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Traditional cuisine aims high at Emazulwini
Emerging from the kitchens of top fine dining restaurants, Mmabatho Molefe stepped out on her own with a tiny restaurant at Makers Landing where she presents traditional Zulu cuisine in a fine dining context. ‘It’s the food we grew up eating, prepared in a modern way,’ she told TGIFood.
It’s hard not to gush about the food at Emazulwini, the tiny 10-seater restaurant at Makers Landing, with its harbour view, where chef Mmabatho Molefe takes her traditional childhood favourites and transforms them into a fine dining experience.
Each of the seven courses on the summer menu (launched in February 2022) has a personal description by Molefe of her memories and how they have influenced her modern interpretation of them. For example – and I begin with the third course because even though nobody asked, it was my favourite – the igwinya nopholoni. The story behind it: “To me it represents a perfect Friday. Growing up, my parents always used to make us packed lunches, except on Fridays. Friday was a chance for us to be like all the other kids who got spending money. We used to get exactly R1.50 which was just enough to get igwinya nopolony and it would be my perfect start to the weekend.”
It is a light puff of a vetkoek anchored by white Cheddar catalan, topped with roasted parmesan, and the pièce de résistance, a square of crispy chicken skin which is all sorts of crunchy wonderfulness. I could probably quite happily eat an entire platter of these, but the meal at Emazulwini is a set one, for a set price. I broached the subject with Molefe after lunch.
“Before, we used to have items priced individually but with this menu it’s a bit difficult because the portion sizes are so considered, so it’s hard to charge someone for one without feeling that you’re ripping them off,” she said with a smile. “So that’s why we’ve decided to do it this way. Perhaps as we get more comfortable with the menu we’ll decide which portion can work for à la carte or a single serving.” Which is fair and I respect her decision, but I still want more igwinya, and I’m willing to pay the price.
I met Molefe shortly after Makers Landing opened at the end of 2020. She had been retrenched from Salsify At The Roundhouse, Camps Bay, during lockdown, and with previous experience at Aubergine she used her skills to present traditional Zulu cuisine in a fine dining context. Back then, she said having her own restaurant at Makers Landing (if you can cast your mind back through the mists of time) was great, although quiet. “But it was what we needed to get into the space and find our routine,” she said. “But most of all it’s been growing so much since opening day. Part of the space is to teach and we really are learning a lot from the curators and established businesses.”
Chatting to her again in March 2022 (as far as I know, because things have been weird and I know I’m not the only one who is confused about what year it is), I asked how it’s going now. Molefe laughs. “I think it’s been a rollercoaster, I think that’s the perfect way to describe it,” she said. “But I think in terms of our food and how it’s looking, the future of it, I think it just keeps getting better and better – and more refined.
“Starting out, our portions were bigger; people were getting fuller quicker. So now we’re figured out what works best for our style of food and I’m happy with that.”
The meal begins with umbila, mielie bread sticks with sweetcorn dip and parsley mayo. Actually it begins with Molefe’s introduction: “This menu is a dedication to my parents, just two systemically traumatised kids raising beautiful black queens. I don’t tell them enough (at all) but they are the loves of my life.” Molefe has four sisters and a brother so we can imagine her parents have their work cut out for them.
“This meal is going to take you about two and a half hours to eat. Inasmuch as I would love to explain all the courses in person, I also don’t want to end up crying at your table. So please keep this menu as a reminder of the meal you just had,” it continues. And then this part activated my tear ducts just a tiny bit, so heartfelt is it: “At the end of the meal, if you can, call your parents and tell them you love them. If you can’t, just tell us because we love you too!” It made me grateful I speak to my mother on a daily basis.
Course two is isibindi no-anyanyisi – chicken liver truffle with onion jam and chocolate crumb. A sweet and savoury combination that is given such a delicate touch that each element is balanced.
Then the vetkoek of which we have spoken, followed by ulimi noshatini. This is corned beef tongue with tomato puree, amasi, chillies, tomato jellies and crispy onion. “I think chicken livers and onions is the combo of all combos. It just takes me back to breakfast at my gran’s with the whole family around,” says Molefe in her notes on the dish. If you’re paying attention, you will be beginning to notice certain ingredients. Like liver. Like tongue.
The next course is imiqala yenkunku, a tartlet of the shortest of crust, with chicken neck mousseline and tiny brown vinegar jellies which explode with flavour on the tongue.
Molefe’s notes say: “I feel like I am going out on a limb with this dish because the flavours of chicken necks are so familiar to me, but I can’t really pinpoint the exact time and memory. Also, who wouldn’t want to include a meat mousse on their menu. I hope you enjoy it because I’m a bit proud of it.”
Describing her food, Molefe says she uses the same ingredients and style of her food memories, but always adds a bit more based on what she’s learned in the kitchens in which she has worked.
“For now I’m still learning, and still experimenting in terms of our ingredients – the traditional ingredients I grew up eating – and what I’ve learned so I’m looking forward to that point where there’s a completely blank canvas and I’ll be creating from scratch, something completely new.” Something never seen or done before, I asked? “That’s where I HOPE I’m going,” she said modestly. Having tasted what Molefe is capable of I have no doubt she will achieve this.
The chicken neck mousseline has its origins in a chicken neck stew. “I always wanted to still keep the flavour of the original dish,” said Molefe. “I remember someone had the tart and they said it reminded them of chewing on bones. That’s exactly what I want.” Perhaps I should point out, this means the flavour, not the texture.
“I like that it has a marrowy flavour because when you are eating chicken necks there’s not much meat, so you are literally chewing on the necks. I like that. So the main thing I was trying to get across in that particular dish is getting a nice marrowy, umami meaty flavour,” she said.
The penultimate course is ipapa neklabishi, which is braised beef heart with sautéed cabbage, creamy braai pap and beef heart biltong shavings (which Molefe learned to make from Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants).
“When people think of uphuthu neklabishi they always think of it as a Januworry meal because you have spent so much in December that you can’t afford to eat any meat products. For me it is still one of my favourite meals, broke or not, and my Mom makes the best mince and cabbage stew and this meal just reminds me of her.” Served with a creamy mushroom sauce, it was delicious and, well, hearty. I’m sorry. I don’t know why I am like this.
Finally, dessert. Incwancwa – fermented maize porridge, lemon and lime jellies and lemon ice cream – represents Molefe’s mother’s love and effort. “It’s a dish that you have to plan a day or two before you make it. Whenever I think about it a picture of this navy blue Tupperware with a white lid that she always fermented it in comes to mind. I remember this one time I was doing the garden with my Dad and my Mom called us inside for breakfast and she had made it. That memory represents a wholesome family weekend breakfast for me.”
How can you not feel the love in this? In a city where we eat Italian, French, Portuguese – whatever, all the foods of the world – it’s a privilege to be able to taste the heritage and culture of our own country. To be honest, I was a tad reserved about the pudding (liver, neck, tongue, heart, no problem) because I’m not the greatest fan of maize meal, but lawdy Miss Maudie, the first surprise is that it was softly warm against the ice cream which was delightfully unexpected. Also, the ice cream was subtle. I enjoy a lemon dessert as much as the next person but until this day I didn’t realise how much tartness is packed into them, and how beautiful restraint can be.
On Sunday, March 27, 2022, Molefe will be collaborating with Makers Landing gin distillery Pienaar & Son for Not Another Bubbly Brunch. It sprang from a conversation about how it’s perfectly acceptable to drink bubbles at breakfast but not cocktails. “The idea is to introduce a new style of breakfast food and get people used to drinking breakfast cocktails,” laughed Molefe, who does drink gin but not at breakfast.yet … “I think I might consider the cocktail Andre has come up with,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. The menu will include things like sorghum waffles, amasi whipped into a parfait, and toasted brioche with a simple tomato relish and eggs. The idea is to bring in simple breakfast food but also elevate it in Molefe’s style. Booking will be on Quicket. For more information, click here and here.
If I have not yet sung these praises high enough nor loud enough, at the time of writing the news came in that Emazulwini has been nominated in two categories for the 4th annual Luxe Restaurant Awards, hosted by The Hospitality Counsel (sic): New Restaurant of the Year, and African Restaurant of the Year. The ceremony takes place in Johannesburg on March 29, 2022. DM/TGIFood
Emazulwini is open for lunch Thursdays to Sundays, dinner Thursdays to Saturdays. Booking is recommended. Book here or DM @emazulwini_restaurant on Instagram, or phone 073 292 7441.
Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram @biancaleecoleman
The writer supports The Gift of the Givers Foundation, the largest disaster response, non-governmental organisation of African origin on the African continent.