Silver blades forged with high-tensile carbon steel flash as they slice through cardinal-red fillets of salmon on a restaurant counter in inner-city Johannesburg.
Themba Khumalo’s most treasured possessions are his Japanese sushi knives, which he keeps razor sharp and disinfected “at all times.”
“Without beautiful knives, a sushi chef is naked,” says the lithe 33-year-old chef, dressed in a checked shirt, tattered jeans and sneakers. “Where I come from the only people who love knives as much as I do are gangsters!”
Khumalo lives in Vosloorus, a sprawling, smoky, impoverished township east of Johannesburg. “People there think I’m lying when I tell them I’m a sushi chef.
“The few who even know what sushi is tell me: ‘Black people can’t make sushi, it’s only for Japanese and white people,” he says, winking and smiling.
Beneath a pitch black wall decorated with golden chopsticks, Khumalo gently sculpts maki - teardrop-shaped mouthfuls of raw salmon, cucumber and avocado, surrounded by sticky, snow-white rice in a wrap of paper-thin dark green seaweed.
The secret is in the sauce
Next, he creates a serving of spicy prawn bean curd. It looks like a piece of bread, topped with chopped raw pink prawns, slivers of avocado, creamy mayonnaise sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds and an auburn-colored sauce.
“Don’t ask me what’s in the sauce. It’s our secret,” Khumalo maintains. “All I’ll say is that it contains a blend of African and Japanese spices.”
Secrets of South African sushi
Khumalo gets paid to make “sushi art” at The Blackanese – an eatery that’s the brainchild of 30-year-old restaurateur Vusi Kunene.
Like his head chef, Kunene was raised poor, but in a village in Mpumalanga province.
“My grandmother farmed vegetables for my mother to sell in Johannesburg. We ate mostly pap (maize porridge) and morogo (spinach). On special days, we ate chicken.”
He laughs at the memory – a guffaw that’s a mixture of irony and disbelief, at the fact that he was once a person who didn’t know that sushi existed.
Kunene says if someone had arrived in his village when he was a boy and offered him a piece of raw fish, he would have found it “impossible” to eat.
“I would think: ‘Are they nuts?’”
Yet now he’s one of the key players in a rejuvenated central Johannesburg’s fine food revolution.
‘I fell in love…’
His mother died when he was 14. Kunene left his village school and headed for the big city. After some “directionless” teenage years, he became a security guard.
Then he took a job as a waiter at a restaurant at O.R. Tambo International Airport, which later led to a sushi eatery in Cape Town – where he was almost fired for his “fixation” with watching the sushi chefs.
“I neglected my customers because I was mesmerized by the whole process of crafting sushi, the intricacy; the colors. The way they used their knives; it was like they were dancing. It was like hearing beautiful music for the first time,” Kunene remembers. “I fell in love with sushi before I even tasted it!”
Kunene learned as much as he could about the “culture of sushi,” milking many chefs about what constituted “perfect” sushi – a process that wasn’t easy.
“At the time the chefs were Japanese, were Chinese, who could not speak English. And who were not willing to share the information. Then I started doing my own research, on the Internet and moving to different types of sushi restaurants.”
Kunene spent years investigating Cape Town’s sushi industry and seven years ago started a mobile sushi business in Johannesburg.
His dream of owning a sushi venture “with a twist” was realized about two years ago when he opened The Blackanese in the city’s rapidly transforming and trendy Maboneng Precinct.
“I got the idea for the name from a funny guy at a function I was catering. He said: “Great sushi; what part of Japan are you from?” I said: “I’m not Japanese, I’m Blackanese,” Kunene explains, laughing.
The name’s strongly indicative of this restaurateur’s mission: To “turn black people on” to sushi. “For me to fulfill this, I had to create sushi for the African palate.” The challenge was to overcome Africans’ “one big misconception” that sushi hat is simply raw fish.
“Sushi’s a combination of rice and vinegar. You can actually have sushi without raw fish. Raw fish is just one of the fillings,” Kunene insists.
Kunene “Africanized” the Asian cuisine by adding traditional South African ingredients, such as springbok and kudu antelope, and even biltong, which is dried spiced meat.
“When you talk to an African person and then you’re telling them about biltong sushi… they are willing to try it out. And then immediately when they get into it, this is when you sort of push them into the extremes.”
Kunene says Africans “eat with their eyes first.”
“So we’ve found here that if our sushi is attractive, even if it’s raw fish, African customers will eat it.”
He adds that he’s proved this by coating raw fish in alluring sweet chili sauce, giving the food a shiny, orange glaze, flecked with red.
“Few Africans will eat wasabi (a pungent paste made from the roots of a Japanese plant) on their sushi. But they will eat it with sweet chili sauce,” says Kunene.
“Immediately when you drizzle that onto that roll, when someone looks at it, it looks amazing, it looks inviting and people are like: ‘I want that.’ They don’t even know what it is, but their first statement was: ‘I want it.’”
His chefs are all young black men, trained by sushi masters.
He insists: “Africans are much more willing to try sushi if they see that it’s made by fellow black people.”
Surge in black clients
When The Blackanese opened, Kunene says his clientele was 70 percent white; now it’s 50 percent black.
“Black patronage has grown intensively, and it continues to grow. Sushi has become sort of their staple food. It’s something that they eat actually three times in a week,” he says.
One of Kunene’s best customers is Seth Mbhele, a bespectacled digital strategist in his early 30s. Mbhele’s the epitome of black urban chic: clad stylishly in a blue cashmere sweater, black pants and expensive shoes, eating sushi rolls for lunch while working on his IPad.
He recalls the first time he tasted sushi a few years ago, and the dish he ate.
“Tuna sashimi (thinly sliced raw tuna). I found the textures interesting, I found the flavors interesting. Once you get over the idea of what it is that you’re eating, it becomes enjoyable. I’m here pretty much four times a week, I think.”
Demand for sushi from black people in South African continues to “stun” Kunene.
About a year ago his restaurant was hired to cater at a function, where he knew most people would be black. So most of the food he prepared was “usual African fare, lots of meat and chicken and starch” but only “minimal” platters of sushi.
“But then when we got there it turns out that people are just mad about sushi and nothing else. We had sort of understocked. It was such an embarrassing moment… and I learned a big lesson that night,” says Kunene.
Removing the mystery from sushi
“Most amazingly, you change somebody who’s never thought of actually trying sushi. But when they come to The Blackanese and we give them that opportunity to try sushi and we always make sure they enjoy it, then the most amazing reaction is these people become loyal to you.”
Kunene is demystifying sushi, making sure it’s not the sole preserve of elite, rich, sophisticated people, by giving it an African spin. Some of his regular clients are construction workers from nearby building sites.
“There’s a gentleman who just walked in here now who’s an electrician in the area,” says Kunene. He gestures toward a man in blue overalls who places an order at the takeout counter. “He’s been bothering me about getting sushi for his girlfriend, because he has actually tasted sushi and he feels like his girlfriend should also experience what he has experienced.”
He describes such events as his “greatest triumphs” as a restaurateur.
“Also when black parents bring their kids to eat at my place, it makes me very proud. It really shows that South Africa is a very different place these days.”
The once-poor village boy, his taste buds accustomed only to porridge, vegetables and the occasional chicken, is indeed symbolic of a country that continues to reinvent itself.