embarked on a virtual journey through Asia and Africa – shared online – “visiting” a new country each week and learning about different African and Asian cultures and making their dishes. As cultures with many vegan dishes or dishes with the potential to be “veganised”, these regions offer flavour and variety for people who are trying to eat plant-based meals. Through this experience, she learned many new dishes, which expanded her world of food influences in her own kitchen. 

“I feel like there isn’t much knowledge about other parts of Africa, and even from within South Africa, there isn’t a lot of knowledge of foods that aren’t part of your cultural group”, she says, resisting entrenched and historic cultural divisions. It became important to Naidoo to encourage others to expand their worlds as well.

By choosing to write about Afro-Asian identity, and not just South African Indian heritage, Naidoo hopes to promote solidarity and awareness about the ties that these two peoples and continents share. People from China, India, Indonesia, the Malay archipelago and other countries came or were brought to South Africa (and other parts of Africa) during colonialism, many as enslaved people or as indentured labourers. When racial tensions between Indian and African people flared last year during the unrest in Durban, Naidoo was reminded of the need to promote awareness about the historical links between the two communities, and how these divisions were created and historically fuelled, she says, “between workers from the days of the sugar cane plantations” as part of “divide and conquer” tactics employed to ensure that people wouldn’t come together to resist their oppressors. 

Food is one avenue in which one can see these ties, such as the shared practice of eating with hands or when looking at the Indian influence on East African and South African cuisine, as well as at how African cuisine has influenced India. For example, how okra (an African vegetable) became common in Indian cooking, the food traditions that South African Indians have adopted, such as eating pap or amasi, or in historical dishes like mielie rice.

As Naidoo says, food is a unifying way to come together and find connection. “If you can get to someone’s taste buds, it’s also a joyful way to have the discussion.” Looking outward towards each other seems to be the core of Naidoo’s project, and when it comes to finding connections across cultures, she wants to continue to promote knowledge and curiosity around food from all over the Global South, abundant with rich food cultures – not only because there are many similarities but also because there is so much to learn, together.

Find Parusha Naidoo on Instagram where you can see her 100 illustrations in 100 days project. Least Effort Most Reward is available on her website, where R50 of every copy sold is donated to FoodForward SA.

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