In search of another interesting meal from the myriad on offer in Cape Town, Rustum Kozain gets a mouthful from fellow patrons about the unsavoury attitudes of South Africans.
This is my third visit to the Fufu Pot, the small, unobtrusive Ghanaian eatery in Salt River, located on the strip of Albert Road that is still ungentrified. If you’re driving, it’s easy to miss the Fufu Pot’s sign among the cracked hoardings and other dilapidated shopfronts. But if you’re walking, the smell of kenkey (a dumpling made of fermented corn dough) and fried fish draws you in.
As regular readers of my food blog will know, I am interested in what I jokingly refer to as the low and the high: I can find as much pleasure in a piece of KFC as in a dollop of foie gras and everything in between. When I think of travelling to other places, other countries, the first thing I think of is: What kind of interesting food can I get there?
Most often I am interested in street food or fast food (fish and chips in the Netherlands: excellent), or the food that ordinary people have access to. This is not because I don’t like food in high-end restaurants, but because my budget doesn’t allow me to eat in such places. Besides, they get enough media coverage, with almost every ‘foodie blog’ breathless with admiration about this or that celebrity chef making foamed concoctions out of biltong. Hustlers for bling.
Not having a budget for high-end restaurants means I also don’t have a budget for travel. But if you walk the streets of Cape Town, you’ll find that much of the ‘other’ world has come to this port city and you can taste food from everywhere, and other than the Greek, Italian and Portuguese fare that is readily available. Ethiopian, Lebanese and Egyptian eateries pop up regularly in the city centre, but I’ve always been intrigued by the small African eateries in places like Woodstock and Mowbray.
I must admit these eateries don’t look welcoming, full as they are of men drinking beer, hanging around pool tables, scowling suspiciously at this faranje audacious enough to peer into the doorway. One day in Mowbray at the unimaginatively named Africa Café, I plucked up the courage to walk in. Everyone stared at me and the man behind the bar seemed very reluctant to serve me. It was about noon and I wanted to try some food.
I asked for the menu. No menu. The bartender spoke English with a French accent. I asked about lunch. The food wasn’t ready yet, I was told. It would still be some time, maybe an hour.
He took me to the kitchen and instructed the woman cooking the food to show me the pot. A few others hanging around nearby also peered into the pot boasting chunks of tripe. Not my favourite. As a child I would disappear and visit neighbours whenever my mother cooked tripe.
The men around the pot also looked at me with some hostility, and it struck me that the Africa Café was more like a social club and not necessarily open to the general public. Nevertheless, it seemed that the cook and the bartender were prepared to serve me if I was willing to wait for the food to be done. Or perhaps they showed me the tripe to test how earnest I was, to test my romanticism.
Afraid that my dislike of tripe might come across as a slight, I made excuses about time. And, in any case, I was looking for something else, some mythical dish that I might have encountered in a novel: hot fish stew and couscous or something with peanuts.
That was years ago. Now, in 2008, things have changed. Back then there were more places like the Africa Café, but also more inviting small eateries, albeit populated mostly by men drinking beer and playing pool, but less intimidating for an outsider.
Salt River has also changed. The part of Albert Road that is its main strip used to be a bustling hub back when I was a child. On Saturday mornings it was a madhouse, with everyone on the street: clothes hawkers, grocers, barbers, spice-shops, supermarkets, a bank, old men in fawn suits and red Turkish fezzes and some women in black robes. It had an old world feel, a community feel. Then the high street collapsed: the major supermarket and the bank relocated, a few hardy outfitters and small shops clung to a shrinking clientele and others were boarded up and abandoned to time and weather.
Though not gentrifying quite as quickly as the strip past the circle and the Good Hope Butchery, the look and feel of Salt River is changing as immigrants from the other countries in Africa take up residence, host church services in garages, find community in one of the local mosques, and open up cafés, social clubs, eateries and pavement businesses. Children mix and play in the streets and a new language, I am sure, is growing its roots among them. But I digress.
So it was I first walked past the Fufu Pot this past summer and smelled fried fish. Hunger is the best courage and I popped in. There were suspicious stares from a scattering of patrons, but I nodded at a man in an apron (the owner), sat down at one of the plastic covered tables and ordered something small, KyinKyinga – a dainty, flavourful beef kebab, served here with an ordinary salad. I have returned for a spot of lunchtime KyinKyinga.
But on this, my third visit, I was going to try something else. It was a cold day, so, something to warm the stomach was in order. The owner recognised me and gave me a diffident smile. I’m not sure I was welcome, but I am also stubborn.
The place was full, the windows steamed up, and people eating and drinking. Talk was loud. But it was like a scene from a movie. As I entered, people looked up and then fell silent for a few moments. I muttered some apology and sat down at a table where two young men were already eating and talking. They sluggishly moved, as people do to signal that you may sit, but this gesture too was diffident. They were in heated discussion, talking fast. Occasionally I could pick out an English word, as well as the names Nkrumah and Mandela.
One of them must have noticed my twitch of recognition.
“So why do you come here?” one of them asked me while I was looking at the menu.
I said that I was interested in food.
“But this is African food. You look Muslim.”
This was as much a racial qualifier as about religion.
“It looks interesting and good,” I said, “I’m interested in all kinds of food.”
They cross-questioned me: but why this place, it’s more a club; why not some nice place in town?
I don’t know much about the world’s cuisine, but I again insisted on my general curiosity and that if something new is available to me, I like to try it.
We did warm to each other eventually and they introduced themselves as “John” and “Charles” (pseudonyms picked on the spur of the moment, I think). And they recommended the kenkey and fried fish with hot sauce. Done. I’m not a fan of pap, but I can’t say no to fried fish.
My plate arrived. On it was a huge dumpling (wrapped in the corn husk in which it had been steamed) and a small, whole fried fish (sardine?) resting on a bed of sautéed onion, red pepper and tomato (what we call a smoor).
The kenkey was piping hot, dense and quite sour, but the hot sauce helped. The fried fish was perfect: just the right amount of salt and crisp.
“So, what is wrong with you South Africans?” John or Charles asked, swigging from his beer.
“What do you mean?” I asked, although I had some intimation.
“Have you not seen the news?”
He opened a folded newspaper to reveal the headline: “Xenophobic Attacks Reach Cape Town.”
I gulped down a particularly big lump of kenkey. I had no response.
He turned to his friend: “You tell me, what is wrong with South Africans?”
“They’re illiterate, I tell you,” John, or Charles, spat it out. “Uneducated. Rude. To call us kwerekwere. Piece of shit. What do they know?”
Both rehashed stories of ill-treatment at the hands of South Africans.
Then the other turned to me, almost in accusation: “Your brothers are illiterate. You South Africans. You think because you have apartheid and Mandela you know everything. But you know nothing. And you know nothing of Africa! We, Ghana, we were the first to find freedom. Do you know Nkrumah?”
I nodded. It didn’t break his stride.
“Nkrumah. Lumumba. Pioneers of our freedom. And we’re treated like shit here. When your leaders had nowhere to go, who took care of them? And this is what we get.”
He jabbed at the newspaper.
“It’s true,” was all I could say, and I shook my head as their angry silence fell over our table.
The Chimurenga Chronic, is the once-off edition of an imaginary newspaper which is issue 16 of Chimurenga. Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, it imagines the newspaper as producer of time – a time-machine.
An intervention into the newspaper as a vehicle of knowledge production and dissemination, it seeks to provide an alternative to mainstream representations of history, on the one hand filling the gap in the historical coverage of this event, whilst at the same time reopening it. The objective is not to revisit the past to bring about closure, but rather to provoke and challenge our perceptions.
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