Last Wednesday I headed down the M1 highway with my pink-haired friend Gail Wilson and my purple-clad friend Faarooq Gardee-Minty Mangera, a.k.a. the Purple Pimpernel. Our destination was Lenasia, a historically Indian township 30 minutes south of central Joburg.
Faarooq is one of those people who makes me happy I live in Joburg, as I wouldn’t meet someone like him in any other place. Faarooq is — or has been at some point — a virologist, a U.S. government employee, an artist, a dancer, a cultural guide/city explorer, an anti-apartheid spy, and a spokesperson for the Mina menstrual cup (yes, you read correctly). I imagine he is many other things too but he hasn’t had a chance to tell me yet.
Faarooq’s nickname is the Purple Pimpernel; I asked him why and the answer was a magical, meandering story about ballet and life in Soho is the 1970s. I can’t recount it here but I recommend asking Faarooq if you ever meet him.
Faarooq grew up in Fietas, a neighborhood west of downtown Joburg, which was once home to South Africans of all races and backgrounds. In the 1970s, in accordance with the Group Areas Act, the apartheid government demolished most of Fietas and forcibly removed its non-white residents to various townships on the outskirts of Joburg. When Faarooq returned to South Africa as a young man after several years in London, his family had been moved from Fietas to Lenasia. Faarooq, like millions of other South Africans of color, suddenly had to adjust to an alien life far outside the city.
Gail and Faarooq and I went to Lenasia to visit some of Faarooq’s old haunts. The trip had no specific agenda other than lots of eating.
Note on the name: Lenasia is named after the nearby Lenz Military Base. The “Asia” part was added to the name since the township was created for South Africans of Indian descent. Today, many people call it Lenz.
Gelato for Breakfast in Lenasia
Our main destination in Lenz was the Pather family house, where the Pather siblings were preparing us an authentic South Indian feast. I’ll say more about the Pathers in a minute. But first, Faarooq took us for gelato at Creme Cafe. The gelato at Creme Cafe is legendary and Faarooq wanted us to experience it, lunch plans or not.
I had planned to order burfee gelato, because Italian-style gelato made with an Indian dessert seems appropriate to eat in Lenz. But then I saw the “Chinafruit and Orange” sorbet and had to try that.
I had never heard of Chinafruit but apparently it’s another word for persimmon. It seems like a culturally inappropriate term, especially in 2020, but that didn’t make the sorbet taste any less delicious. I ate the whole, huge cup.
Creme Cafe serves coffee and pastries as well as gelato. It’s at 71 Willow Street in Extension 3, Lenasia.
We still had some time before lunch so we drove around looking at all the interesting streets and houses. Then Faarooq took us to a Tamil temple near the Pather house, which was founded by a member of the Pather family. (If you’d like to learn about another super interesting Tamil Temple in Joburg, read this post about Kavady at the Melrose Temple.)
Temple visit complete, we headed to the Pathers.
Lunch With the Pathers
Faarooq grew up with the Pather family, in Fietas and later in Lenz. There are something like a dozen Pather siblings. But the house we visited is home to Esperee Pather, Esperee’s brother, Nishkalan, and their 99-year-old firebrand of a mother, Mrs. Pather. Sisters Bashnee and Padmani also came for lunch.
I visited southern India once, on a two-week volunteer trip to Chennai in 2006. It was my first trip away from the western world and I will never forget the colors, the smells, the clothes, the people, and especially the mind-blowingly delicious vegetarian food. I have always wanted to go back. But at least now I know I don’t need to go to India for a mind-blowing South Indian meal. I’ll just drive to Lenz and visit the Pathers.
We sat down at the table. “This is a very boring meal,” Esperee announced, pleading a shortage of time due to the recent Diwali celebrations. “Everything is very bland.”
Gail and I gazed at ever-increasing number of rainbow-colored foods on the table, trying to comprehend how such a spread could be described as boring or bland. Faarooq just chuckled.
Then the banana leaves came out and I officially traveled to another continent.
I also remember, from my time in India, how difficult it was to refuse copious amounts of food.
“More biryani?” Padmani asked me, wielding a serving spoon.
“Ahhhh, no thanks,” I said, struggling to scoop up the last remnants on my leaf. “I’m so full!”
“More vegetables?” she asked. “Vegetables digest very quickly.” I forcefully declined.
“There is no dessert,” Esperee had told us earlier, but after lunch we found ourselves seated in the dining room with an elaborate spread of fruits and biscuits. Soon there was spicy Indian chai and a plate of cheesecake.
I struggled to make space for watermelon and lychee. “Have a biscuit,” Esperee urged, pointing to the chocolate-covered shortbread. “They’re homemade. Biscuits are a good digestive.”
Digestion is an important topic of conversation at the Pather table.
We sat around for hours, listening to stories about growing up in Fietas and Lenz, sneaking boys into the house at inappropriate hours, and the mysterious case of Mrs. Sulaymon’s murdered roosters. Faarooq regaled us with his strangely cheerful views on death and the best ways to be cremated. There was a lot of laughing.
Late in the afternoon, Gail and Faarooq and I thanked the Pathers and reluctantly left to make the long drive back to Joburg.
That was my day in Lenz with the Purple Pimpernel and company.