Cape Town is awesome.
Not awesome like the hot dog in Eddie Izzard’s comedy routine, or a new pair of Nikes. It’s awesome like the giant flat mountain covered with a billowing tablecloth cloud that divides the Cape Peninsula. Boulder-scattered beaches and crazy flora like Scottish heather crossed with Star Trek botanical props. Even those of us who wake up to these vistas every morning are regularly awe struck.
The city in the middle of all this crazy nature is Victoriana meets Africa meets the Spice Islands meets hipsters: the hipsters go with the territory, as Cape Town is also the design capital of the continent. And then there’s the food…
Take this week for example: I found pretty pink French breakfast radishes at my supermarket AND learned that there are people who forage for kelp on the Cape Atlantic Coast.
The radishes would have been right at home in Paris, on a plate with butter, salt and a crusty baguette ready for a mid morning snack. The kelp was chucked into a beach broth along with wild mussels and herbs gathered from the coastline, made by a cook who is an authority on indigenous plants (her name is Roushanna Gray, and you’ll be reading more about her in a later post). This Cape ‘bouillabaise’ wasn’t unlike a dish the Cape’s earliest inhabitants would have made, except theirs would have been cooked over an open fire rather than a hotplate.
The radishes and kelp illustrate Cape Town’s curious juncture of old and new, indigenous and foreign, wanting to have its own identity and also be part of the global food community. I suppose that in the case of South Africa, food is a bit of a metaphor for the state of the nation.
When I moved here from L.A. 21 years ago to open a restaurant with my husband, things were very different. South Africa emerged from apartheid with a smiling Nelson Mandela as President within days of my arrival, but when it came to food, to me, it felt like it was in the Dark Ages. Cape Town was already considered South Africa’s food capital, yet back then, there was only one kind of tomato, you couldn’t get basil for at least four months of the year and spinach was actually what the rest of the world called Swiss chard.
Flash forward to 2015…when Swiss chard, English spinach, baby spinach, morogo (African spinach) and tatsoi share shelf space with microgreens and beetroot sprouts. And indigenous spekboom and waterblommetjies. We have The Test Kitchen, just named #48 in the World’s Top 50 restaurants and we have Gatsbys. We have 350-year-old vineyards (South Africa is the eighth largest wine producer in the world) and we have rooibos, the red tea chock full of antioxidants that is native to the nearby Cederberg.
So what does Cape Town have to do with umami, the fifth taste defined by the Japanese?
Earthiness, savouriness and depth are in the blood of the growers, chefs and cooks and in the bite of the food itself. Africans of all colours have a love and personal connection to the land that comes out in the food, whether it’s made by an award-winning chef or a grandmother.
This blog is about sharing Cape Town’s abundant umami.