A Taste of Cameroon
Walking down the streets of the vibrant, fast-paced and ethnically diverse inner-city suburb of Yeoville in Johannesburg, it was hard for me to imagine that I would find a place where I could embark on a food journey that was familiar yet elevated enough to transport me all the way to the Gulf of Guinea/West Africa. Fortunately, tucked away in the heart of Yeoville, in between a clothing store and a cellphone shop lies La Camerounaise – a backyard style braaied fish Cameroonian restaurant owned by the warm-hearted Blanche Tona, who moved from the coastal city of Douala to Johannesburg in the early 2000s with her husband and two kids.
The first thing that will catch your eye as you walk into La Camerounaise is the green, red and yellow of the Cameroonian flag proudly painted on every wall and next, the music blasting from the bar will hijack your hips and make them sway whether you like it or not.
I sat down with Blanche to talk about how the idea of leaving one’s home in search of a new beginning in a foreign country may be intimidating for many of us but with a little bit of faith and a determination to succeed, that big leap will be worth it. The initial years, as she recalls, were extremely difficult, money was tight as her husband had just started a business and she was enrolled in a business management course at the University of Witwatersrand.
As a way to cure the early waves of homesickness and to find a temporary escape from her financial woes, Blanche joined a club that served as a community and supportive space for Cameroonians to come together to share experiences and discuss a wide range of topics from their families back home, to South African and Cameroonian politics to culture shock – and the once taken for granted act of speaking and hearing French. When she noticed at one of the gatherings that there was no food, she began to cook traditional Cameroonian dishes to share with the group and this was the beginning of La Camerounaise. What Blanche was to soon realise was when you find yourself in a foreign country, far from home and family, unable to speak the language. Food can be your lingua franca.
Hint: While waiting for the charcoal fire to build, a well-timed confession that you’re a first time West African cuisine explorer may score you an invite into the all-woman kitchen for a peek into how the flavour-packed magic is made.
As I make my way into the kitchen, Blanche cites women empowerment as the reason for having an all-women cooking team. It is important for her to build up women as other women gave her a helping hand on her way to victory.
Blanche pulls out fresh Portuguese mackerel, also known as carapau, already cleaned and scores before basting it with a spicy rub made from ten bush leaves, seeds and spices that she grinds following close instructions from her mother, to whom the spice blend recipe belongs, then brushes it with cooking oil. When the fire has died down into glowing coals the carapau is laid on the braai grate to cook. Blanche warms up her homemade chilli for me to try and while my taste buds began to dance, she lifted the lid to a pot that contained a soup with a nostalgia-inducing aroma that made me miss my grandma’s house.
Warning: While waiting for the fish to cook you may feel as though your meal is taking too long to get inside your belly but that is only because the scent emanating from the braai stand will whet your appetite.
Then finally, you are served a beautiful fish garnished with onion bits accompanied by hand cut chips, mayo, the homemade chilli and soup. All of which is presented to you without utensils, leaving you with no option but to dig in. Allow the delectable taste of the carapau and chilli to swirl happily on your palate.
All it took was about 60 seconds for Kgaugelo (the photographer) and I to strip the fish down to a few bones, a head and tail. We were satisfied that our job was done but the regulars were quick to call us to order – “You South Africans don’t know how to eat, how can you leave the head? That’s the best part of the fish, the softest sweetest meat is on the head!” And they gave a loud cheer when Kgaugelo ate the meat off the head. Now La Camerounise has two new regulars.
Mosa Mahlaba is a content creator, coffee drinker and social commentator. She is the author of Searching for the Spirit of Spring.
Photography by Kgaugelo Rakgwale