What is Cape Town street food’s identity? Must it be “proper” food prepared on the pavement or can it be made on a food truck? Authentic Cape or South African (which are mash-ups anyways), or American/Argentinean/Chinese/Waffles? And, what about South Africa’s huge influx of immigrants from the rest of Africa? Their big footprint in South Africa’s evolving culinary ID can’t be ignored.
I don’t believe you can slap a label on street food from Cape Town or any other city, like you slap mayo on a sandwich. To me, that was the point of the recent Cape Town Street Food Festival, which celebrated everything from American-style smoked brisket to samoosas (SA versions of Indian samosas: deep-fried pastry triangles with spicy meat, chicken or vegetable filling) to Gatsbys (saucy foot-long rolls filled with chips aka French fries and Vienna sausage and/or polony aka bologna), to dim sum to potjie (stew cooked in an iron cauldron over fire) to African food from the greater continent. All this was squeezed into a tasty urban sandwich between industrial buildings, with plastic fried eggs and sausages dangling overhead, one-man stands positioned between food trucks and a huge turn-out.
Take braaibroodjies, for example. The long Afrikaans word refers to sandwiches that are toasted in a grid over a braai (charcoal or wood-fired grill). This traditional pre-braai snack (in this case, braai refers to the meal) is as simple as can be, but is also one of those cases of the sum being greater than its parts: sandwich plus fire equals greatness. Braaibroodjies are totally delicious..that smokiness elevates a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato and onion (as if it wasn’t good enough already) into blast-off mode.
Food trucks in Cape Town seem to be breeding…when I wrote an article about them for Woolworths TASTE in 2012 (click here to read), I could count them on one hand. Now there are more, and if you’re wondering what kind of food they serve, it’s everything from Mexican to Hungarian flatbread to barbeque brisket to breakfast to prego rolls (a Portuguese South African specialty sandwich of grilled pounded meat or chicken in a deliciously garlicky spicy sauce).
Hannerie Visser, who is a Cape Town out-of-the-box creative impresario, is the Street Food Festival Director and founder. Hannerie told me that “there was a gap in the food events market for an event that focuses 100% on Street Food. It is also a very humble form of cuisine that deserves some attention.” Hannerie and caterers Matthew Freemantle and Andrew Kai were behind an informal African dinner that took place that night at new gin distillery Hope on Hopkins.
Most South Africans know little about the foods of other African countries. I suppose they haven’t needed to until recently. In a country in which migrants now arrive daily from all over Africa, legally or not, and often encounter the worst kind of hostility and bigotry, this should really change. Migration and its local impact is always a controversial subject here and everywhere, but when it comes to food, simply put, you can no longer separate the African from the South African. Saying so would be like saying that pizza and tacos are not part of American cuisine.
“African is absolutely local,” says Hannerie. “We have so many immigrant cooks from all over our continent in our country, cooking the most amazing food. At the moment I am making an effort to eat at as many African food stalls and restaurants as I can, as I think we should get to know our own cuisine a little better.”
That night, we ate family-style at long tables covered with layers of paper, each layer ripped off before the arrival of a new course. I dished up the umami-rich bitter leaf soup (Nigeria) for our table, from a large plastic bowl to smaller plastic bowls. We ate red tilapia (Malawi), nshima/nsima (maize pap from Zambia/Malawi) and greens with our fingers, drank cheap local beer and shots of Hope on Hopkins gin infused with mopani worm (large edible caterpillar found in Southern Africa). There were also fried crunchy mopani worms for that extra hit of protein. Goat meat stew (Somalia) was followed by a plantain milkshake (green plantains fried in caramel and blended in a mixture of coconut cream, coconut milk, vanilla extract and ice). The last bite was miracle fruit (Synsepalum dulcificum): these are berries grown in West Africa which alter your perception of taste. I can vouch for the fact that after you eat one, lemon tastes like orange and coffee tastes like chocolate.
I love what Matthew and Andrew eloquently said about the importance of the meal in their Facebook statement:
“Throughout the process of finding, cooking and presenting this menu, we tried not to resort to our habitual, for lack of a better word “western” approach to the dishes and as a result there were many moments where we just had no idea whether we were right or not. It was crucial that we went through the same process as diners. The feedback was positive from what we’ve heard thus far but there must also have been those who just felt the flavours were very challenging. It was very satisfying to hear someone from Zambia say the fish reminded him of home, or to see someone else wolf down three bowls of the bitter leaf soup. If this means a small group of people have edged a bit closer to the threshold and might experiment further migrant cuisines as a result, I’d be thrilled. One of the best ways to begin to understand a foreign community is to eat what that community eats, preferably how they eat it. Visiting an African restaurant in your city is to actively vote for migrants to be welcome in our country. Doing so will also mean eating a lot of good food on the way.” Click here to read the whole statement.