Discovering South African Food in Alexandra Township

by | Jan 25, 2017 | Arts and Culture, Food and Drink, Johannesburg, Sandton and Surrounds, Townships/Informal Settlements | 12 comments

If you browse through the food-related posts on this blog, you’ll notice that most of them are written about food from places other than South Africa: French, American, Mexican, Indian, German, Chinese. But what about South African food?

Traditional South African food can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look. Colonialism and apartheid are to blame for this. I think even most South Africans would struggle to describe South African food, just as I do when people ask me about it. My usual answer is, “…South Africans love meat.”

(Cape Malay cuisine, mostly found in Cape Town, is an exception to this rule. Read about Cape Malay food here and here.)

Anyway, my perceptions of South African food widened last Friday when I participated in the Alex Culinary Tour by Tour2.0. We ate our way through Alexandra Township, starting with the humblest street food and working our way up to serious fine dining.

Takeaway shop in Alexandra TownshipA takeaway shop in Alexandra Township, otherwise known as Alex.

Our first stop was Mbopha’s Café, a takeaway joint on 3rd Avenue in Alex.

Eating a Sly Vat-Vat

“Sly” is a slang term for a slice of bread. “What-what”, or “vat-vat”, are filler words to replace something that is too much trouble to describe. Put these two together and you get “sly vat-vat” — a monster of a sandwich that exists only in Alex.

Heather eating a sly vat vatEating a sly vat vat. (Photo: Kate Els)

A sly vat-vat contains two or three slices of bread, filled with chips (french fries), tomato, meat, atchar (a South African pickle made from unripe mangos), cheese, and various other vat-vat. Mine had all of the above, including fried polony (similar to baloney but fluorescent pink), and another kind of processed meat that I couldn’t identify. I could have added a fried egg if I’d wanted, and I slathered on some ketchup. The sly vat vat cost R16.50, or just over a dollar.

South African food: the sly vat vatInside a sly vat-vat.

Meruschka eating a sly vat vatMeruschka attacks her sly vat-vat.

Asanda, our guide, pleaded with us to eat only a few bites of the sly vat-vat. This was only the first of four feeding stops, Asanda said, and we would fill up fast. I stopped short of half but it was difficult. That sly vat-vat was freaking delicious.

Shisa Nyama at Joe’s Butchery

As I said before, South Africans love meat. No South African food tour would be complete without good old-fashioned shisa nyama, which means “burn meat” in Zulu.

Joe's Butchery in AlexandraJoe’s Butchery, the place to go for shisa nyama in Alex.

Joe’s Butchery is a classic South African bring-and-braai. (Braai means “grill” or “barbecue” in South Africa.) You go inside, choose your uncooked meat, then the braai master braais the meat for you and you eat it.

Wilbert the Joe's Butchery braai masterWilbert, the Joe’s Butchery braai master, cooks up our meat — steak and a popular South African sausage called boerewors Interestingly this braai is powered with gas, not charcoal, which is generally frowned upon in South Africa. But I guess a busy place like this needs to be efficient.

Meat at Joe's ButcheyThe finished product — meat grilled with spicy seasoning — which we ate with pap (stiff corn porridge) and a chunky tomato sauce.

I was starting to feel full. On we went to the next stop.

Fine Food at Moving Feast

We crossed the Jukskei River to Alex’s East Bank, the wealthier side of the township, and pulled up in front of a beautiful suburban house. Happiness Makhalemele, Alex’s queen of tripe, was waiting.

Happiness of Moving FeastHappiness in her restaurant, which is just next to her home.

Happiness started her cooking career selling vetkoek (yummy fried balls of bread) on the street at a nearby taxi rank. Today she is one of the most sought-after cooks in Alex. Her company, Moving Feast, caters for big companies and her home restaurant is packed throughout the week, especially on Monday nights. Happiness is known especially for the way she makes mogudu, or tripe.

Tripe, which is the lining of a cow’s stomach, is considered a delicacy in South Africa. Personally I’ve never gotten past its rubbery, scaly look and slightly smokey smell and taste. But Happiness makes the best and I was determined to try.

In the end I loved everything Happiness put in front of me, but I only managed three bites of mogudu. It’s just too…stomachy for me. But the meal was amazing.

Vetkoek from Moving FeastThe starter: A deconstructed vetkoek sandwich. Vetkoek, mince, parmesan, pesto, and various other bits of deliciousness. I loved it.

Moving Feast mainThe Moving Feast main: Dumpling (boiled dough), oxtail, steak with mushroom sauce, cooked veggies, and the famous mogudu. The steak was my favorite.

I’d eat at Moving Feast again in a heartbeat.

Tasty Bites and Cocktails at the Hub

A few months ago I wrote a post about an interesting place in Alex called the Hub. The Hub runs Alex tours under the name “The Hub Presents”, and also hosts events and a new Sunday market called the Shack Market.

Banks of the Jukskei in AlexGoats browse green grass on the banks of the Jukskei, right across from the Hub.

We went to the Hub to meet Theo (who happens to be Happiness’ son) and Tyson, two guys at the Hub who whip up fancy cocktails and high-end South African bites.

Cocktails from the HubTyson prepares fruity vodka cocktails at the Hub.

We were exhausted by the time we reached the Hub, and so, so full. I barely managed to eat the last thing we were offered — a small portion of ostrich fillet topped with grilled asparagus, kidney beans, and veggies. I’m so glad I did though.

Ostrich fillet at the HubGrilled ostrich fillet (a classic South African meat) with asparagus kidney beans, and veggies. This dish was so good.

If I ever do this tour again, I would fast the day before and ask that the tour be spread over two days. Either way, from now on I’ll have a much better answer when people ask me about South African food.

Follow the Hub Presents on Facebook.

Read more about the Tour2.0 Alex Culinary tour.

I participated in this tour at the invitation of Tour2.0., who paid for all of the food and expenses. Opinions expressed are my own.


  1. Natalie Irwin

    Wonderful! I always love it when you share information about Alexandra! The food, the experience and the people look amazing. Do you mind if I share this on Alexandra Baseball for all of our followers there?

    • 2summers

      Of course not! Blogs are meant for sharing. Thanks Natalie, hope you’re well.

  2. Louise Whitworth

    I love that people in Alex party on Mondays, so different from everywhere else! I also had a sly wat wat last time I went into Alex proper, I’m surprised you could eat anything else after that, those things are massive carb-fests (I had mine with the egg as well…), definitely best with ketchup on, too dry otherwise 🙂

    • 2summers

      I know, the Monday thing is interesting. I tried to find out why that is but couldn’t get a clear answer.

      Luckily I had a huge boxing workout before this tour, which always increases my appetite 🙂

  3. Natalie Irwin

    Thanks! Our family is busy getting a non-profit set up to be able to support Alexandra Baseball from the US. It is very exciting and Sine is involved which will be fun, too. I have no doubt that we will be back in Alexandra in the future. I enjoy all of your posts but today tugged at my heart. Alexandra is a special place.

  4. autumnashbough

    I made sure to eat dinner before I read this post. Which helped keep me from drooling. It also helped that there was so much meat, which is not my favorite. I take it desserts are less popular? (Good idea, much healthier.)

    • 2summers

      Yeah, South African cuisine can be tough for non-meat-eaters. Actually there were two desserts! I just didn’t get around to photographing them. They were both made of custard, which is a super-popular dessert ingredient here. Maybe I need to do a separate post on South African desserts.

  5. Lani

    Hmmmm. I’m getting hungry looking at your post and reading your descriptions. Thanks for the tour! 😉

    • 2summers

      My pleasure. The world needs more food tours.

  6. Shasha

    Wow! am in Botswana and the South African food is the same as here.Dumpling and oxtail does it for me,keep us engaged Heather!

  7. catherine

    this post is going straight into my Joburg notebook for future trips, than you Heather!!!

    • 2summers

      My pleasure 🙂


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