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.”
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.
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.
Eating 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.
Meruschka 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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.