The Food We Bring
Johannesburg – one of the only major cities in the world not built near a natural body of water, often erroneously labelled as being the largest man-made forest in the world. A city of myth and legend. A place of contradictions.
In the so-called rural provinces from which it draws its lifeblood, its marching army of workers, the city is so revered that it is often referred to using idiom and metaphor. In the Eastern Cape where I am from it is alternately known as apho kungayi libuyayo (the place where none go to return) and kwanyam’ayipheli, kuphela izinyo lendoda – where men stand to lose their teeth in the pursuit of gorging themselves on the abundant meat the City of Gold has to offer. Both are references to the city’s mostly migrant worker population.
Jozi could never be accused of not “keeping it real”, and its food culture is a testament to the pragmatism of the migrants settled there, offering no fuss cuisine whose only purpose is to feed and satisfy the millions of workers who came to the city in search of fortune. Historical, as well as contemporary migration patterns into the city from across the country, continent and the globe have always offered the varied experience in flavour and culture that seems to be all the rage nowadays.
Take Central Johannesburg for a simple example. A veritable smorgasbord of flavours and aromas beginning with the suburb of Fordsburg to the west of the city centre. Established in the late 19th century as a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, today it is home to a melange of eateries serving up cuisine from the Indian subcontinent. Most notable among these is Dosa Hut, which specialises in the eponymous fermented batter pancake that characterises the flavour palate of the regions to the south of India and beyond.
A city of migrants is an expensive city. In a sprawling settlement such as this, household budgets are often completely depleted on merely getting from one end of it to the other. Across from the Bree Taxi Rank stands an informal butchery that breaks every health code and regulation imaginable to bring cheap meat to hard-pressed homemakers. Here the air is filled with the heady aroma of freshly severed cow heads resting on ramshackle tables, laying in hope of a purchaser before the noon sun reaches its zenith. The city’s rats race each other to this unregulated meat district to fetch whatever scraps may dangle or fall from this bounty while penny-pinching commuters grab what they can before the flies settle and nest.
The inhabitants of Johannesburg townships introduced the word and concept of the chesanyama (literally, “to burn the meat”) into the national lexicon. While not a new concept, Capetonians have been enjoying umbengo (grilled meat) from etshatshalazeni (the open common area where the meat is grilled), it was Jozi natives who popularised the idea of serving the meat with mielie pap and the condiments most quintessentially Joburg – chakalaka and mango atchar – while enjoying the (alcoholic) drinks of their choice, and local dance music playing in the background as a live DJ spins the decks. The love affair between Joburgers and burned bovine flesh is such that it is not uncommon to observe ravenous men breakfasting on incomprehensibly gigantic t-bone steaks accompanied by a(n) (un)healthy portion of meilie pap. Distended stomachs stand testament to the hunger-satisfying but nutrition deficient diet that begins with a breakfast from a chesanyama. After all, an army marches on its stomach, according to either Napoleon or the 18th century Prussian emperor Frederick the Great.
Travelling east from the city centre along newly renamed Albertina Sisulu Road you’ll reach the suburb of Troyeville. Troyeville, like Fordsburg, was also originally established as a predominantly Jewish settlement in the late 19th century. Sometime during the 1970s, however, the area became a Portuguese neighbourhood. Consequently, the menus of the restaurants in the area changed to reflect this cultural shift. In the post-apartheid era, the Portuguese influence in the cuisine has extended to include dishes from the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique. A couple of grilled carapau fishes and a portion of chips from the Angolan vendors make for a filling meal after a day’s drudgery at the coalface of the continent’s economic powerhouse. A word of advice: if you ever find yourself at the legendary Troyeville Hotel, you must never, EVER order the feijoada (also known as the Portuguese poor man’s stew) – a hellish concoction of beans cooked with cuts of meat no doubt snatched from the defiant jaws of the rats at Bree Taxi Rank.
Cyrildene further east of the city offers a wide array of cuisine from the Far East. Here you will find places like Brothers’ Seafood Restaurant where all the staff on duty are likely to lay siege on your table as you place your order. This oversupply of waiters for a single table may inspire skepticism at first as they take turns to translate your order and enquiries from English to Mandarin or Cantonese and vice versa to each other and back to you, word for word in a kind of comical word relay. But you can trust that your order will not be bungled and the food will be of the most excellent quality. Try the jellyfish salad if you find yourself in doubt.
North of Cyrildene is the erstwhile Jewish neighbourhood of Yeoville. A suburb where almost all 54 African nations are represented in the populace, which is reflected in the signage on the buildings along the famous Rockey St. Almost every second door offers for sale the hunger busting magic of Ethiopian injera, Tanzanian/Kenyan sukuma wiki, Nigerian egusi, Nigerian/Ghanaian jollof and, of course, East Africa’s version of the chesanyama, called nyamachoma.
These examples of budget-friendly food inspired by the practical sensibilities of those who have travelled far from home to earn a living remain out of reach for the vast majority of the city’s inhabitants. For many of those who commute into the city daily from the townships to the south, east and west of the city, dining out invariably means dining on locally available spykos (junk food) like ikota (a quarter loaf of bread filled usually with chips, polony, egg and/or atchar) – sit down restaurant dinners are a myth for some. But all is not lost. The upcoming Soweto Kota Festival in September promises to introduce more creative versions of the lowly kota. A long overdue act of redemption for something that has helped many of us keep body and spirit together.
The story of Johannesburg food culture is a 131-year old tale of economic migrants from all corners of the globe forsaking the familiarity of our homes to search for the illusive gold of legend with an unshakable nostalgia for the tastes and smells of the so-called “old country” to keep us steady amidst the dizzying rat race of this unforgiving city. This nostalgia, combined with the innate pragmatism and frugality of migrant life, has gifted the city with a rich tapestry of flavours and aromas, each serving a relatively inexpensive way to travel to lands beyond the immediate hustle and bustle of Jozi.