News / Africa

    Restaurateur Creates Sushi for African Palate

    • The owner of The Blackanese restaurant, Vusi Kunene, grew up on maize porridge but decided to ‘Africanize’ Japanese cuisine in Johannesburg’s trendy Maboneng Precinct. (Photo by Darren Taylor)
    • Chef Themba Khumalo grew up in a village in Mpumalenge province and now wields high-tensile carbon steel knives to craft red fillets of salmon for black South Africans. (Photo by Darren Taylor)
    • Khumalo sculpts a tasty mouthful of sushi for a hungry customer. (Photo by Darren Taylor)
    • Kunene (right) adds springbok and kudu to his sushi menu and offers sweet chili sauce for patrons who reject the hot wasabi paste. (Photo by Darren Taylor)
    • Blackanese staff were all trained by top sushi chefs. Kunene says Africans will try sushi “that’s made by fellow black people.” (Photo by Darren Taylor)

    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
    Secrets of South African sushii
    || 0:00:00
    ...    
     
    X


    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.  

    ‘Africanized’ sushi

    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.

    You May Like

    Clinton, Trump and the 'Woman’s Card'

    Ask supporters of Democratic front-runner in US presidential campaign, and they’ll tell you Republican presidential candidate is playing a dangerous hand

    Russian Censorship Group Seeks Chinese Help to Better Control Internet

    At recent Safe Internet League forum in Moscow, speakers from both nations underscored desire for authorities to further limit and control information online

    Video Makeshift Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Free classes in Islamabad park serve a few of the country’s nearly 25 million out-of-school youths; NGO cites ‘education crisis’

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora