Modern chefs and food critics generally use the term ‘fusion’ to describe a late-20th century culinary phenomenon in which French cuisine was shocked out of its classical complacency by the addition of contrasting Asian ingredients. Popular usage notwithstanding, fusion food is not a contemporary creation. Many of the great ancient gastronomic genres blend diverse tastes and traditions.
While the term itself became stale circa 1990, the Franco-Asian fusion method is now so common as to be the contemporary, classy restaurant norm. Especially in the Western Cape where it is almost impossible to sit down to posh nosh without finding lemongrass in the velouté and miso glaze on everything from fish to friandise.
I have no particular bone to pick with modern fusion food. It is as good or bad as the chef who creates it. What I don’t understand is why this Franco-Asian combo is considered gourmet and stylish while other older cultural/culinary blends are, at best, patronizingly placed in the soul food box and, at worst, considered to be trashy.
In South Africa, local fusion offerings are particularly scorned. Afro-Lusitanian fusion food (such as piri piri) is served up in chip shops. Indian-Zulu fusion (think chakalaka) is found at shisa nyamas. The unique and glorious clove, allspice, cinnamon and barishap (fennel) -laden, sweet in the savoury, dried naartjie peel infused mélange of Dutch, Javanese and Indonesian island fare that is Cape Malay cuisine is rare in any commercial setting and all but invisible when one moves beyond the eateries that are essentially corner cafés with a few tables at the back.
I like Café Zorina in the Cape Town CBD and Biesmiellah in the Bo-Kaap but they are both very basic in style and the food tends to be a bit hit and miss. The less said about Gold and Bo-Kaap Kombuis the better. Suffice it to say that they are aimed at tourists of the worst sort with flavours modified to suit the tour bus trade. Amongst the upper epicurean echelons there are very few Cape Malay tastes in evidence. A notable exception used to be the team at Cellars Hohenort in Constantia but even this seems to be being phased out. To his credit, Luke Dale Roberts did include a locally inspired pickled fish starter amongst his 2014 Test Kitchen offering but given that Cape Town is the inheritor and guardian of a great homegrown fusion food form, this is very slim pickings.
I acknowledge that part of the problem pertains to the economics of Halaal restaurants. Many potential Cape Malay restaurateurs are Muslim and struggle to develop a business model with which to make money without liquor sales. This partially explains the lack of high-end, single focus Cape Malay restaurants but it does not explain the failure to incorporate the core tastes of the Cape into the multitude of mainstream modern fusion restaurants.
It is tragic but true that South Africa’s best Cape Malay restaurant is not in Cape Town. D6 in Emmarentia, Johannesburg is named after Cape Town’s iconic, apartheid destroyed, District Six area. It is not a perfect restaurant but it is a food and décor cut above any of the alternative Cape Malay options. Some might say that ornamentation crosses the line into theme-park cliché with the framed Kaapse Klopse carnival uniforms. My waitress called me darling (which I liked) and, when not serving, sat on a sofa immediately outside the front door chain smoking (which I didn’t like). Cigarette fumes wafted constantly over my table. It was Ramadan and, half way through my meal, the waitress was joined by a friend who sat beside her on the sofa, picking at his teeth and grumbling loudly about the effect of food smells on those fasting. It was a wonder he could smell anything amidst the carcinogenic cloud in which they sat.
The food at D6 deserves better than a cigarette smoke garnish. My pickled fish starter was magnificent with just enough acid, onion and allspice to brighten the taste and texture of fish. Thinly sliced onion rings with the ideal amount of al dente crunch offered a sweet, sour, spicy Cape fusion tang. A subsequent tomato bredie was masterful with a lovely thick gravy. The accompanying yellow rice was laced with plump raisins. My offal-loving friend’s pens and pootjies (honeycomb tripe and trotters) came with a generous pile of cinnamon-sugar-sprinkled pumpkin fritters. Despite all the deliciousness described above it was the generously silken, tamarind, clove and nutmeg infused lamb denningvleis that came out top of our table’s pops. The plating is stylishly simple, as befits a kitchen that has faith in its flavours.
The fasting grumbles out front not-withstanding, there is alcohol on offer at D6. The wine selection is neither large nor exciting but it is there – along with an assortment of shooters and beers. My table accompanied our round of decent espressos with Cape-style coconut rolled koesisters. The smooth, plump, syrupy dough received respite from sticky sweetness by the addition of palate-cleansing ground naartjie peel and cardamom.
None of it was as good as my friend Riad’s mum makes in her Bo-Kaap home but it was definitely the best commercially available Cape Malay meal that I have ever eaten and infinitely preferable to most of the Franco-Asian, modern fusion food offerings out there.
D6 – District Six Eatery 011 486 7226; 42B Greenhill Road, Emmarentia, Johannesburg
• Dr Anna Trapido was trained as an anthropologist at King’s College Cambridge and a chef at the Prue Leith College of Food and Wine. She has twice won the World Gourmand Cookbook Award. She has made a birthday cake for Will Smith, a Christmas cake for Nelson Mandela and cranberry scones for Michelle Obama. She is in favour of Champagne socialism and once swallowed a digital watch by mistake.