TGIFOOD

FUSION QUEUE

To Thai for: Where to meat in Durban

Thai-Japanese fusion chef, Saovalak ‘Serah’ Srisompoch, brandishes her sushi knives. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Two acclaimed and conjoined Durban eateries with a 38-year history of good suburban Durban dining between them survive lockdown, each in their own way. Fusion but no confusion. Just a chance encounter that almost didn’t happen, and here they are.

 

The author supports Food Forward SA, committed to a South Africa without hunger. Please support them here.

Dear readers. Some unsolicited advice. Or an aide-memoire, perhaps. Pertinent to this story. Perhaps you do it anyway. But maybe not. Through reticence. Self-absorption. Misguided consideration. Preoccupation. Apprehension. Disinterest?

So I am in the vax queue. Within a couple of days of hearing via the modern-day bush telegraph, aka Facebook and WhatsApp, that anyone of eligible age can walk in to one of several sites in Durban and get the jab.

A friend and I have driven to the beachfront, parked at Bike & Bean (good coffee, bike hire, gathering place), crossed through the subway to Moses Mabhida Stadium and joined the throng at People’s Park. We’re there at 7am on a sunny winter-in-Durban morning.

Not thinking of hot-and-sour Tom Yum soup or galangal (Thai ginger); of expertly sliced and rolled sushi or deep-frying basil leaves (they keep fresh and flavourful longer). Not thinking of kudu and eland steaks, hunting, halaal beef, towering free-range chicken burgers and finding a boutique butchery in a restaurant I’d heard had closed.

In other words, not thinking about what I am sitting here, two weeks later, sunshine and sea view out my window, writing about.

Flavours of Japan: a ramen bowl with chicken, an udon bowl with prawns and, inset, chicken katsudon. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

In front of us when we join the queue at 7am is an Asian woman. “I think I was the only Asian there,” she will say, some days later. Not now. Because while we stand there, masked and waiting, with the queue behind us steadily snaking longer before things start happening at 8am, while drawn to engage with her, I don’t.

And so, together and separately, our bubble of three stays in our queue that moves us forward. To seats, after not too long. Then, group by group, we have vax proceedings and the five stations we will visit, each with a different function, explained by a delightful aide with a personality and presence that could take her far on the stand-up comic circuit. And my friend and I comment, with more than a little awe, to each other, on the logistics involved and how smooth the flow is.

Till finally – well almost finally, as after the jab we will be checked for side-effects (none) before they release us – I hear myself saying, with some incredulity, to the nurse as I wait for a stab or at least a sting from the needle: “What? You’ve done it?!”

Kudos all round.

Much as I wonder, many times, about the Asian woman, it is only a short while before jab-time that my curiosity gets the better of my reticence.

“Where are you from?” I ask. “Thailand,” she replies.

“How long have you been here?”

“Nearly 30 years.”

Then she comments: “I could come today because my restaurant is closed on Mondays.” Restaurant?

“What restaurant?”

Green Mango,” says she. For many years, for many people, since it opened in 2006, Durban’s favourite Thai and sushi joint. In a shopping centre parking lot in lower Morningside; which drab location, a couple of blocks from the razzle-dazzle of Florida Road, has become an asset. Convenience and safety.

And that is how I get to meet Saovalak “Serah” Srisompoch.

“I heard you were planning to close the restaurant,” I say.

“No, not closing,” she declares.

Johan van den Heever presents the hunky 2.5kg T-bone challenge. (Photo: Supplied)

“I heard Joop’s is closed,” I say, referring to the legendary Durban steakhouse, immediate neighbour to Green Mango and there even longer (since 1993).

“No. New owners. Better meat. Better than before,” she says.

And that is how I get to meet first-time restaurateurs Margriet Wilkens and Johan van den Heever. He hunts and cooks. Having a restaurant has been a long-time dream. She once-upon-a-time waitressed – at a casino in Nelspruit – and loved it.

So when, last year, he said, “Joop’s is for sale. Shall we buy it?”, she said, why not?

Johan says they’ve spent a cool million revamping the place. Both the kitchen and the restaurant itself.

Showtime! Five-year Joop’s veteran, Jeffrey Cain, pan-fries a pepper fillet. Inset: as served. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

While keeping the favourites, they have “modernised” the menu. “We’ve kept the original Joop’s pepper fillet. People come here from Germany, the UK, the US, to eat it.” Pan-fried in browned butter by kitchen showman, Jeffrey Cain, who was mentored and trained by Joop Mol who with his wife, Wendy (they retired to St Frances Bay in 2018), opened the place 23 years ago.

“Youngsters like burgers and ribs,” says Johan. So he added these. And opened this dinky little butchery inside where, alongside other meaty things, he can sell – cut and vacuum-packed – meat from the animals he shoots and the biltong he makes in a “100kg machine” at home in Umdloti.

“I have two passions. Hunting. And being an amateur chef. I love cooking. My dad did all the cooking in our family and he had a dream of being a chef but didn’t feel he could give up his (corporate) career. I wanted to explore it as a career but never had the opportunity. Margriet and I have no kids. This (restaurant) is our kid now.”

“I’m terrible in the kitchen,” she says. “You know how some people make food just to put it on your plate? That’s me. I can scramble an egg. Beyond that, I have to work exactly from a recipe. Johan on the other hand. I can tell him anything I want and he will make it beautifully. He loves it, all the way to the plating.”

The perfect restaurant pair? She’s in the office and front-of-house. He’s the food, bev and social front-of-house person, committed to the ideal of serving up the best meat and the best wine list in Durban, he tells me. More about that to come.

First time I meet Serah at her restaurant, it’s a chilly, rainy Thursday. Too early for diners so I am directed to the kitchen, which is taller than it is wide. Shelves for optimal use of space going up. Ladders. A gargantuan extractor fan. And Serah, her back to me, hair up, apron over floral frock, focused on the three woks bubbling and simmering on their gas rings. The work surface between us is small. Spotless. “Big enough,” she says.

“I tell my staff it has to be clean.” No space for anything else.

“I prepare everything,” she explains. The stir-fry sauce with oyster and soy among the blend of ingredients, which must be “not too watery, just right”. The chilli and basil sauce with garlic and fried onion. “Everything I make so it is ready to use.” Her two cooks, who she has trained, know what and how much.

“The beef, the chicken, the prawns. Whatever you do you fly (sic) them together till flavour is nice. Then add the mushrooms, green beans, more sauce. The basil leaves, last.”

She didn’t talk to us in the queue, she says, because “often when I talk people don’t understand and sometimes they laugh”. Easy to smile, rather than laugh, at the “deep flying” and other classic language quirks that add to the authenticity of her eatery. When I sit at a table to drink a coffee while she talks to staff, the colours, the vibe – the Asian fusion meets Durban at the bar – I feel transported (a touch of déjà vu) to Chiang Mai, where she was born; or perhaps Chiang Rai; somewhere in northern Thailand near Laos, where the flavour profile for the sauce that goes with her “chilli whole fish” originated. 

But now, she talks coriander stems and coriander leaves. Galanga “like ginger”, which Thai friends plant locally and she orders from them. Lime leaves. Lemon glass (sic). Tom Yum chilli paste.

She misses Thai chillies. “Difficult to get here.” Makes do with local. “From the market. The Spar next door sometimes has good ones.”

In Thailand she would add more chilli than here, she says when I ask about the authenticity of her recipes. “Bang, bang, bang,” she says, gesturing pestle and mortar pounding. “Whole chilli. Don’t take seed out.”

“Thai food is a combination of China and India,” she tells me. “We’re in between. China is bland. India, too-much hot. Thailand in between. Not bland. Not hot, hot, hot. And we don’t like too much oil.”

Half her menu is Japanese; half is Thai. I have friends who swear Green Mango serves the best sushi in Durban. The tuna and salmon for the sushi and sashimi are purchased from Bartho’s in Durban North. “By Roger for me,” she nods. Laughs.

Roger? And how did she learn the art of sushi? Read on.

Margriet Wilkens with Joop’s towering new beef and chicken burgers. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

For a number of Joop’s Place fans, Johan is something of a super-hero. For saving the place. The Mols’ sold and Joop’s got a new owner in 2019. It went up again for sale during Covid. With closure pending, it was bought by Johan and Margriet.

They had moved to Umdloti from Pretoria in 2007 to be near Margriet’s late mom. Both at the time were working in telecommunications. She took a voluntary retrenchment during Covid. Runs a guest house and works as a consultant for a water company overseeing franchisees. Johan, a telecom exec, still has his day job. “My office is here now,” the charismatic, passionate, larger-than-life – talking personality and enthusiasm – former military man shares.

Joop’s head chef, Mandla Ntshangase, with meat platter and T-bone. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

He knows and cares about his meat. “I am a hunter and a meat eater. I know that if animals are treated well, they taste better,” he says. He visited farms and suppliers when devising the new menu. Chose Sparta Beef in the Free State as a main supplier and talks about their “phenomenal culling process”. Ellis Park Butchery in Durban North for certain items. “Our chickens, I am so proud of.” Free-range from The Shed in Richmond. “Almost double the price but phenomenal.” Lamb from butcheries in Colesburg and Aliwal North. “Can be quite a schlep to get it here but (that ‘p’ word again) phenomenal.” Head chef Mandla Ntshangase, running the kitchen for two years, has a sterling record from his pre-Joop’s days, including a Vicky Christina (restaurant) and head chef at Moto Cafe

When they first reopened, hardly anyone was coming in, Johan says. So they started marketing via Facebook to raise awareness. Date-night specials for two. Wine tastings.

He called in Cape Wine Master Karen Bloom to design the wine list. “I love wine but I am not an expert as I am in meat,” he says. “I want the best wine list in Durban – on a par with Ninth Avenue Waterside. That standard.”

The hunting? “I love it. My dad taught me when I was a kid. There are a lot of hunting farms. From Mkuze to Pongola.”

Eland, he says, yields the most meat. These he hunts near Reddersburg in the Free State. “The only thing wasted are the bones,” he says. The horns get mounted. The offal goes to the Cheetah Experience, a non-profit for rescued animals. “When a cat takes an animal in the wild, the gut is the first thing they eat. You can sponsor extra meat and the offal to go there.”

“I’ve hunted every piece of game we’ve served at Joop’s. They cut it up for us into large pieces at the farm. From there, the butchering is done here.”

A lot of people are keen to do their new “Joop’s challenge”, which involves eating a T-bone steak that is 2.5kg raw and 2.2kg cooked. It comes with chips, pumpkin, spinach and onion rings. “There have been about 50 attempts and six guys have finished it all.”

Those who succeed get a “Joop’s legend” T-shirt and their names, not quite in lights, but recorded for posterity on a special wooden board.

The gargantuan meal costs R490. And it’s not reserved for the challenge.

“Anyone can order it. It’s great to share. For a family of four, it’s truly great value for money.”

Serah Srisompoch with a ‘chilli whole fish’ prepared for takeaway. Inset: how it is served in-house. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Serah, next door, has been cooking traditional Thai food since age seven when, having watched her mom and older sister in the family’s small kitchen, she surprised her mom with a chicken green curry “made from scratch”.

“Not too bad,” she was told. “But better you learn things at school.”

She kept cooking through school. Then, seeing the potential for good jobs in hotels in Bangkok, she did a chef’s course. And took English classes. And on graduation started in the kitchen of a sports club.

After four years there she moved on to two (yes, two) top Bangkok hotels: the Ambassador and the Dusit Thani Hotel. She’d applied to be a Thai food chef at both, landed both jobs, so took them both. “I had two children by then and wanted to do my best for them; to send them to good schools.”

For two years, she worked full-time at both. “Eight hours, eight hours.”

Then, “my body couldn’t take it anymore”. She needed to make a choice, which was the Dusit Thani. She was there six or seven years, among other things getting good experience mastering the art of sushi. “Being an international hotel you worked with the different cuisines, took your turn doing everything.”

She left the Dusit Thani when offered a job, via her former head chef, at a hotel in Kuwait. “I had never heard of Kuwait. Only Saudi Arabia.” Before leaving for Kuwait she got a three-week gig training staff in Thai cooking at the Allson Hotel Singapore, now the Grand Pacific. “That was my first overseas trip,” the unassuming, friendly, full-of-surprises chef shares.

After five years in Kuwait, while on a holiday in Thailand, events leading to the Gulf War unfolded. She couldn’t go back. The travel bug having bitten, she applied to go to Singapore, to the hotel she’d done training at previously. Significantly, at the interview she met Watchara “Roger” Siravajanakul, the man she would come with to South Africa.

Both got jobs at the same Singapore hotel. “I was head Thai chef. He was a junior chef. Back then I’m boss,” she says, with a chuckle.

He was younger. Had never been overseas. Was lonely in Singapore. “I’d been in Kuwait so wasn’t lonely. Accustomed.” They worked together. Got to know each other. “We connected.”

Roger is arguably this country’s best-known sushi chef, long-time 100 Hills Chef School sushi teacher. He is the man who, way back, set up the first-ever sushi bar in the country at a supermarket chain. He now has stylish Wasabi “sushi, noodles and oyster bar”. We wrote about him in TGIFood in our story on the Legacy Yard at The Arch, Umhlanga.

After two years in Singapore, in 1995, they were approached, as a team, by Southern Sun to come to South Africa to open a Thai restaurant.

The Thai part didn’t quite happen. But they both had interesting times running various Southern Sun Elangeni restaurants and departments. She spent nine years there in banqueting.

They then were associated with – opened – a number of favourite Thai places. The original Bangkok Wok. The acclaimed Far East restaurant in Glenwood. A small sushi bar in Silverton Road. Her stories include good times and bad. Successes, robberies and being screwed by business associates. Things that may have daunted many.

But then, how many chefs have you met who would work at two five-star hotels for two years, two eight-hour kitchen shifts a day, and survive?

She and Roger opened the Green Mango 15 years ago in its current location. Circumstances led to her buying out the partners and taking over in 2018. “Then Roger, he worked for me again. I became the boss again,” she laughs.

And yes, life is tough for a business owner. She sighs and plops down after dealing with the generator maintenance man. Then, re-energised at the prospect, it’s back to the kitchen to cook up a Japanese chicken dish.

“If I retire, which Roger suggests, then what? Sit at home?”

Not likely. She likes what she does. “Life is not smooth. Lots of falling down, getting up. We never gave up,” she sighs. Laughs. Then heads off to the kitchen again to prepare one of the “angry” (hot) dishes from her menu for a customer.

Back to that unsolicited advice. My near-miss encounter with Serah gets me thinking back to when I moved to San Francisco in the early Nineties for a year that became more than 25. A strong early memory is of walking into shops and cafés and being greeted like I was an old friend. It was, at first, perplexing. And disturbing. “Do I know you?” I would sometimes say. Grumpily. Till I got used to it, out of my head and into the spirit of engaging with people.

I once commented on the violent green colour of a product a man in a bathroom shop queue was buying. He commented back. Turned out to be South African and a week later I bought a used car from him. Likely the coolest I’ve owned and what I was looking to do that very weekend. Then I have this friend who regularly, for two years, rode in an elevator with a man before they said hello. Now they’ve been (they say) happily married for 20. On the other hand, you have to kiss 100 frogs to meet that prince. Oh well… DM/TGIFood

Follow Green Mango Durban on Facebook and Joop’s Place on Facebook, their website and Instagram

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