Tender beef slow-cooked in spices makes this an addictive street food.
When it comes to taste, nothing is more vivid and powerful than the memories of a childhood favourite.
Evis Chirowamhangu, who grew up in a small village in Zimbabwe, still remembers the taste of tender spiced beef dripping with gravy seeping out of flaky, golden-brown pastry. One bite was all she would get because one hand-sized pie was all her mother could afford. It was divided between Chirowamhangu and her eight siblings.
“Meat pies hold a special place in every Zimbabwean’s heart,” says Chirowamhangu, 33, outside her Mnandi Pies stall at the Market 707 shipping container food court at Dundas St. W. and Bathurst Ave. “To me, meat pies were aspirational. My mom would get paid once a month and buy a meat pie and cut it up nine times so everyone could have a taste. I never got a whole one, but the taste stays with you.”
The bubbly cook closes her eyes, holds an imaginary piece of pie to her mouth and takes a bite. She could barely sit down when describing her perfect bite. Even after all these decades, she still gets giddy talking about it, especially this afternoon when a customer told her he’s originally from Zimbabwe and made the special trip here for a late lunch.
Chirowamhangu studied business commerce at the University of Zimbabwe, arriving in Toronto in 2005 as a refugee. She was excited to plant her roots in a new city, but craved those meat pies that are as ubiquitous on the streets of her hometown as hotdogs in Toronto.
“I was surprised that I couldn’t find it, but I also understood why,” she says. “It can be intimidating for an immigrant to showcase their food and be accepted. It’s usually inside people’s kitchens and it never comes out. I know so many people who make pies but they never really opened it up to the rest of Toronto.”
But after seeing the popularity of pop-ups like the Toronto Underground Market, a now-defunct food event that gave an outlet for home cooks to sell their food to the public, Chirowamhangu was confident that the rest of Toronto would enjoy meat pies as much as she did as a kid.
In 2012 Chirowamhangu set out to make her own pies, going by taste memories (and comparing tasting notes with her siblings) over a year of trial and error. Earlier this summer, she opened the stall, calling it Mnandi, which means “delicious” in Ndebele, a language spoken by tribes in Zimbabwe. The shop serves pies with fillings like chicken and mushroom, steak and onion and beef and kale. Each is slow-cooked to a tender spiced stew enveloped in a golden brown puff pastry that shatters with every bite. Not bad for a $6 lunch.
The key, she says, is getting the right blend of spices, called braai, used primarily in barbecues throughout southern African nations. It’s warm but not spicy, with a lean toward the savouriness of nutmeg and cloves with a tinge of savoury thyme, oregano and sage. It’s akin to a masala, which makes sense as Indians were brought over to southeast Africa by the British as indentured labourers in the 1800s (Zimbabwe was a British colony called Rhodesia until 1980).
“Food in southern Africa is actually very diverse,” says Chirowamhangu. “There’s the indigenous population and one of my favourite dishes is sadza, a thick cornmeal porridge eaten with stews. Biltong is cured meat that came from the Dutch when the Europeans came, along with the Chinese and Indians bringing curry. We incorporated all this delicious goodness in our food.”
Mnandi Pies’ Beef And Kale Pies
This simplified home version of Chirowamhangu’s bestseller kale and beef pie uses store-bought puff pastry to save time. The key to working with puff pastry is to keep the dough cold or it’ll stick and tear. Keep the dough in the fridge until ready to use and moisten fingertips when working with it.
Chirowamhangu says the filling is a take on a popular Zimbabwean main of beef and kale stew thickened with tomatoes. “It’s delicious on its own, but so much better in a pie,” she says.
2 tbsp (30 mL) olive oil
1 lb (450 g) stewing beef, cut into small pieces
1/2 tsp (2 mL) each ground coriander, ground cloves, ground nutmeg, brown sugar
1 minced garlic clove
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 diced small tomato
4 cups (1L) finely chopped kale leaves
1/2 cup (125 mL) water
1 1/2 tsp (7 mL) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp (2 mL) Worcestershire sauce
2 sheets 10×10-inch store-bought puff pastry, defrosted and chilled
1 large egg, beaten
In a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat, heat oil. Add beef, coriander, cloves, nutmeg, brown sugar and garlic. Stir and cook uncovered until beef is tender and browned and most of the liquid has cooked off, 15 to 20 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Add onion. Stir and continue to cook until onions are translucent and fragrant, 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and stir occasionally until they break down and release liquids, 5 minutes.
Add kale, water, flour and Worcestershire sauce. Stir and simmer uncovered for 15 minutes or until kale is tender and most of liquid has evaporated. Taste and add more salt and pepper as needed. Remove from heat and set aside.
Carefully unroll puff pastry and cut into even quarters measuring about 5-by-5 inches. Scoop 2 heaping tablespoons of beef filling into bottom half of each pastry square. Fold each square in half, sealing beef filling in centre. Use a fork to crimp edges of dough together. Repeat with remaining beef mixture and other puff pastry sheet.
Transfer pies to a lined baking sheet. Brush with egg. Bake at 375F (190C) for 20 minutes, or until pastry is golden brown and crispy.
Remove from heat and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Makes 8 meat pies.