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June 15, 2012

A taste of the motherland in the Mother City: An Ethnic African Food Safari

Cape Town boasts a number of ethnic restaurants where adventurous diners can taste their way around the African continent.

Established as a tavern port to nourish sailors travelling between worlds, Cape Town was always destined to become a great culinary destination. Invariably, global cooking styles have become part of the local social fabric, but only recently have flavours from other parts of Africa been added to the "pot". Keith Bain discovers a few of the Mother City’s Afropolitan dining scene highlights.

I am sitting on a low stool at a table hovering below my knees at the tiniest restaurant in Cape Town. There are no pretences that this is fine dining. There are no eating utensils or condiments, just a few wall hangings and an exotic, difficult-to-place soundtrack. From the moment you step inside Little Ethiopia (76 Shortmarket Street; +27 21 424 8254), you know that you are in for an alternative epicurean experience.

Here you will find Yeshi Mekonnen, an elegant woman with fine features, caramel skin, and eyes that shimmer like jewels. Her entrepreneurial streak is twinned with hands-on skill. Hard at work in her pint-sized kitchen, she produces spice-scented aromas that make the wait for her food part of the experience.

“I have a passion to cook,” says the softly spoken Addis Ababa-born and -raised restaurateur. She learnt by culinary osmosis, absorbing all she knows from her mother, and her one-year-old eatery is a lifelong dream come true.

With its litany of exotic dishes, Yeshi’s menu does not make it easy to pick a meal if you are discovering the cuisine for the first time. The crafting of flavours comes from blending chillies, herbs and spices to create berbere, which imbues the food with its distinctive flavour. Various stews (or wot) are made with either meat or vegetables.

Yeshi Mekonnen has channelled her passion for cooking the dishes of her homeland into Cape Town's Little Ethiopia Restaurant.

Doro wot (chicken stew) is popular with first-timers, probably because it is the first item on the menu and simple enough to pronounce, while the lentil-based misir wot is a personal favourite of mine.

Beyond knowing what to do with your food once it arrives, there is little hope of trying to discern one dish from the other when ordering. A good idea is to tuck into the platter-style dishes: beyeaynetu is vegetarian, while mahberawi is a sampling of meat stews.

One of the great pleasures of Ethiopian dining is that you eat with your hands, tearing off pieces of injera, a sourdough flatbread traditionally made from a tiny grain called teff. Yeshi uses a rice flour substitute to similar effect, to produce something resembling a large spongy pancake prepared from fermented batter. Scoop up your wot using pieces of injera, and you have in your hand the start of a fortifying meal.

Not far from Yeshi’s intimate, budget-priced eatery is upscale Addis in Cape (41 Church Street; +27 21 424 5722; www.addisincape.co.za), which is reached via a wooden stairway scented with incense. Spacious and visually innovative, it belongs to Senait Mekonnen, an impeccably stylish ex-pat with short cropped hair and the kind of gorgeous accent you expect to find in a James Bond movie. She set up her first restaurant in Dar es Salaam 15 years ago and it is now one of the most talked about restaurants in Tanzania.

Exotic decor and foreign languages are part of the fun of dining outside of your comfort zone.

Senait’s repurposing of a colonial-era building into an African eatery is smart and refreshing, and it is filled with just enough suggestions of her native country, without becoming a cliché. Above the mesob tables and low chairs, a canopy of upside-down embroidered ceremonial umbrellas and metallic Coptic crosses are reminders of the central role religion plays in Senait’s motherland.

Besides having created a beautiful space, Senait knows that it is the food that really matters, and the menu is hugely rewarding. To make the most of it, it is worth ordering a variety of dishes to turn the meal into an occasion for sharing. If the gentle burn of barbere is too much for you, opt for toned-down alicha, where the chilli is replaced with turmeric. Or choose from a number of palate-cooling side dishes, such as homemade cottage cheese (ayeb) or lentil salad (azifa).

Senait says that she still gets more foreign tourists than locals. However, the culinary adventurous among the locals would do well to explore the city’s underbelly.

Choosing to do just that, I find myself in the bowels of the African Women’s Craft Market on Long Street. I am hoping to discover the flavours of West Africa, but it takes a bit of puzzling through a maze of mask, batik and jewellery stalls before I find Bebe Rose Cuisine Africaine (Shop 62, Africa Women’s Market, 112 Long Street; +27 73 368 3603), a rudimentary spot with a handful of tables and two tiny kitchens tucked at the back. There isn’t even a sign.

As a strictly functional space, it is not pretty, but I have come to sample exotic flavours, not to learn about interior design. In one corner, a tiny television balances atop a fridge stocked with ginger beer. Al Jazeera newscasts play for those who come here to eat, and I picture the distances my fellow diners have travelled from their homes to start their lives afresh, the way Mama Rose did when she arrived here from Cameroon in 1995.

Just figuring my way through the menu is a learning experience. There is a version with pictures designed for tourists, but it is better to consult Rose directly. With her turquoise tights, high-heels, a doek around her head, and a warm smile, she is instinctively matriarchal and motherly. She tells me about ndolé, which is made with what she calls the “ultimate vegetable” – slightly bitter and spinach-like, it grows just about everywhere in Cameroon. Its leaves are cooked with a nut paste, sun-dried vegetables, chilli, and beef, lamb or fish to become a sort of signature stew. It is also her national dish.

Her menu is primarily Cameroonian, but features a few items from other parts of Africa, including Congolese pundu, made with cassava leaves and a spicy peanut sauce. West African food includes much that is fried and artery antagonising, but is designed to eliminate all traces of hunger. I'm served with fish alongside rice steeped in a potent sauce, which is fiery enough to make me break into a mild sweat, although the flavours are justifiable reward for the pili-pili bang. I walk out deeply satisfied.

In contrast with Bebe Rose’s pared-down aesthetic, is the melange décor at Timbuktu Café (first floor, Pan-African Market, 76 Long Street; +27 21 426 4478), the alfresco café on the first floor of the nearby Pan-African Market. Draped with fabrics and crammed full of African artefacts and vintage collectibles, it is a mix between an antique bazaar and Bohemian lounge, not unlike stepping into a scene from Tintin. Flopping onto one of the ancient rug-covered sofas on the wooden balcony, I grab a book from the makeshift library, and drift into a reverie as scratchy jazz evokes a bygone era.

Having awakened my taste buds to the possibilities of flavoursome African dining, I confidently choose just the right wot to suit my mood. The grumble of Long Street’s relentless traffic recedes into the background, and I know that I am truly at home.

First published in abouTime Magazine, the official in-flight magazine for 1time airline.

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