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Here's what Nelson Mandela ate on Christmas, according to his former chef

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In South Africa, Christmas is more about beach and barbeque than snow and eggnog. But what did the country's most famous figure like on his Christmas table? Reporter Kate Bartlett spoke to Nelson Mandela's former chef about South Africa's first democratically elected president and his love of food.

KATE BARTLETT, BYLINE: I'm at the house in Johannesburg that Nelson Mandela lived at while he was president. Now it's a luxury hotel where, for a price, you can sleep in the anti-apartheid icon's old bedroom. His chef of 22 years works here now and is preparing lunch in the kitchen, where onions are sizzling and she's recreating some of Madiba's favorite dishes.

XOLISWA NDOYIYA: Do you have any orders on your pastry sites today?

BARTLETT: Chef Xoliswa Ndoyiya says her late boss loved oxtail stew and his palate skewed towards traditional Xhosa fare.

NDOYIYA: Tata loved his stomach, but you must make sure that you was feeding him healthy. As long as you have been doing well and there is no oil whatsoever in his plate, then you are doing very well.

BARTLETT: He also loved a fermented milk dish so much that once, when he was on presidential business in London and craving the dish, Ndoyiya says she had to send it to him from South Africa by plane.

NDOYIYA: When he came back from the trip, that's when he told me that - you are going to go to prison because you smuggled food. And yeah, that was the joke of it.

BARTLETT: Mandela himself spent 27 years in prison for his fight against racist white rule. Many of his Christmases were in a cell on Robben Island. But after his release, the holiday was usually celebrated in his Eastern Cape village of Qunu and was always a feast.

NDOYIYA: We would have a turkey. We would have chicken and beefs and lamb and all that. It was a special Christmas every year for him because it was not only for him and his family, it was for his village because he used to have a Christmas for the children of the village.

BARTLETT: Mandela, who died this month 10 years ago, once recalled his own spartan childhood Christmases in an interview with Pieter-Dirk Uys in 1994.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NELSON MANDELA: I remember the Christmases that I had as a child, and it is the only time when we could have in the countryside sugar because tea and coffee were reserved for elderly people. But at Christmas, then they gave us, you know, some coffee and sugar.

BARTLETT: Chef Ndoyiya says she's keeping Mandela's favorite flavors alive, having recently published a cookbook of his best-loved recipes. Kate Bartlett, NPR News, Johannesburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kate Bartlett