Chef Absalom Kotsokoane’s personal touch
‘What’s on this plate is what I have learned about you. Each plating is different.’ Chef Absalom Kotsokoane places great value on ‘learning who people are’ and individualising their wants.
Moeng – goroga re je ka wena. The extended name is above the entrance. Chef and co-owner Absalom Kotsokoane has already said it doesn’t translate easily because of the way the word sequence is used colloquially, to generate excitement about the arrival of a guest into the family home and the ensuing expectations of using special cutlery and putting lovely foods on the table to make it as special as possible.
We giggle about baldly accurate app translations, the impossibility of translating idioms and the various ways that phrases are used to convey so much that isn’t even written.
But Absalom first gapes and then laughs at the translation I was given by a supposedly Setswana speaking neighbour: “You buy a bottle … (obviously of beer).”
I’m at Chef Absalom’s double-storey Rosebank restaurant, looking up at a whimsical arrangement of little straw hats on the ceiling, some of which hold lamps, divided into a diamond pattern by what look like wooden walking sticks. It’s cool and calm in here, even in the industrious kitchen over there. The windows keep me this side of a jolly party of eight, though it looks like more with social distancing, at a very long table. I’d admired the outside tables earlier, highly polished dark wood, the cracks filled with shiny-white pebbles.
Moeng’s beautifully plated and oh-so-tenderly cooked, as I’ll find, food tells stories.
Absalom is part of a story too. In the days of Ga-Rankuwa being a “homeland” called Baphuthatswana for essentially baTswana, the apartheid government bunged in anyone they didn’t want living anywhere else, regardless of who was who. Ga-Rankuwa is today almost entirely in Gauteng. His grandmother lived in the village of Kgabalatsane and sent young Absalom to buy groceries for the household. He became fascinated by the transformation of the ingredients into dishes and enjoyed his responsibility of selecting and choosing, making purchase decisions based on quality as far as possible.
At about 13 or 14 years old, Absalom reckoned he was ready to attempt making meatballs. What could go wrong? They cracked apart on the fire and his grandmother asked him if he’d added “the breadcrumbs”. It wasn’t anything he bought at the shops or knew but she showed him how to make fine crumbs from hard bread. His next meatballs held together and he went on cooking with grandmotherly guidance. Where would the world’s cuisines be without grandmothers, I wonder.
And yet he became a landscape designer when he grew up.
A man gets up from the head of the table on the other side of the glass, positions himself in front of a fresco on one of the new just-being-finished neighbouring buildings and takes a selfie. This is all still becoming new here. Right beside Moeng is another attractive new place called the Greenhouse Bar and the Clico restaurant and hotel is a block away. For getting up here on a sort of piazza from the street corner are some snazzy new mosaic steps that I suspect are designed by architect Lorenzo Nassimbeni. Moeng has just been open “today, one month and six days”.
The selfie man returns, running his hand through his hair, and Absalom says he didn’t remain a landscape designer for long but started his own catering company with the endearing name, Happy Spoon. It did well but, as a friend of his mentioned, Absalom was full of ideas, plans and go but lacked enough of the “how”. The South African Chefs Association saw to that and Absalom qualified through SA Chefs with his name on his chef’s jacket. The friend complimented him on his “how” very soon after.
I’ve been hearing people calling Absalom “Absa” so ask which he prefers. He says “Either…” very softly and I hear the part that’s not said, “… but if you can say the whole thing that would be nice.” He does say some people can’t seem to manage the whole name. I find I can.
It makes me think of a man I met in Mali, a Tuareg called Tawadali. He had printed his tourism business cards with Tawadali on one side and Mohamed Ali on the other. He explained that Americans for some reason can’t say Tawadali and call him “Mohamed Ali”. He just gave up and printed both names, even the one that’s not his. I rolled my eyes too. Tawadali is one syllable shorter.
Absalom is standing up, saying he’s going to get something for me.
What he’s been talking about meantime is the concept of this restaurant being about a celebration of homely, welcoming food, quite traditional culturally but given a professional whooomff of urban style. He also says he places great value on “learning who people are” and individualising their wants.
I don’t think I understand that last bit entirely until my plate arrives. Meantime, I see him beyond the pass, with people in the kitchen intently following what he’s doing.
My own plate features pulled beef, “very, very slow-cooked like the village men do overnight for a celebration – and then finished a little cheffily” with a neat, crumbed ball on top just asking to be opened up. It is tshoto in a completely new light. On the rest of the plate, purees of butternut, peas, white onion with orange, beetroot have been piped exquisitely.
“What’s on this plate is what I have learned about you. Each plating is different.” Wow.
I also have to guess what the ball contains. I guess correctly that it’s pap. When I open it though, the pap is not bluey-white but wholesome looking, creamy, a few herbs and peas within. Absalom indicates the crust. “The breadcrumbs – I still make them like my grandmother taught me!”
Of course, the beef is extremely tender, immensely tasty as with ultra-slow-cooked food and I have no problem eating my vegetables, prodding the meat and really delicious pap into the purees. I finish it all, marvelling at my food fortune and the whole astonishing experience.
I didn’t know another dish was coming for me to eat. Most of the menu is a considerable wine and other drinks menu. Only the first page features the food, professionally and confidently short, much to my liking. I’ve already made up my mind to come back for a mugodo burger. Since the beef is as excellent as this, I imagine the tender, rich mugodo, featured under Light Meals. I’ve only had chicken feet once before and was delightfully surprised at their softness and succulence. I see one of the light meals is Chicken Feet Supreme. The chickens that are used, presumably for them and also under Main Courses, we’ve already discussed as being those very non-battery, long-legged chickens one sees stalking around in country villages. Slow-cooked again, as the French often do with aged chickens for coq au vin, the birds’ flavour intensity is deliciously retained.
As well as traditionally, culturally inspired dishes, there is a vegan dish, a vegetarian dish, a fish dish and a lamb shank dish for less traditional tastes. There are also Moeng-made rondelini pasta dishes. I had to ask. Rondelini are like large ravioli that are used to encircle food; they’re being used here to hold together a chicken and prawn dish and another one used for stuffing full of variously cooked vegetables. I have the fish dish before me. It’s pangasius (no, not barbel though that would be fine too, for me), an aquaculture fish.
This is grilled and presented with a coconut milky celery and dill sauce that I stop to adore at first taste, the fish’s pale flesh slipping into satin flakes, so perfectly cooked is it.
Because of my obsession and endless chatter about Joburg food I’m often asked what it is. I generally say it’s what’s really typical of and admirable about the food of this place, not faraway Cape Town. I usually add that Joburg is the place where most of Africa has a food (even coffee) influence nowadays and where many Portuguese, Indian and prisoner-of-war Italians came to live, where Mozambican miners left their food mark by way of chillies and chakalaka. There were people eating here long before the newer arrivals and their food. Our indigenous ingredients, though long unsung, are being appreciated once more, sometimes along with all those later enriching influences. Joburg food is local and “here” and unmissable when you taste it.
Moeng’s classy cuisine is based on family food, local traditions and culture from this very province. It is unmissable and should be. A food translation app might one day say that a stranger will not be strange for long at Moeng and, though chef Absalom might “learn about you” and design a plating especially for you, you will learn about our local culture by eating this outstanding food here in Johannesburg. DM/TGIFood
Moeng, Shop 3 Oxford Park, cnr Oxford Rd and Jellicoe Ave, 071 664 9253.