‘It took a lot of failures to get here’ – Mmule Setati on finally launching a cookbook for her tribe

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Mmule Setati says having a cookbook under her name still feels surreal.
Mmule Setati says having a cookbook under her name still feels surreal.
Keamogetswe Matlala

She remembers rushing back home from school at the age of 12 to watch Jamie Oliver’s cooking show while indulging in a crusty tuna sandwich.

Living with her grandparents in a West Rand township in Johannesburg called Mohlakeng, the young Mmule Setati found the greatest joy in watching her grandmother cook up a storm.

The storm would draw neighbours and relatives from far and near to their home on Sundays when her grandmother Stella would make it a point to feed her tribe.

For Mmule, this was the highlight of each week – a packed home filled with love in the name of food.

On any other day, mornings smelled like Ting; the Setswana version of sour porridge which she would have on the porch waiting for transport to go to school.

Although it all started with baking goodies, cooking food featured extensively in her life. By watching her grandmother cook because she wasn’t allowed to get anywhere near the pots, Mmule ended up finding her feet in the kitchen and making the most of the days when her grandmother would be tired.

Little did she know that it was seed and that food would be her biggest love language.

“Looking back, I remain wonderstruck by her ability to create a winning meal seven days a week,” Mmule says in the foreword of her new cookbook.

The author’s first foot in the door was with a fruit juice business which couldn’t stay afloat during the Covid-19 lockdown.

When she shut the business doors after three years of operations in July 2020, she says she felt like a failure.

“When I lost my juice business, I couldn’t get my head out of it. It was like losing a baby. I went through a phase of doubting myself, doubting my abilities. I had personalised my business so much because I put so much effort and love into it that when I lost it, it felt like I was a huge failure.”

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Discouraged and heartbroken as she was, the mother of two went to her life coach to try and figure out what would be next for her.

To her surprise, her life coach pointed out food to be a consistent feature in her life and that her destiny could be laying there.

After the two sessions together, cooking classes and a cookbook was next.

“She kept me accountable, she gave me dates, she’s like ‘we’re doing it and we’re doing it now!’.

Their five-year plan included having a cookbook and it all happened within two years.

At the time, she already had an Instagram page called ‘Feed My Tribe’ which demonstrates “how to make the whole family can enjoy, without having to cook separately for the kids”.

“I aimed to highlight tasty, quick meals for moms and dads who were terrified of the kitchen, as well as for couples who wanted to impress their significant others.”

What she never anticipated though was for her platform and food pursuits to be a place of healing not only for herself but the followers she had aggregated.

At the Houghton hotel penthouse where her book launch was taking place, she tells Drum that her meals have mended broken marriages, made mothers’ lives easier and created intimate memories for people.

Some of the women whose lives have been impacted by Mmule’s cooking were in attendance at the event.

Sharing her journey with Feed My Tribe, Gloria Dhlamini-Liebenberg says, “It’s lockdown, we can’t go to Nandos. It’s very frustrating in my home because we are big fans of Nandos. I bump into Mmule’s page. Feed my tribe has fed my tribe so many times in my home so this one time, Mmule comes up with a Nandos recipe. Listen, did I not go in! Everyone was so excited.”

Gloria adds that Mmule has taught her to involve his kids in the kitchen.

“I’m raising boys so there’s no gender-specific roles in my house where we say to each other ‘boys can’t cook’. My boys cook with me, it’s a place of solace as well. We find that we talk a lot in the kitchen, we enjoy what we want to eat. You’ve added so much love in our homes,” she adds.

Right next to Gloria, Youtuber and content creator, Katlego Mallela stands up to share her own testimony.

“I don’t have a child, but I love to cook. I finally found someone who can cook and not just the special [meals], the food that has nostalgia, the food that has Mama, Papa. Outside of that, it’s just food that brings a sense of home and for that, I appreciate. Even me as a person who lives alone but loves to cook, I like to find recipes that I can identify with and because of you, I identify.”

Host of the launch and public figure, Olwethu Leshabane also says, “I feel like a masterchef in my house because of the pumpkin flatbread [that she taught me].”

In the instance of Mmule, food brought healing after an incident that sent her younger son to hospital.

She vulnerably says, “Just before lockdown in 2019, I had just given birth to my second son. I was going through the worst period of my marriage, nothing made sense. The kid didn’t make sense, the marriage didn’t make sense, the business didn’t make sense.”

“In the first six months, I was suffering from the worst postpartum depression. I went to two therapists – the first therapist put me on anti-depressants after our first meeting which is very difficult to process.”

In December, the evening after her wedding anniversary, Mmule danced her infant son to sleep. Upon being woken up by him crying at around 5am, she took him to the kitchen, placed him on the counter and turned around to prepare his bottle.

When she turned back around, her son was falling backwards after which he cried. The drowsy mother didn’t think much into it until two hours later when she grew worried over him because he hadn’t woken up yet.

Even after confirming his pulse, her motherly instincts were adamant that something was wrong and it was indeed wrong because when they got to the hospital, her and her husband were told that their son had a subdural hemotama.

“He was bleeding in the brain. His brain had cracked from the fore, the skull had cracked open, and the blood was flowing. It was just before Christmas and by the grace of God, the best doctors in South Africa, were not on holiday,” she shares her story with ladies in attendance.

“I remember standing in the doctor’s room and they said, ‘look, we can save him, but he might not be able to talk, walk, he might need extra care’ and we just broke down.”

Three months later, covid hit and brought with it another layer of worry. Because the now nine-months-old wasn’t speaking, Mmule was worried about him possibly having comorbidities which could place him at greater risk of contracting the deadly virus.

At the time Mmule had been avoiding the kitchen because of the incident and was even losing weight but surprisingly enough, fought herself to confront the pain when the country went into lockdown.

“We went into lockdown and the first thing I did, I remember, was cook. [I told myself that] ‘I’m about to lose my business [because] I could see where it’s going, I don’t know if I’m going to lose my child so let me cook; let me take out my frustrations on something that I love. And I spent the next six months just cooking.”

She became the go-to for recipes for her followers on social media and although they didn’t know what she was going through, the warm reception and positive feedback healed her.

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Looking back at how far she’s come, the bubbly young mother acknowledges that she had go through the hardships, to appreciate the success of her book launch which still felt surreal after the celebration.

When she started the book-writing process, young, sophisticated mothers who have their grove on and careers on demand was who she had in mind.

In putting the book together, she amalgamated food, love and travel.

Talking about the unique book cover at the launch, she says, “I wanted to show what women actually look like [and not] what is portrayed in the media. We’re not standing in front of the oven or pot smiling; we want to be part of the actual tribe.”

Instead of the typical sweaty cook wearing an apron when hosting events at her house, Mmule wanted to show that one can be sexy while cooking so that they too enjoy and look good on the occasion.

The book has seven different chapters that range from lazy breakfast meals, sexy salads for fitness bunnies, quick meals for kids, date night meals to share with a lover and kids by extension to home-cooked favourites, festive treats for when one is hosting friends and family as well as drinks and dessert.

When cooking away, Mmule encourages the involvement of children in the process as a way of bonding but also because she believes that when they are involved, little ones are likely to enjoy the dishes more.

Like a guide through one’s way to the stomach, the Feed My Tribe cookbook simply breaks down meal recipes into digestible chunks and is available at all book shops and Takealot.

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