It’s happening across South Africa…. Traditional African eateries, previously frequented almost exclusively by black people, are opening in suburbs where mostly white people live.
Local restaurateurs say it’s a sign of a rapidly changing country, with people of different cultures now wanting to taste foods previously unknown to them under South Africa’s divisive apartheid system. And, until recently, many South Africans shunned local foods and recipes in favor of European cuisine. But no longer.
Under a canopy of faded African newspaper pages pasted against the ceiling, chef and restaurant owner Gerhard Schoonraad exuberantly greets his staff. Hugs and handshakes are exchanged. The waiters, waitresses and cooks are black South Africans. Schoonraad himself is a white Afrikaner who one day awoke with a desire to turn a dream into reality.
“To bring the township to the suburbs has always been something that I would have loved to do, and that is why I have done it – I have made my restaurant into Soweto in the suburbs!” the effervescent Schoonraad exclaims, before reflecting, “As a child I grew up on a farm, and when we drove past the black people having fun at their shebeens, it always looked so pleasurable to me…. And I thought that I would bring that real, authentic, ethnic, wonderful atmosphere to a suburb like Linden.”
During apartheid, only white people were allowed to live in Linden, an area in Johannesburg that’s still home mostly to white Afrikaners. It’s an unlikely setting for what Schoonraad describes as a “new age shebeen,” referring to the noisy eating and drinking holes found in South African townships.
After initial resistance from Linden residents – “people fear what they don’t understand,” Schoonraad explains – the restaurateur now serves his white compatriots food once eaten almost exclusively by black South Africans, and he serves it to the beat of traditional township music.
“The Sowetan or the township experience, and the cuisine, is very new to the white South African palate. Because of that fact, 95 percent of my clientele base is white,” says the chef.
White housewives eating worms!
Schoonraad says he now regularly serves white suburban housewives helpings of boiled mogudu (sheep’s stomach) and mopane worms, dried and fried and served with a salsa-like sauce.
Mopane worms are an especially rich source of protein. They’re found on the mopane tree in South Africa’s Mpumalanga province, where they’re harvested and dried in the sun. Many of the country’s black people consider them a delicacy, but until very recently, says Schoonraad, very few white South Africans were willing to taste them.
Now waiter Victor Ntuli says he’s “no longer amazed” when a table of “well dressed, stylish white ladies” orders “hairy caterpillars” as a starter or main course.
As fat flames from chicken pieces basted in Mozambican peri peri sauce on a grill in the kitchen, Ntuli describes the flavor of mopane worms as “wonderful! You can enjoy it in a curry, or you can enjoy it fried on its own. Stunning; they’re divine; I really like them,” he says.
Schoonraad says his homeland’s currently experiencing a “culinary revolution,” and after more than 15 years of democracy, recipes and foods are finally crossing cultural and racial boundaries.
During apartheid, says Schoonraad, white South Africans “wouldn’t be caught dead” eating food such as mogudu and mopane worms. Rather, South Africa’s privileged white classes turned largely to Europe for culinary inspiration and to recipes from their Dutch, English and French ancestors who settled in the country centuries ago.
“Now we find white South Africans eating mopane worms. And we find black South Africans eating sushi. People want to taste things they’re not used to,” Schoonraad says. “There are just as many blacks now who wouldn’t be caught dead eating chicken feet as there are whites. Diet is becoming a class thing, not a race thing.”
Mama Tembo’s Wedding
For those with less adventurous taste buds, Schoonraad offers a variety of other foods, such as seafood from the ocean that pummels the South African coastline and oxtail and steaks from the country’s famed cattle farms. The restaurateur has also travelled the length and breadth of Africa collecting recipes from all over the continent, including Senegal, Morocco and Zanzibar.
“Each meal is prepared in a traditional African way, all made with African ingredients. We don’t serve anything that’s not from Africa,” Schoonraad says.
Some of his gastronomic inventions bear the names of South African political figures, such as “Mangosuthu’s Mussel Pot,” named after Inkatha Freedom Party founder Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Former president Nelson Mandela’s iconic image is plastered across walls, as are posters of products that have become part and parcel of South African culture, such as Iwisa maize meal and cigarette matches made by the Lion company.
Schoonraad says he’s tried to create a “fun and entertaining atmosphere” reflecting the “warmth and hospitality” of African culture. In contrast with the exotic European names of many restaurants in South Africa, the chef’s venture is called “Mama Tembo’s.”
“As a kid, I saw Ipi Tombi, one of South Africa’s most famous stage shows, that was basically a reflection of life in a black township. There was a song (in Ipi Tombi) called ‘Mama Tembo’s Wedding.’ And it made a very big impact on me and I really enjoyed the song,” he says.
To “wash all the beautiful African food down,” says barman Gibson Gumede, customers are expected to have cocktails and shooters unique to South Africa.
Gumede’s also often asked to make a drink invented by Schoonraad, the “Terror-Blanche.” The cocktail’s named after Eugene Terreblanche, the former leader of South Africa’s white supremacist Afrikaner Resistance Movement, which violently opposed black rule.
Schoonraad says South Africans “have never been afraid to laugh at one another, even during the darkest days of our painful history.” And certainly, South African humor is evident in the creation of the “Terror-Blanche.” Gumede says all the drink’s ingredients are white, or “pale,” in color – milk, cream and a South African liqueur called Cape Velvet.
Now a new kind of Afrikaner, epitomized by Gerhard Schoonraad, has risen, a kind that’s proud to be labeled “African.”
“If I can make a difference in changing South Africa for the better by allowing white South Africans to taste the so-called “forbidden fruits’ of the past,” the chef says, “then you’re damn right I’m going to do it.”