If you had South African friends in London in the 1980s, you may remember their plaintive requests for comestibles from home. The collective of exiles, draft-dodgers, economic migrants and stranded backpackers living in squats would pine for such things as Koo canned guavas, Safari dried fruit, Mrs Balls chutney, Pecks anchovette paste, Melrose cheese triangles, Ouma rusks, Marie biscuits, mebos, Peppermint Crisp and of course biltong. We were also the first in the world with Appletiser. The British Marmite, the exiles said, might be the original but was thinner and didn’t taste as good as South African.
Economic sanctions were on and Cape fruit was still banned or re-labelled as produce of Israel.
Getting on the flight to London, you would easily find yourself carrying an extra ten kilograms of groceries in your baggage and a couple of bottles of hefty Pinotage in your hand luggage. I remember the more adventurous smuggled “Swazi gold” and Transkei dagga to their loved ones inside dried fruit rolls.
As late as 1999, on a trip to New Zealand, I was baffled to find a section of a food aisle in an Auckland supermarket dedicated to such South African eccentricities as canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, liver paste, Ricoffy and Koffiehuis.
Nowadays, what you can’t find overseas you probably don’t want. In almost any London restaurant you can order rooibos tea. At one stage, Fortnum and Mason’s exotic food hall range even carried vacuum-packed, salted Mopani worms.
The South African community has continued to grow around the world and especially in London. I can no longer count the number of restaurants, from the Wolseley tea room to the corner Wagamama noodle bar, where the young waiter with an unstable English accent turns out to be a thinly disguised fellow countryman. Once unmasked, it’s all smiles and bonhomie.
South Africans now own and operate several restaurants in greater London and I know of another in Manchester. These serve such local dishes as butternut soup, kudu carpaccio, samoosas, boerwors, ostrich fillet, springbok, crocodile, frikkadelle, bobotie, potjiekos, bredie, steak with monkeygland sauce and melktert. It’s enough to make one believe we have a national cuisine.
In Camden, the £5.5 million, 2500 square metre Shaka Zulu has just opened. Appropriately gaudy and staged on two floors, it has a braai restaurant, oyster bar, and night club.
The sporty Bok Bar near Covent Garden, which had been around for several years, has closed, just months after world cup fever. It was always a bit of a claustrophobic dive and had that barroom malodour. It used to serve such things as prego rolls, chakalaka, and a “Schalk burger”.
In central London, right next to the Palladium just off Oxford Street, is the Cape Town Fishmarket. It is almost identical in design to their local branches (they now have 24 stores in six provinces); decked out in blues and greys, with slate floors and slate-patterned table tops, banquettes, a conveyor belt sushi bar, a counter display of fish and shellfish on crushed ice, and a rather bare aquarium. They also play noisy 80s and 90s pop rock hits. On the walls are greatly enlarged historical photographs: Kalk Bay snoek harvest, fishmongers in District Six in 1936 pushing their cart laden with long, glistening snoek; fisher folk in fezzes from 1909, and the Cape Town docks with horse-drawn carts.
Available South African wines are mostly from well-known corporate estates such as Nederburg, Lanzerac, Boschendal, Van Loveren, Douglas Green, and this month they had Beyerskloof Brut on promotion. In stock a few vintage wines such as a Simonsig Tiara 1998 (£44.95), Le Bonheur Prima 1995 (£38.95) and a 2001 Hartenberg Merlot (£42.95).
In addition to the sushi they offer bento box lunches and a tepanyaki grill.
I popped in to try their seafood curry (£19.45) which is served in a small three legged cast iron potjie. In a peppery brown sauce, rich and thickened with onions, were four tiny black mussels in open shells, a few calamari tubes and tentacles, a titbit of crawfish tail, three prawns with the heads on, and a small piece of fish. There is nothing wrong with the food, but there’s nothing here to write home about either.
As is the trend with London restaurants a 12.5% service charge is automatically added to the bill.
On my way out, I overhear the man in the banquette next to me tell the waiter, “One of the few places I can go to where they don’t say ‘what?’ when I ask for brandy with my Coke.”
Cape Town Fish Market, 5 & 6 Argyll Street, London. Tel: 0207 437 1143
Chakalaka Restaurant, 1-4 Barley Mow Passage, Chiswick, London. Tel: 020 8995 4725.
Jabula, on the waterfront side of Manchester ship canal, Manchester. Tel: 0151 3551163. Map on website: www.jabula-restaurant.co.uk
Shaka Zulu, Stables Market, Camden, London. Tel: 020 3 376 9911.
This article first appeared in the Mail & Guardian 18 March 2011.