First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Chillies from outer space and ancient eggs

Maverick Life


Chillies from outer space and ancient eggs

The ultra-tender food was steaming, teaspoon-cut-soft beef. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Cold pearls, chillies from outer space, seriously vintage eggs. They all taste surprisingly good in the Chinatown of Cyrildene.


The writer supports Nosh Food Rescue, an NGO that helps Jozi’s soup kitchens, shelters and feeding schemes with food and produce “rescued” from the food chain. Please support them here

In Derrick Avenue or the Cyrildene Chinatown, there are not many people who are not Chinese. Both sides of the street are alive with Chinese supermarkets, fresh produce spilling onto the street where it becomes waste the further it ventures, massage places, restaurants, trucks bleeping to park, Mercs and busy Chinese men. Chinese women run across the street in pretty pumps. Hardly any hubbubs or conversations feature English.

Here I enjoy that. But it is a scary prospect when travelling to another country. About a decade ago I was offered a trip to China, to write about my choice of travel and food topics. That was pretty exciting and I thought up topics in no time but I put off contacting the tourism people and I kept putting it off. I felt dread under the thrill. When I identified the dread it was that, when I went, I’d be stranded linguistically. For maybe the first time in my life I’d have no clues at all about what anyone was saying, what any images or words meant, how to ask for help or directions. There’d be no linguistic references at all for me. It was a scary proposition and I delayed my reply so long that I didn’t have to go any more.

English is spoken at Simplicity, really the foyer of an old block of flats. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

I think that’s why I like beginning my trips at the bottom paifang gateway to Derrick Avenue with a visit to Simplicity, for tea. Rather surprisingly, the tearoom or bar is really a closed off section of the foyer of an old block of flats called Hillview Heights. And Betty speaks English. One would imagine there’d be many people from Taiwan here but it seems she’s the only Taiwanese trader nowadays, in Second Chinatown, which is mostly full of people from the vast mainland of China, from Quinghai to Zhejiang, with a smattering from other Chinese speaking countries. (First Chinatown is at the John Vorster Square [now Johannesburg Central Police Station] end of Commissioner Street in the city, and Third in Rivonia.)

Jozi’s First Chinatown, almost entirely Taiwanese, has been around since 1886, housing Jozi’s oldest Chinese restaurant and some establishments run by third and fourth generation South African Chinese people. But Second Chinatown only started peopling itself around 2000. 

An elderly Chinese couple sip hot tea in Simplicity but we visitors order cold teas with tapioca pearls instead of smaller coconut pearls. Mine is milky almond that tastes very like the very sweet marzipan icing one buys in rolls. It isn’t quite what I was expecting. I’ve drunk all kinds, a wide variety of hot and cold teas here before, and it’s something very different. But what was I expecting? Tincture of almond blossom? I suck it all up perfectly happily, the fat dark “pearls” zipping up though an outsize straw.

Before I finish, Betty slips me a red Chinese peace sign the size of my palm, on gold thread, which she suggests I use as a bookmark or handbag decoration. She wears the beautiful pale jade bracelet she’s worn for 24 years, she says, while telling me that her tea business took a knock from the lack of visitors to Cyrildene’s Chinatown because of the link between Covid-19 and China and people’s negative reactions about that.

Betty Wu says her tea business has been affected by visitors’ negative reactions about Covid-19 and China. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

My peace sign is dangling from my bag when we visit the nearby vegetable shops on the lookout for space chillies that David Brunton is researching. Yes, outer space chillies.

Among the glossy eggplants or aubergines of all colours and shapes, the jackfruit and kumquats, pomelos and melons, soybeans, groundnuts and duck eggs, choys, bean sprouts and buckets of tofu are the space chillies, at all the various greengrocers. 

Derrick Avenue greengrocery. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

They’re usually easy to spot by being extravagantly twisted and curled, bigger than their closest relatives. Hangjiāo seems to mean “voyaging pepper”. HJ5 is called Helix Nebula, a very popular one of 10 HJ chillies with other spacy names like Comet’s Tail and Supernova. 

The Chinese started sending chilli seeds, among other food crop seeds, into space in 1987 to expose them to cosmic radiation, utilising mutations that alter the size, growth and yield when planted here on earth, possibly creating new, better varieties. These hangjiāo are farmed locally and sold in Cyrildene. 

The Chinese government started sending chilli seeds, among other food crop seeds, into space in 1987. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

Not all the restaurants in Derrick Avenue and the side streets are as necessarily welcoming as Betty Wu’s place. Not all places are where you’d be understood by the owners or staff and vice versa. You may be brought water when you say you’d like to order, as a result of such misunderstandings. It also often appears, as I experienced a few visits back when three of us hunted for a less familiar, interesting place to try, that the owner or manageress simply says “no” before entry or has enough English to say they are busy, dismissively, when they don’t really appear to be.

We had settled down at one spot and asked if they had a wine list. They had a drinks list that featured eight fairly common wines and a few more beers and soft drinks. We ordered each of the eight wines in turn, to be assured each time that they did not have it. It began to look as though the list was rather what the restaurant didn’t have. One of the party went to a “bottle store” further down to get two bottles from there, the only two bottles in fact.

We’d opened one of the bottles and ordered food when the manageress told us they did not accept cards, only cash. We weren’t likely to make up enough in cash but she did mention, as she had about the bottle store, that there was an ATM at the bottom of Derrick Avenue, just around the corner. Our designated scamperer went back down Derrick Avenue, to the Petron (Philippino) filling station and found the ATM behind rows of rubber cartoon figures.

The smoky urn (above and below) containing shelves of soups in casserole dishes. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

It’s called Delicious Casserole Food and naturally people expect the big urn to be holding casseroles. It doesn’t. Perhaps it did once, given the name, but now the casserole dishes within contain a variety of soups. I peer right down through the smoke to the little charcoal fire at the bottom.

The owners speak pretty good English and though there are no useful names for all the deli items on the table at the entrance, some are recognisably tongues, too small to be cow but possibly pork, and there are pickled eggs.

We’ve walked up Derrick to get here, quite close to avenue’s top paifang, past some of the places I’ve been to or made attempts at going to. En route is a rather dirty section, people sitting in the street where drains overflow and where what’s left of the pavement features a high wall with razor wire on it and a glass observation or security box above that. I had to see, so peered through a section of chained up gate. 

Apart from the glass box, the big plot is empty of buildings but full of weeds and very possibly vegetables among them. Some goats on the plot hold my eye as I peer at them, shaking their heads slightly. There are maybe 20 of them but there are no great deductions to make about the situation and we continue our way, kicking boxes aside till we get to our destination in more salubrious surrounds.

Ruddy boiled eggs taste principally of star anise and soy. (Photo: Marie-Lais Emond)

There is no alcohol so no hassles with that and there are plenty of interesting cans of soft drinks. Mine is papino. The big attraction here for me is the dish of ruddy, boiled eggs I saw last time on the deli table and tried. The owner or her sister had told me that they’re day-old eggs, not a hundred years old as many people hope. They taste principally of star anise and soy, the colour also seeped right through, deliciously cooled in the liquor in which they’ve boiled. 

David and I have them as starters this time, followed, not by any soup, but a sizzling calamari dish for me. The flesh surface is cunningly cut into castellations to pick up the juices, gently chewy, satisfyingly unlike most chemically tenderised calamari available. It arrived with its sizzling sonics, under an indigo cloth, whipped off after after a billow of steam had collected.

The ultra-tender food was the beef slices, teaspoon-cut-soft beef in an oyster, spring onion and shiitake sauce with distinct tastes of bronze fennel presumably from meltingly integrated pieces. We also had the bright greens of the day with little chips of garlic.

Brunton points out how the garlic and onions are cut specifically for different dishes, for different taste results. There’s no one standard. This is fresh stuff, freshly prepared. There are many expectations around Chinese food and Chinese décor. This is not “Chinese” careless, instant gloop but intelligent food. An expectation might be that a vividly decorated Chinese restaurant would provide the classier food. The décor here is functional, heedless of charm except for the attractive big smoker urn outside and so the food is perhaps unexpected. It seldom is. DM/TGIFood


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

No Comments, yet

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted