Cape Town’s Daring New Foodie Scene

A renewed emphasis on local cooking techniques combined with the extraordinary array of fresh produce available in Cape Town, means an entirely new type of eating.

For years, South Africa, a country of 11 official languages, had no idea what its national cuisine was. This was largely due to the fact Apartheid deemed any non-white tradition irrelevant. So the rich world of Cape Malay, Indian, Zulu, Xhosa and Khoisan cooking was swept aside in mainstream restaurants for a focus on European fine-dining and classic Afrikaans recipes until 1994.

However, recently a renewed emphasis on local cooking techniques has combined with the extraordinary array of fresh produce available in Cape Town to create an entirely new type of eating. Condé Nast Traveler named Cape Town the top foodie city in the world for 2016. Added to the mix is the vibrant creative energy of a growing city and the result is one of the most exciting, innovate restaurant scenes in the world. Here, we speak to three chefs on the frontline of Cape Town cooking.

Chris Erasmus
Foliage’s open kitchen is a far cry from the meticulous work stations of other world-class restaurants. The Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans, Coloured and English chefs — all of whom incorporate family recipes into the seasonal menu — are enjoying themselves as much as the diners, tasting each other’s food and chatting in multiple languages while they whip up a yellowfin tuna tartar with hake roe parfait or a slow-cooked Karoo lamb rib with apple and nasturtium purée.

This riotous atmosphere is all down to Chris Erasmus, the bearded, tattooed head chef of Foliage, who is as passionate about his country as he is about food. “South Africa has so many incredible influences,” he says. “It was a key stop on the Spice Route, and heavily spiced recipes have been a part of community cooking for centuries. Traditional African cooking is so rich. It would be such a waste to ignore it all in the quest to be like Italy or France.

“We get milk-fermenting techniques from our Xhosa colleagues; bean-stew recipes from our Zulu ones; and Cape Malay dishes from our Coloured friends; and our food is the better for it,” he continues. “But we’re not alone. The restaurant scene here in Cape Town is getting really diverse as chefs are finally starting to find their own identity. Fifteen years ago, South African restaurants were all the same, but not now.”

As well as focusing on traditional recipes, Erasmus is hugely inspired by the natural world. Based out of the mountain-rimmed town of Franschhoek, Foliage is renowned for its focus on foraging — and, yes, this means that most afternoons Erasmus and his team set off into the local forests to look for mushrooms by the burbling streams, and wild fruit and vegetables growing under the canopy of trees.

“I grew up in the Swartland and we ate the food we grew,” he says. “Which is why now, the only product I import is pasta flour, because really, nowhere else makes that like Italy. Everything else is from the region, which, luckily for us, is one of the most fertile places on Earth.”

Reuben Riffel
The jewel-like houses of Bo-Kaap shimmer under the hot sunshine, creating one of the most iconic images of modern Cape Town. But behind their rainbow colours is the long and often distressing tale of a Coloured community living under Apartheid.

“Bo-Kaap is an incredibly special place,” says chef Reuben Riffel, who, with his range of high-end restaurants and easy-to-follow cookbooks, is often described as the Jamie Oliver of South Africa. “I come from a small Coloured town and community is so important to us. Naturally, things change, but in Bo-Kaap it has stayed the same. While Apartheid laws destroyed so many communities across South Africa, the forced relocations encouraged those who stayed to deepen their traditions, and food became an especially powerful reminder of who we were.”

The history of Cape Malay cooking dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Dutch East India Company imported thousands of Javanese and Indian slaves to work on South African farms. Today their descendants speak Afrikaans and most have fully integrated into the Coloured community — a mixed-race group with their own unique identity — but their food continues to tell their important tale.

Today, the authentic Cape Malay restaurants that have been in place for decades are flourishing, serving biryani, bobotie, samosas and chilli bites under the shadow of Lion’s Head. And Riffel — who has restaurants in Bo-Kaap, Paternoster, Franschhoek and the Waterfront — has brought Cape Malay influences into much of his cooking. His most popular dish at Reubens in the One & Only Cape Town is lamb bobotie samosas and springbok steak with coriander curry.

“A blend of spices — ginger, fennel, star anise, tamarind and, most important, turmeric — gives my food its distinctive aromatic quality,” says Riffel. “It’s fusion African-Asian food that I grew up eating that I believe represents our country beautifully.”

Luke Dale-Roberts
British-born Luke Dale-Roberts is rapidly becoming the unlikely champion of South African cuisine. First introduced to Cape Town by his wife, who grew up in the city, he was overawed by not just the beauty of the region, but the ripe, fresh produce that was on offer.

His flagship restaurant, The Test Kitchen, was launched in 2010 and currently sits at number 28 on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, making it the highest-rated establishment on the continent. And even the great Heston Blumenthal has nothing but praise for Dale-Roberts, describing him as, “A truly fantastic chef; he has this ability of putting seemingly incongruent ingredients together in such a way that they work amazingly well — which is something close to my heart.”

Dale-Roberts may have been born in London and trained in Switzerland and Asia, but the ingredients he uses are largely South African — not only at The Test Kitchen, but at his new ventures The Pot Luck Club, a glass-encased establishment overlooking Table Mountain; and The Shortmarket Club, a New York-style brasserie in the city centre.

“You get driven by the seasons in the Cape because of all the indigenous produce,” he says. “I like to use fynbos, wild rosemary, local snoek, and I’m particularly interested in the South African tradition of pickling fish and vegetables.” And with dishes at The Test Kitchen’s famous tasting 12-course tasting menu including Bo-Kaap slangetjies and Wagyu Biltong, it seems the boy from London really has left his roots behind.

“My mantra is flavour,” he says. “Everything is about creating the perfect flavour combination. And I’m not alone. You really feel momentum in the city right now — slowly this amazing restaurant scene is growing in all these varied ways. It’s getting to the point where it’s impossible not to be a foodie if you live in Cape Town.”

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