Avoid tourist traps. A trip to the strip on Camps Bay usually confirms this. Eat where the locals eat. Ignoring my own advice I trudge up Wale Street towards the Noon Gun Tea Room and Restaurant, nestled below the canon, whose daily boom has jolted Capetonians into the reality that it is mid-day for over 200* years. For longer than that the Cape Malayan community has been cooking its more gently fired and often sweet curries, for most of that time here in the Bo-Kaap.
I pass the aroma of fresh masala fragrances wafting out of Atlas Trading, struggling to identify the individual spices that include turmeric, coriander and cumin. The Bo-Kaap community lives on the streets. Kids spill out of the street-fronted houses to throw around rugby balls when they aren’t playing dominoes on their stoeps. Groups of young men stride past, occasionally menacingly. Elderly head-scarfed ladies always have time to stop and chat.
I stop at the Biesmiellah Corner butchery and restaurant, where my car is parked. The resident Staffie suns himself in the middle of the street, untroubled by a truck that passes inches from his dozing head. I drive the rest of the way for Signal Hill’s gradient increases dramatically from here.
A trip to the Tea Room is worth it for the view alone. The deck above a house is shaded by more recent but equally resilient immigrants, a Syringa tree and a Jacaranda. The vista spans Table Mountain and its bay, sweeping across the West Coast to the Swartland hills beyond. It’s quiet up here, the traffic sounds of the city a barely audible hum. For wet and windy weather the south-facing indoor section of the restaurant offers a large picture window.
While the views are majestic, this is not Cape Town with a European lick of paint. It is also not the poorer community (threatened by a middle-class invasion) that lives lower down the hill. Houses are big. Alterations are in progress to make them even grander. Building rubble peppers the pavements. The most unscrupulous use the area to dump their junk. In both areas the Cape Malayan community’s authenticity survives.
On the deck a menu is finally delivered by a bored waitron. A starter of fried bites, best eaten straight from the pan (R23), is ordered. It includes a samoosa (dainty deep-fried pastry filled with mince); a chick pea flour papadum (a light pancake); and a dhaltjie (chilli bite) of the same flour.
I select bobotie for the main. This baked mince dish, sweet with raisins, spiced with cloves and curry powder and topped with savoury custard is among the most traditional of Cape Malayan dishes.
A more worldly manager returns to apologise that there is no bobotie today. Denningvleis (meat stew cooked in sweet-sour tamarind juice) will have to do.
Among the starter bites the papadum is best, still brittle-crisp from the pan and flecked with chilli. The dhaltjie has a staleness suggesting it has been lying around. The samoosa only marginally fresher. An atchar of green beans, cauliflower and carrots the only dip worth noting.
The denningvleis of beef (as opposed to the more traditional lamb) arrives with a turmeric-orange bowl of rice, sweet-rich with saffron and butter (R95). The stew is sweet and sour as promised. The meat lean and tender, lurking with fried potatoes past their best.
Despite today’s disappointment Cape Malayan cuisine does have its avid campaigners. In an interview with food website Chow, Sunday Times (of London) restaurant critic AA Gill argues Cape Malayan cuisine has the potential to rise to international prominence. I guess it’s possible but the owners of Noon Gun Tea Room are unlikely to light the fuse.
First up they should decide if they are trying to offer you a traditional home-cooked meal or a restaurant. If they are simply offering a slice of home-based cuisine they should dispense with the limited printed menus. There is no shame in offering a changing chalk board menu of what’s good (and available) on the day. Here passion is lacking. You’d do better to befriend a local and hope for an invitation into their home.
The other alternative is to deliver on the restaurant menu offered. They aren’t doing that either. Neither option, while perfectly acceptable if executed properly, is likely to set the world alight. For that to happen someone will really need to step in and up the game: a chef who can play with the tradition, mix and match, contrast and compliment.
While we do have diverse local cuisines, that include dishes such as the dirty tripe of the baSotho and the Karoo lily veldkool, not enough has been invested in them, as this quote succinctly puts it:
“Our Afrikaans culinary art is about a feeble as our volkspele, and these too are imitations of what we have inherited from Europe. Yet we have enough material to enable us to develop our own methods of preparing unique, characteristically Afrikaans food…I do not know, and really do not care, whether these innovations would actually be improvements. I plead only that we should try them.”
That was in 1942 from Cape food connoisseur and poet C Louis Leipoldt’s ** Huisgenoot magazine column.
At Noon Gun Tea Room sweets include koeksister (syrup-coated deep-fried doughnut) and melktert (milk tart). In accordance with Muslim beliefs no alcohol permitted.
I tried to access the canon (which is just above the Tea Room) and found it fenced off. If you are into big bangs it may be best to access it by car via Military Road.
* in the early 1900’s the canon moved from the Castle of Good Hope to its present site
** translated columns published in Leipoldt’s Cellar & Kitchen
April 14, 2010