The real Ina Paarman: not just a name on a spice jar

There are people who think Ina Paarman is a name on a spice jar but she’s a very real human. Here’s a great current article on an iconic name in SA food, both culinary and in the FMCG arena.

From cooking lessons in a converted garage in the 80s to a family business making nearly 200 products exported to more than 30 countries, Ina Paarman is a living legend and an inspiration to home cooks all over South Africa.

Who can imagine a world without Ina Paarman? Certainly not me. Although there are those who, she told me, don’t realise she is a real live person and not just a brand name on all those products. We had a little chuckle about it and then I went to fetch a friend to have lunch.

“Sorry I’m late,” I said. “I’ve just come from interviewing Ina Paarman and she’s so lovely I could have stayed all day.”

“What?” he said. “Ina Paarman is real?”

So there you go. Yes, she most certainly is. Tiny to be sure, but proper flesh and blood. When I arrive at her kitchen in Constantia, she is ready for me: stylishly dressed, perfectly applied makeup on porcelain skin, hair just so. She offers me something to drink and we sit down to chat.

Photo: Micky Hoyle

Paarman is old school charming and gracious, speaking slowly and carefully, clearly used to telling her story. She often gets asked for it, so she decided to record it in her latest cookbook, My Favourite Recipes, due out any day now depending on the Transnet strike, fingers crossed.

She claims it is her “swan song”. Really, I asked? 

“It’s actually my son Graham who is in business with me, who is my boss, and he said ‘you’d better do a decent cookbook, that is your swan song’.

This is the dilemma of a family business – you can’t suddenly say ‘no, okay cheerio’; you’ve got to do your bit till the bitter end,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye and the greatest of love and affection. 

“But a proper cookbook well done is a hell of a job. We worked for a year on this thing,” she said.

Photography is by Micky Hoyle, a long way from the first book published in 1987 with line drawings done by the late artist Stanley Pinker when there was no money for colour photographs. A loan was taken out to fund that book.

Ina Paarman’s Real Food for Real People (1994, which I have) is also illustrated with drawings. Hoyle has included some of Pinker’s work in My Favourite Recipes as homage. Ina Paarman’s new book, which she says is her ‘swan song’.

“Then he took pictures of the dogs, which everybody’s mad about. I thought this was quite clever. I dedicated the book to the men in the family and my husband was a bacon and egg fanatic but the kind of person who got up from breakfast and said ‘what’s for supper?’,” said Paarman. 

“We incorporated the garden into the book. I’m passionate about people using things that are in season. They want to use apricots in the middle of winter. It doesn’t work that way.”

The book offers a guide to what to use when. 

“People often say to me, Ina you’ve had such… they perceive it as an interesting life, they don’t know how hard I’ve worked… but tell us a bit more about how everything started. So this is a good opportunity to get that out there.” 

“But if you know the rent is to be paid you get off your arse.”Ina Paarman

Paarman’s favourite recipes are both old and new. “A lot of this food is perhaps old fashioned South African food, nothing to do with air fryers or microwaves or whatever,” she said.

“For instance, the chicken liver pâté – my mother gave me a trip to a cookery school in France many years ago and this recipe I got there. I think recipes are all about memories… you remember a good meal or nice people or a successful dish.” 

As I get older I find myself increasingly nostalgic for the food of my childhood, and wondered what Paarman thought about that.

“I call it real food, food that often takes time,” said Paarman. “It’s quite difficult – my son, he’s a good cook but he wants it done quickly. I like to fiddle and take my time. Most of us who cook improvise as we go. I don’t really follow recipes – except in baking.”

For every one of us who does cook, sometimes we forget there are 10 who don’t know how. Paarman has included some step by step instructions with photographs in this book too.

“I started my career as a teacher, you never stop teaching,” she said.

Her recipes are among the simplest, easiest and most straightforward I know. In case it’s not obvious, I’m a long time fan – I’ve used her products for years (this is not a punt, it’s a fact), and I subscribe to her email newsletter. Plus there are more recipes on Facebook.

I’m also not ashamed to say I make the junior recipes too. The cauliflower soup is amazing, and everyone needs a good crunchie recipe.

With close to 200 products, in all the supermarkets in South Africa as well as exported to more than 30 countries, I appreciate what the Paarmans do for me to make my life easier.

Yes, I can make my own real chicken stock, but sometimes I just couldn’t be bothered. Here’s the sachet, made the same way, with real bones and vegetables, and reduced to a concentrate. Fun fact which I did not know: the stock powders are vegetarian, with beef and chicken flavouring. They’re also gluten-free, as are many of the products.

“We’ve been very blessed in the sense that we were on the forefront of no MSG, no preservatives and so on. Kevin was very allergic as a child and I was mindful that there must be others with the same problem,” said Paarman…. Read the full article here

Main pic: Ina Paarman in her garden in Constantia. (Photo: Micky Hoyle)