Africa Café

Published in the Mail & Guardian , August 2008.


In the wake of the violence characterised by its xenophobia, and which is still simmering, it seemed appropriate to venture out for a taste of the diverse culinary delights various African nations have introduced to South Africa.


Even after the violence, there is still a strong immigrant presence in the city centre of Cape Town. To list only a few individuals I see regularly: two Congolese guys guard cars in my street; a Zimbabwean serves me at my local coffee spot; I have made buddies with a Sierra Leonean and an Angolan from the gym; and I have a Zambian friend who often accompanies me to the theatre on my rounds as a critic – one of my diminishing pool of victims I call on to partake in the hundred and fifty odd shows I have to see in a year.


Despite this Cape Town is short on authentic African eateries. Actually, there’s only one from the diaspora, the Ethiopian Addis in the Cape. They serve injira, sour dough pancakes, with a host of delicious, authentic stews worthy of a future review.


Then there’s the collection of Marco’s Place and Long Street’s ensemble of Nyoni’s Kraal, Mama Afrika and Khaya-Nyama. These serve faux African dishes, conventional mains with an African flavouring or twist, game and crocodile, and some culturally defined delicacies such as ulwimi (steamed ox tongue), amatumba (sheep intestines), amagina (chicken feet) and mopane worms.


In a category of its own, is the African Café. I was first introduced to their now fabled restaurant at its original location in Lower Main Road, Observatory, fifteen years ago, when South Africans were (not to say we still aren’t) quite ignorant of Africa.


On entering the new premises in the Georgian house on Heritage Square, the first dilemma is to choose in which room to eat. Rooms on three floors are cheerfully themed by country, for example Egypt and Gambia or by tribe such as Xhosa and (recently) Zulu. The imaginative team of Barrydale’s Magpie Design have produced a spectacular variety of light fittings, the most aesthetic use of recycled materials you’re likely to see anywhere in the world.


As Munchkin and I settled down in the Ndebele room on the second floor, we noticed the clientele remains weighted towards European tourists and tour groups. The reason is possibly the all-you-can-eat policy, and partly the format of presentation. After washing your hands at table in an enamel bowl, the congenial host spontaneously recites her script; the implication of this address is you are a foreigner who knows nothing.


The wine list is extensive with a good range of prices. My tip – try the Slowine Merlot, at R90 a bottle it’s a find. For those who just want a glass of a white, the Hartenberg Riesling (R20) stands up well to the enormous variety of tastes you are about to experience.


The menu is printed on a novelty Toucan billed ceramic jug, available from their downstairs shop for a hefty R1000.


The current winter feast (R170 per person plus 10% service) starts with fluffy umbhako, a traditional Xhosa pot bread, and a thick vegetable broad bean soup.


After establishing whether you’re vegetarian or not, your waiter brings a smorgasbord of tapas-sized dishes that cover every inch of the table. The menu is, to most people’s satisfaction, devoid of exotic body parts and dead wildlife.


I started with a generous portion of Cape Malay mussels in a mild flagrant green coconut curry sauce. Vegetarian dishes include Congolese spinach cooked with tomato, onion and peppers; soft roasted butternut, potato and sweet potato; Sim Sim balls made from sweet potato and Malawian mbatata cheese rolled in sesame seeds; Zambian savoury bean pies; and rather dull Xhosa imifino patties constituted from spinach and mealie-meal. The pepperiest dish is the Egyptian koshery, with chickpeas in a tomato gravy and vermicelli, though I could not detect any noodles.


This assortment of strongly flavoured dishes is a celebratory testament to the diversity and delectable cuisine on offer on the continent.


For the meat eaters there’s a richly flavoured glutinous mwana wa nkhosa

(a traditional lamb stew). At this point, Munchkin, who is not adventurous, started to moan. There were too many small pieces of bone and although proving scrumptious the stew was too much hard work. I admit it did look like a bit of a beast that had unsuccessfully gone through Star Trek’s teleportation device. The complaint began, “I like to just choose what I want, a nice fillet or rack of lamb. I’d be much happier just ordering one of these and getting on with it. I don’t want dozens of things shoved at me. I feel like a German on a Neckermanns tour for God’s sake!”


I tried to placate. “You like chicken. Try the Ghanaian groundnut thighs. They’re delicious and you can tell what part of the creature it is.”


Our attentive waitress kept checking on us and asking which of the dishes we liked the most. By this stage, we had too much food and declined her offer of repeating any of them.


The meal concludes with a choice of Kenyan coffee, rooibos or mint tea, and a basket of local liquors. The Witblitz comes in a bottle wrapped in barbed wire, marking it out strictly for Scandinavians. I recommend the delicious Pinotage Grappa.


The Africa Café is a good place to take visitors. For locals and to attract regulars, they may wish to contemplate adding an a la carte menu.


The Africa Café, Heritage Square, 108 Shortmarket Street, Cape Town

Open for dinner from Monday to Saturday (Sundays during high season) from 18h30. Fixed price menu of R170 + 10% service.

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