There is no obvious association between lentils and the Dunkeld shopping centre in Johannesburg. Generally this suburban arcade offers old money, posh nosh at inflated prices. It is home to the multi-award winning DW 11-13 and croissant sellers abound. It is the sort of spot where ladies who lunch lunch. And they tend not to eat lentils – in part because they are the sort of ladies who claim never to fart.
Cornucopia Cafe definitely lowers the tone and raises the taste of the centre. It is tucked away, down a dark alley, opposite the green grocer’s and next to the butcher. It is part spaza shop, part Indian restaurant. I mean the spaza thing literally. When was the last time you went to a restaurant that sells cigarettes, Jelly Babies and copies of People magazine on the counter by the till? The staff, customers and décor have the passing through anonymity of a truck-stop eating house or at best one of those Hare Krishna restaurants where you can eat for free if you don’t mind a tambourine garnish.
The good news is that the lentils at Cornucopia are not served up as part of a conversion strategy. They are just there as a portion of a menu that offers great food at reasonable prices in an un-primped space. They do sell meat dishes at Cornucopia (and I saw many happy bunnies consuming lamb bunny chows at neighbouring tables) but it is the lentil-specific section of the menu that offers the best value and greatest glories.
I chose a blissfully buttery dhal makhnie. No, I hadn’t ever seen it spelt that way either but that’s what it says on the menu so I’m sticking with it. Anyone who has ever eaten a grey-sludge, student version of this dish needs to toss aside all preconceptions and start again at Cornucopia. When made well (as it is here) this Punjabi comfort food’s aromatic emotional message transcends culture. Even those of us who didn’t grow up eating the urad black lentil and rajma kidney bean mélange can instantly understand its epicurean embrace. In its rich, porridge thick, complex ginger and cumin layers of taste and texture there is what curry doyenne Madhur Jaffrey has described as a “blessedly comforting creaminess”.
Blogger Ian Thorpe once wrote that ‘a good cook is someone who knows how to make lentil casserole but doesn’t,’ (www.greenteeth.blog.co.uk). He clearly hasn’t had a bowl of dhal makhnie from Cornucopia at the Dunkeld West shopping centre, Johannesburg.
Cornucopia; 011 268 1937; Shop 5, Dunkeld West Center, Corner Jan Smuts Avenue and Bompas Road, Johannesburg