Picture a bazaar in a Bollywood movie, with biryani and curries that you can actually eat instead of pine for from in front of a flat screen… that’s Cape Town’s Eastern Food Bazaar. Of course, I’m grossly oversimplifying, but that was my first and lasting impression of what has, in just a few years, become an entrenched local favourite.
In this narrow ground floor corridor, the length of a city block, Indian-born chefs in spotless chef’s whites cook for the biggest, most diverse cross section of Capetonians you’ll see under one skinny roof. The fact that you’re as likely to see an accountant as a municipal worker, European tourist, student or Somali family makes this place both unusual and precious in a city where these days, coolness and coffee are in abundance. It’s not that the cold brew coffee and tapas don’t represent a great and super attractive side of Cape Town; it’s just that there’s more to this city’s soul than what is so easily Instagrammable.
The Eastern Food Bazaar is in the landmark Wellington Fruit Growers Building on Darling Street, which for its first century or so, was a co-op where you could buy dried fruits and nuts. It’s a beautiful turn of the 20th century building that is in the good company of many other historic neighbours. A few years ago, the lower floor was transformed by a South African Indian family into a food bazaar, with custom made décor and chefs imported from India.
But while it looks like Little Delhi, this place ain’t just tandoori, naan and curry. There are 10 mini kitchens with names like Istanbul, Madras Dosa House and China Town, cooking up Indian, Turkish and Chinese food, along with pizza and ice cream. You’ll find everything from fried chilli bites to massour dosas (potato and pea-filled Indian pancakes) to Indian omelettes (rotis filled with egg, coriander, onion and tomato) to egg fried rice and lamb and chicken schwarmas loaded up with pickled vegetables. There are even popular South African mash-ups like bunny chows and samoosas.
For first timers, the way it works is that you walk up and down checking out all the food, figure out what you want, pay at a pay point, and collect your purchase from its counter and/or counters of origin. This means you could go strictly Punjabi, or put together your own eclectic meal of batata vada, margherita pizza and falafel. Although why would you order margerita pizza? If you go during lunch hours, a lot of standing in line is involved.
The food is Halaal and it’s tasty. Most popular items on the menu, according to the manager, are the butter chicken, lamb Rogan Josh and chicken schwarmas. This is also one of the most reasonable places to sit down and eat lunch in the city, where you can have chicken tikka grilled on a kebab in a tandoori oven, with chips and salad for R40.
It sounds kind of Indo Disney, and it kind of is …but it’s also wonderful: an amazing slice of Cape Town life, where you can eat real and simple food that is good and hearty. You can eat downstairs with the crowds and blaring Indian pop music, or you can take yourself and your food up a flight of stairs to an entirely different place and time. The upstairs dining room is quiet and feels Art Deco. Its magnificent arched window overlooks Darling Street, and reminds you of what this building once was: a centre of trade in old commercial Cape Town.
The Eastern Food Bazaar is open seven days a week, from 9h00 to 22h00.