Zinyusile Khumbula (Zi) was born in Zimbabwe and spent some of his childhood in South Africa. He moved to the United States in September 2009 and been a resident of Harlem since 2014 where he has launched New York’s First Pop Up African Taqueria, Taco Africana. Zi’s daily inspiration is the mission of sharing Ubuntu (humanity to others) through food and fellowship. With his Tacos, Zi aims to create unique dining experiences that become a comfortable space. Allowing people from all walks of life to come together and share their backgrounds, cultures, life experiences and authentically delicious food!
“My dream is to continue building on the work Nelson Mandela started in South Africa and spread it all over the world,” he says. “We host intimate moments that drive people to talk and get to know each other while breaking bread. Our catering niche is African Fusion Cuisine. We specialize in cooking traditional and authentic dishes that incorporate ingredients and techniques from other cultures. Think tacos, shrimp & grits, street sandwiches and chicken and waffles with a flavorful African flare.”
Resource mentioned: New York African Restaurant Week
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Intro : Yo! Welcome to the party! Hello! Makadini. Salibonani. My name is Vongai and you’re listening to ZimExcellence, a weekly celebration of Zimbabwe’s changemakers and trailblazers. So here’s the secret y’all Zimbabweans are actually DOPE AF and it’s just time that we recognize it. So grab yourself a plate of sadza, grab that Stoney ginger beer and let the party begin!
Vongai: Welcome to another episode of ZimExcellence. Today my guest is a self-taught chef who discovered his passion for cooking and food at a very tender age, his grandmother laid the foundation for his skills. With help from careers through culinary arts program CCAP, he was able to enroll in the hospitality management program at the Institute of Culinary Education. His education is from YouTube and Google. Throughout his education, he began to curate meals that became uniquely memorable and culturally driven experiences that reflect not only his expertise in the kitchen, but also the flavors, textures, colors, and beauty of Africa. His dream is to continue building on the work Nelson Mandela started in South Africa and spread it all around the world. He says, We host intimate moments that drive people to talk and get to know each other while breaking bread. Our catering niche is Afro fusion cuisine. We specialize in cooking traditional and authentic dishes that incorporate ingredients and techniques from other cultures. Think tacos, shrimps and grits, street sandwiches, chicken and waffles with a flavorful African flair. Please welcome Zi Khumbula.
Zi: Wow. As they say in Zimbabwe. [ululates]
Vongai: I love that so much. Fun fact, I totally forgot to ask you in the beginning, but how do you say your full name?
Zi: Full Name is Zee-News-sill-ay. (Zinyusile)
Vongai: That's what I thought. But I was like, if I butcher it live, there's, there's no going back. So turns out you live only a couple of avenues away from where I live in Harlem, the restaurant’s in East Harlem. And this is where we actually taka pesana, you used to work at Madiba?
Zi: I did. I did.
Vongai: This whole time. So this whole time when I was craving boerwors, or whatever from home, I should have just been stopping by your house. And then you would have had the hook up. This whole time. I am mad. Well, I'm glad we're here now. So I want to play a game. It is a new question that I have for the podcast. You're the first person ever that I'm unveiling this game with. Saka (so) you are at the function right? You're at the the event, the wedding, the baby shower, whatever, you know, you know how us Zimbabweans do and there's chikafu (food) on the side. There's food. So in the kind of buffet or like when you're getting the food, what are you putting on your plate? It's like all the Zimbabwean things you could possibly want at the function. What are you putting on your plate?
Zi: That’s a tricky one. Wow. Such a tricky one.
Vongai: I said I want to test this question on you. Cos you’re the food guy.
Zi: Wow. And I thought I did my homework by listening to this podcast.
Vongai: Nope. Switch up. Skrrt skrrt.
Zi: So definitely rice. I mean, it can’t be a party, can’t be Christmas if rice is not there.
Vongai: Is it white or brown rice?
Vongai: I'm Brown. I like brown rice nedovi/with peanut butter.
Vongai: Oh, yeah. The way my mom does it is like A-1.
Zi: Wow. I have to try it. I have to try it.. But definitely the rice, chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, beets.
Vongai: I can't do coleslaw.
Vongai: Coleslaw. I feel like it's because it's everywhere. I just get tired of it. I’m like ‘Umm coleslaw again.’
Zi: You’ve got to find someone who makes it really good.
Vongai: That's what my godmother says. So I used to hate the potato salad and my godmother said to me, no, you just haven’t. It's so funny because she listens to this podcast. So she's gonna hear this and think what? She's like, No, you haven't tried it the right way. And then she made it for me and I loved it. So okay, what else is on the plate and you have to choose your drink. Don't forget and by drink ma Coca Cola like fizzy drinks, soft drinks, soda pop.
Zi: Ini ndoda dhoro. (me I like beer)
Vongai: Oh, oh gosh. Apologies to the children who listened to this skipping Okay, what? What else is on your plate?
Zi: I'm thinking goat meat, definitely some goat meat. The beef stew that they make back home is really nice. If I feel like being, for lack of a better word. And not necessarily ratchet, but if I feel like being at home, pap/isitshwala/sadza ne muriwo (cornmeal with vegetables) or braai meat for sure.
Vongai: BBQ yeah.
Zi: Yeah, like I will there for that. And then for drinks for a very long time I loved Coca-Cola but the way the Sprite hits the back of your throat is like. that's it for me.
Vongai: To me as a child for some reason, I was like, This is the lemonade of all the soft drinks. It just hits it's not too harsh like Coke. It's not too like fruity like Fanta, but mind you I don't really drink soda anymore. The only thing I drink is ginger beer or ginger ale. Yeah, because of the ginger. Yes, Stoney is my go to.
Zi: Yeah. Can’t forget the Cherry Plum though by Spar-Letta.
Vongai: Yeah, yeah. One of my previous guests Nyasha Matanda brought that up. She's like, how dare you ask me to choose.
Zi: Yeah. Even Schweppes Lemon. Oh my gosh.
Vongai: So you've done your homework. I always like to begin with origin story, right? You know this. I know this. The listeners know this. So that means I'd love for you to share a bit about how you got from point A to point B because you were born in Mzilikazi, Bulawayo? Yes. And now you live in Harlem, New York. Oh, so please set the scene for us.
Zi: Ah, rewind, rewind, rewind. I was born and raised in Zimbabwe, my dad naturalized to be a South African. So I spent a lot of time in between Zimbabwe and South Africa. As I got older, I had my teenage years of boyhood and I became a little rebellious. My grandma was getting older, so she couldn't really keep up and take care of me the way she used to. So around that time, my mom had remarried and moved over to the United States. So it only made sense that I also travel here and join her. So that's how I left the motherland to come here.
Vongai: And then how did we get to to the cooking? what's what's that bit in the middle of cooking?
Zi: Cooking? Oh wow. Cooking is such an interesting story, because I'm sure some of you guys have said this or any other African that, you know, has said this. When you come from Africa it’s either you’re a doctor, you're a lawyer, you're an engineer, or you're an accountant, or you're nothing. So I came here did very well in high school, I got into Pace University for accounting. I was trying to get a CPA. I did about two years, then I realized, Hey, this is this is really not for me. So I dropped out. And I got into retail. When I was working retail I used to cook at home and bring food for my coworkers. And one day coworker of mine says I'm having a small rooftop party you should come and sell your food there. At that point, I had never sold food in my life. I didn't even know what to do. But I was like, You know what, let's do it. This is a good opportunity. Let's try it out and see what happens. Like, the worst thing that could happen is that people don't like the food. So I commit and I do the event. It’s at a really nice rooftop in Bushwick. 300 people show up and Jidenna was like one of the main performers there. He did a really good live performance before he even came out as Jidenna. And I made more money on that one day than I make in three weeks at my regular retail job. So that became the aha moment like okay, so maybe I can really make a living out of this. And from then I take it very seriously.
Vongai: That's so awesome. That's dope.org as I like to say, my aunt did bring up because I said to her Oh, what questions do you have? For this guy? He used to cook at Madiba and she's like, what he used to cook at Madiba? What? How did we not meet him? Anyway, she was just like, you know, in our culture, there's always been cooking, you know, we eat , we cook and for large events, Christmas weddings, all the things but like, traditionally, in our culture, it's like, the woman cooks and the man just sits down and waits for the meal to arrive. So in a way, you know, you're kind of like flipping, I guess the idea of, of like cooking and, and in our culture, there isn't really someone who's like a chef. It's usually the person who's like cleaning the place or something. So in your own way, you're, you're paving the way for a lot of people on how they can re-imagine being part of hospitality and the food industry as well.
Zi: Absolutely. And above and beyond that also. domestics like there's so many gender norms that Oh, the woman must clean, the woman must cook, the woman must. I mean, we're all human beings, it doesn't matter what you have down there or inside of you and I believe in equality. So being able to cook for other people, regardless of my gender, not only splits the labor in the household, but it's it's a way to share your feelings and show someone that you care for them regardless of being a man or woman. And I think more men should cook.
Vongai: Yes! I once dated a chef that's its own thing. So, so busy, we never saw each other. Anyway. He was Chilean-Spanish, the combination. Food! Anyway, let's take it back a little bit. So your grandmother helped you lay the foundation for your skills? What do you what do you mean by that? Like, how did you fall in love with food and cooking?
Zi: So I have medical condition, I’m asthmatic. I grew up in a very interesting time in Zimbabwe, where we were comfortable, but we were not well off. So we had to live life comfortably, but with certain limits. And one of those limits was medication. Because of my asthma I had to be constantly on medication and the things that exacerbated my asthma like being outdoors when it's like high pollen season or physically, like overworking my body will trigger an asthma attack. So my grandma had to find creative ways to keep me busy and keep me entertained. So she pulled me into the kitchen. And she started like teaching me how to cook, career-wise she was a domestic worker for white family in the suburbs. She'd come home and cook Western meals, but also remixed them with like African ingredients. So from like a tender age, I learned how to have that experience. And my palate was very expanded from that. But just being able to be in the kitchen and watch her put together really nice dishes inspired me. And there was a day when she wasn't feeling very well and she was unable to cook. So I got on the stove and then scrambled up some eggs. And this is very typical in Zimbabwe, like you scramble eggs with onions and tomatoes and eat that with bread, and a nice cup of tea. So I made that for her. And the reaction she gave me from that meal, it really fulfilled me and it made me happy. Just seeing that I was able to make her happy by just cooking is what laid the foundation for me to be able to do what I'm doing today.
Vongai : That is so beautiful. Were your parents, your folks, your mom, dad, any step parents supportive of you? Once he like dropped out of school, then
Zi: Ah, my mom was very supportive. My mom has always been supportive of anything I do. My dad was a little skeptical in the beginning. He’s like, ah you're gonna be a cook. Like, what is that gonna do? And it's still a little touchy. Because like, once in a while, I'll tell him I'm selling tacos. I'm making tacos. And he'll make fun of it. Like, oh, whatever, like tacos, tacos, tacos. And I'm like, Okay, watch when these tacos start bringing in the bag, I don't want to hear anything. There's still some of that like, because, again, we're stuck in these norms. And we think that the big jobs that the doctors, the accountants and so on. So I feel like he's still skeptical. He doesn't feel like I'd be able to live a very comfortable or make a decent living by cooking. So there's some convincing to do there.
Vongai: Yeah, because we are afraid of what we don't know. And so because we're having that conversation now, we probably don't have enough conversations in Zimbabwe about what it means to be a chef and that like looking on it as a viable career path or something that's positive and something that's good and something that isn't seen as either a luxury or just entertainment or just a hobby, you know. So before we jump into the tacos, I have to ask you about your brand. So you go by Zi From Africa, and you introduce yourself as Zi from Africa. As someone whose mission is to constantly remind non-Africans, especially white people that Africa is not a country, it is a continent. I have to ask you about this… Zi from Africa, why Zi from Africa and not Zi from Southern Africa, Zi from South Africa, Zi from Zimbabwe.
Zi: That's very interesting. I thought about that before. But-ah it got annoying because I used to work in hotels and I found this name when I was working in the hotels, because people would walk up to check in on the desk and they see the dreadlocks. They hear what they think is an accent. And automatically, so where are you from? Where are you from, and then one day I got fed up, I'm like, Hi, I’m Zi. I'm from Africa. [laughter] And it’s that quick.
Vongai: I'm from Africa. Darn it. [laughter] That’s hilarious.
Zi: So after a while, I just reflected on that. And I realized that as much as I am from Bulawayo, as much as I am from Zimbabwe, I'm more from Africa as a whole because I am in love with like all of Africa. I love how loud and colorful the west side of Africa is. I love how chill, calm and hospitable the south side of Africa is.
Vongai: Yes, representing Southern Africa. Southern Africa is the best y'all don't listen about this west or this east or this north. Southern Africa. Okay, keep going.
Zi: I feel like I have a little bit of each part of Africa in me. And outside of all that I think Africa is one where like Zimbabwe, South Africa, Benin, Nigeria. We're all like our own separate people but together, it's just one Africa and like to represent all of that.
Vongai: That's dope. I really dig that because I'm big on multiculturalism. And at the end of the day, we're all from the same planet. We're all one world. We're all one people. So I totally dig that. But reminder, white people, Africa is not a country. Thank you. You got to let them know. You gotta remind them. All right. So Taco Africana. So first, this is a two-parter. Why tacos? And when was the first time you tasted a taco?
Zi: All credit goes to Madiba. Like Madiba for those of you don't know. Madiba was a South African restaurant in New York for 18+ years. Was started by a good friend of mine, Mark Hannigan, who specialized in South African food and unfortunately closed his doors a couple of years ago.
Zi: He has started a new project. He is in North Carolina, in Asheville. It's a place called The Bush if you ever out there check them out.
Zi: But going back to topic, tacos. I first ate tacos while working at Madiba because New York City as much as the restaurants are Italian as much as they are French as much as they are African people running those kitchens are Mexicans, the blood, the sweat, the heat, the plating. Everything behind is usually usually usually Mexicans. And that was the case at Madiba. The staff- um the back of house staff was Mexican. So for family meal they’d make different things. And the first time I ate a taco was from a Mexican chef at Madiba, and I fell in love with it. And we started exchanging recipes here and there. They'll teach me some stuff or I’ll teach them some stuff from back home. And when Madiba closed, I was working on my own project. I was making South African catering and events I specialized in South African food but with a modern twist. Quarter life crisis hits and I'm like, What am I doing with my life? I'm working on culinary. I'm doing Southern African food. But the problem is South Africa is this little piece of Africa at the bottom. But there's the whole like going back to Zi from Africa is the whole of Africa. There's like 50 plus other countries. Why not do something that embodies all of that something that's Pan-African. And in addition, something that's very familiar to almost every palate in the world. Most people know what a taco is. And tacos are super approachable. It's hard and it's very difficult rather, for people who are skeptical about trying new cuisines, especially African cuisine, some of them think it's too spicy, it's too gooey, it's pungent. We could slow those people down and say, Hey, here's the same item, here are the same traditional ingredients, the same techniques, but in a different vessel in something that you're familiar with. We put a taco in their hand, most likely they'll put it in their mouth.
Vongai: Because everyone loves a taco. This is absolutely genius. So my mom and I absolutely love Food Network. I would have loved her to hop on this episode. But, you know, my mom is amazing. And she's currently securing in the bag. She doesn't know what that means. I'm gonna explain it to her when she listens to us. It's gonna be like, what, what did you say to her anyway, she's securing the bag. But we, we watched a lot of food shows, and I think we were watching. I think it was like the Great Food Truck Race. And at one point, they couldn't get their cooker to work. And it was like the Irish team, the Irish American team. So instead of making whatever they're gonna make with the potatoes, they're like, Oh, we can we can make a taco salad thing. And I was like, What? Like, they just kind of reframed it. And in the beginning, when they put put it up on the menu, people were really skeptical. And then they try it. And they're like, no, this is this really great. So it was basically like, it wasn't like a salad. But it was like, the meat with vegetables with something. And then they just called it a salad. And then you could have it in a taco if you wanted to. It's like the taco salad, something something and then they were able to sell something. Yeah. So I think it's a genius that you've made it. You've made African food more approachable for people who are skeptical because like, well, confession, I'm skeptical of trying new foods. So yeah, I'm like, I'm a skeptic. I am very picky eater. And I also have like, food allergies and sensitivity things. So you telling me that it's a taco, and then I'm knowing what the ingredients are, I am going to be more likely to have it. And plus, again, who doesn't like a taco? I don't think I've ever met someone who doesn't like a taco. I prefer burritos. But like tacos are more, I guess, accessible for people because it's like less to hold and to work with and all of that stuff. Gonna say a quick shout out to Nontsi, who's popped up on our Instagram she waved. So I just want to say hello back if she's still on. So I watched your TED talk that you did at Drew University because I'm a detective and I do my homework. And you said something really interesting that not only made the people at the university laugh, but it made me cackle as I was doing my homework. You said, try African food. Try food from other cultures. But African food is better. And I cackled out laughing like yes. So I love that you're on this mission with spreading the cuisine of Africa out there, and what better city than New York? But I think it's through food, that you also are doing this powerful thing of helping change people's minds on how they see Africa and our different cultures.
Zi: That’s deep.
Vongai: Wait, you didn't think you're doing this?
Vongai: I mean, you literally put it in the bio you said it's your you want to host intimate moments that drive people to talk and get to know each other while breaking bread. That's African culture.
Zi: Yeah, the way you've packaged it. It's way bigger than I imagined it to be. It’s beautiful to hear that.
Vongai: It is it is bigger than that. And there's something like memories and senses and moments that come from a meal that maybe it's in the middle of that meal. I don't know a big life something happened. Big life moment happens. And then you can think oh, yeah, that time when I was at Taco Africana. And I had that, Oh, I remember that. That was such a good day. And those, those flavors come back? How does it feel, practicing your culture and then also spreading these different cultures, outside of being an African, outside of being in Zimbabwe?
Zi: Two things. First and foremost, it's a beautiful feeling. I'm happy to be able to share with Americans and people from outside of Africa in general, a bit of how I lived in Africa. A bit of how Africans live where I come from. In my like text messages and emails instead of Hello, I say Sabona because that's how I was raised and you're going to learn a little bit about my culture, whether you like it or not, I'm gonna stick it in there because it's who I am. It's where I'm from, and I feel like sharing that story. It's a silent but very diligent battle against stereotypes. It's re-educating people and actually exposing people to the truth because media has portrayed Africa and third world countries to be very less off and very like filled with poverty and starvation and all this negative stuff. While that may be true, nonetheless, we have culture, we have humanity, we have Ubuntu to like. You know, you wake up in the neighborhood, I grew up in, in Mzilikazi and people are literally just eating three meals a day of sadza which is cornmeal, and collard greens. And that's all they have. But they wake up, they greet each other, they smile at each other. They discipline each other's kids, it's a community. And you come to New York, where it's changing now. But when I came here, seven years ago, you couldn't knock on your neighbor's door and knock and someone would say, Excuse My French, but what the EFF Do you want? You know? I came from a place where you'd wake up in the morning and you say, Good morning to your neighbor, and then now coming here and not finding that I'm like, Okay, how do I cultivate this here so that when I have children, they're able to experience the beautiful life that I experienced in Zimbabwe, regardless of where they are. So bit by bit, I try to educate people about my culture. And the second part is that it's overwhelming. It's tiresome, sometimes it breaks you down. Sometimes it leaves you confused, because as much as I tried not to, I don't see race, racism exists. Race, like disparities exist, they're there, but I try not to see them. So I associate myself with people from all racial backgrounds or all ethnicities and stuff. But every once in a while, I was talking to my therapist about this, you find that certain races have micro-aggressions. They may or they may not know this, but they have micro aggressions. And these micro aggressions they hinder the spirit, they hinder. It's a lot of work, and it actually breaks you down. So here I am trying to share my culture. I'm a very colorful person. I love colorful stuff. African stuff is very vibrant and colorful. I'll wear my pants and they're bright. And they’re this and they’re that. And some person from another race, most likely a Caucasian person will say, hey, crazy pants. And to them it's funny. It's like oh, it's like, you know, it's like just a little jab. Like hey crazy pants! It's deeper than that. It's like very micro aggressive.
Vongai: And yeah, that's offensive.
Zi: It's it's hard to deal with those things. But at the same time, I'm really diligent in the battle, and I want to continue sharing my culture.