I had published my first novel already. I’d reviewed over 200 shows as the theatre critic for the M&G. I’d written on travel, done interviews and book reviews, covered exhibitions and even some politics.
But it was only in 2008, when I started writing about food that I began to get stopped in shopping malls by strangers. For the first time, people began to SMS and email me about what I’d written that week. Someone asked, “Have you been writing for the Mail & Guardian for long?”
More than once in a restaurant someone came up to my table, pointed triumphantly at whomever I happened to be having dinner with, and declared, “So you must be Munchkin!”
Muchkin was a grumpy foil I’d invented for the reviews. The truth: Munchkin is whomever I happen to be dining with, so they weren’t wrong.
I was to review restaurants because it seemed to be the only thing we Capetonians cared enough about to grow the M&G’s subscriber base. As it happens, I started just as gastroculture surged globally.
Cape Town is without question the most sophisticated, diverse, food conscious city in Africa, a perfect playground for a restaurant reviewer.
I’ve run the gamut; from cuisine prepared by Michelin-star chefs to restaurants serving soup indistinguishable from salad dressing; from my most expensive meal, R1150 before the tip (at The Tasting Room), to my cheapest, R25 for a full plate of injera with toppings (at the Cuisine Africaine beneath a curio market in Long Street).
There was also that R750 seven-course omakase meal at Nobu prompting a reader to comment that I made them choke on their own vomit, and did I “know how many bags of mealie meal, bottles of cooking oil, bags of sugar, cans of pilchards that would buy?”
My Cape to Cuba review provoked a letter from the embassy that I was maligning their island nation.
I’ve been able to revisit cuisines from my foreign travels in Cape Town – Moroccan, Spanish, Turkish, German, Kurdish, French, Italian, Sicilian, north and south Indian, Peruvian, Thai, Korean, Mexican, Japanese, Ethiopian, Hungarian, Sephardic, Chinese, Lebanese, Belgian, Cuban, Greek, and I still haven’t exhausted the ethnic eateries of the city.
Foreign cooks have always led the restaurant scene in South Africa. Until the 1980s, the assumption being that if you were not from South Africa you could probably cook, which wasn’t entirely untrue.
We had a deadly ménage à trois of British blandness, apartheid isolation and suspicious Calvinism (think of the biddies in Babette’s Feast). That and bad industrial production, America without the Americans, instant food and TV dinners, and a growing dependency on Aromat from Switzerland.
Before the late 1980s, restaurants were mostly confined to hotels like the Holiday Inn where they made beef stock for French onion soup by dissolving Bovril.
Who would have thought we’d export any of it? I remember standing stupefied before a special South African food section in a New Zealand supermarket with Koo canned spaghetti, fast expiring liver paste, and instant coffee proudly declaring it was 100% chicory.
We haven’t exactly exported any culinary wonders. I’ve dimly reviewed koeksusters in London, and bunny chow in New York, but also written about our success with rooibos tea, marula fruit, and Kalahari truffles.
Still, we haven’t anything that adds up to a national cuisine apart from burnt meat and stewing everything in a three-legged pot. But I have described what people living in South Africa happen to eat, and traced many of the origins and influences, from hunter-gatherers and beachcombers to the present day revival of San food and veldkos.
As South Africa started to embrace its new democracy, we began to look for ways to redefine ourselves. We stopped simply copying Europe and stopped thinking of the indigenous and African as inferior. It’s an ongoing process.
At first, local chefs began emulating the Californians and the Australians, trying to invent a new cuisine for South Africa as those countries had done for themselves, incorporating local ingredients and world trends. But those experiments soon petered out.
Now our chefs freely embrace the abundance available to them, and spurred on by the foraging movement and a hunger for discovery, num-nums and morogo are back on the menu. A highlight for me must be chef Margot Jane’s sensational chakalaka lollipops.
The East has always caused the biggest change in our national tastes. First, through what we think of as the Cape Malay kitchen. And today, globalising Asia holds sway. You only have to look at the supermarket shelves where whole aisles are now dedicated to noodles, sushi ingredients and Asian sauces, not to mention entire Asian supermarkets. There is a fusion dish somewhere on the menu at every top restaurant.
Yet before the millennium, most South Africans couldn’t hold chopsticks. In these past five years reviewing, I’ve seen an explosion of Asian restaurants, a quadrupling in the inner city. There were three sushi places in Cape Town in 1995. Today, I count 85.
When I began, critics were preoccupied with how close ethnic food came to the authentic thing. That consideration has fallen away today; it’s asking the wrong question.
Still others complain of cultural imperialism, of chefs plundering and debasing their food cultures – but that seems to me too hardline. So-called authentic cuisine is as bastardised as any other.
The culinary scene drills down into our cultural life from roadside tshisa nyama grills in the townships to braai in the suburban backyard. I’ve explored township eats, Kosher delis, Ramadan feasts and food at the Hare Kirshna temple. There have been the crazies too – raw foodism, a kind of religion in itself – and perhaps the not so crazy proponents of insect meat, which sent me in search of the disgusting mopane worm.
It hasn’t all been upper crust fare from Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa and Hemant Oberoi or even mid-level restaurants. I’ve also pursued popcorn, bread, yoghurt, sardines, pub grub, fish and chips, hamburgers, boerewors rolls and franchised pizza, and the worlds of tea and of coffee.
Then there have been the more unusual places – a picnic in a forest, lunch in parliament and Pollsmoor Prison, and a restaurant run by the mentally different.
Once Bitten has visited our oldest surviving restaurants like the Harlequin (1957) and La Perla (1959); documented how the restaurant scene is now spreading like a fifth column of gentrification to Vredehoek and Woodstock; and poked fun at food apps and the trendiest newcomers.
Sadly, even in five years, places reviewed when they opened have already disappeared.
My first review was of the old Taiwanese seaman’s club in the docks, the Jewel Tavern. It moved to St Georges Mall, then again to Upper Kloof Street, and earlier this year finally closed its doors and converted to an excellent, free home-delivery operation called Monk’s Chinese, which can only be visited in cyberspace.
I even made up one restaurant – Taboo, for April Fool’s Day 2011 – serving surplus SPCA cats, endangered species and “human calamari” from circumcisions. The outraged reaction followed by embarrassed red faces was actually quite unnerving. I hope I have now been forgiven. Five more years please.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian 20 September 2013.