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The best of Durban, where eating never stops
Fine dining, casual dining, pavement dining, markets. This city may be no foodie utopia but there’s diversity, easy access and there are gems. That baker, that charcutier, that patissier. Heritage. In part religious experience. When a friend sounds alarm bells and says avoid Durbs! – time to look with fresh eyes?
Location. Location. Location. Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. Tradition, religion, heritage. Yours, mine and ours. Some key ingredients when it comes to the story of what’s cooking in Durban. The flavours, appetites, tastes. The idiosyncratic gastro-experience palate of this port and resort city, which lacks the culinary pretensions of Cape Town or Joburg.
Because let’s face it, with a nickname like “Dirtbin”, crime to match the grime, regular stories about effluent in the sea and the looting of 2021 etched into the psyche, the notion of pretension seems more than a little farcical.
Having said that, this lack of pretension might in part be the secret sauce adding the piquancy that makes for a unique food culture. Size matters, too, given ease of access to the lifestyle factors that stir the positives as a counterbalance to the negatives. “I can get just about anywhere I need to go by Uber for R50,” a young PhD student from the US who stayed twice pre-Covid in my AirBnB wrote in her review. Dough Girl, Humble, Florida Road, North Beach, Glenwood Bakery, the KZNSA Gallery café, Col’Tempo, Poke Box all fall into this catchment. Prices have gone up in the past couple of years so R50 might translate to R70. But you get the idea.
The recent visits to Durban by a journalist friend from London and the husband of a travel writer friend from California, who both came for the same Durban Moment conference, gave rise to this story. Prompted me to look with fresh eyes at this city I was born in, departed from for 25 years, came back to, kind of by default, seven years ago. To stay? To go? Who knows?
Back to those visitors. The London friend had intended to stay with me, up the cul-de-sac I live in off King Dinuzulu (Berea Road) close to his conference, which was at DUT. But Durban? His wife feared for his safety, so he checked into an Umhlanga hotel. The California visitor, invited and with accommodation reserved for him, had a hotel booking that gave the address as “Umhlanga, Durban”, which I thought a little disingenuous.
My London friend, dating back to our days at UKZN and subsequently a journalist here for a time, on the Mercury and then legendary Scope magazine before he made it on to big things in New York and London, so is no stranger to the city, wrote an article after his visit. And yes, he did make a point of seeing, to quote, our “neglected city”.
“What I saw before me was a city coming apart at the seams, a lawless place where civil order was eroding as quickly as the city’s infrastructure was crumbling. No doubt last year’s looting rampage has accelerated the former and the recent floods have worsened the latter, but at the core of this once great city’s disastrous decline is incompetence, as well as mismanagement and corruption at national and municipal level.”
No argument with that. We live with it every water cut, every cable theft, every new corruption allegation, every day.
And yet Durban is a livable city with its weather and plethora of outdoor dining spaces, sometimes with entertainment, starting with the KZNSA Café and including the multitude of beachfront venues. I reckon there can’t be many cities that could have beaten Durban as a good Covid and post-Covid place to hang out. Good people doing creative interesting things, most of which revolve, to a greater or lesser extent, around food. Independent eateries, especially those dishing curry, abound. The passionate chefs to subsistence street-food cooks. Respite. Experiences. Life-on-the-edge convivial times.
My friend’s observations woke me to the fact, too, that you’ve got to be doughty and appreciate the diversity of the city to dig in here.
Fish with a family tree
Bartho’s is synonymous with fresh fish. Based in Durban North, so not strictly Durban “proper”, but in my small life, well worth a 25-minute fish-run every couple of weeks for the quality and flavour of the fish I bring home. Unbeatable in this neck of the woods. And why you’ll find, if you’re served stunning fish when eating round and about and in Durbs, it invariably comes from Bartho’s. (Link to our TGIFood Bartho’s story here.)
Except, that is, when it comes to fish with a family tree, which in the case of Leona Chetty Sewram, the hands-on owner at 9th Avenue Waterside, means Bartho’s fish sometimes and “market” fish other times. Market fish translating as fish infused with tradition, heritage and human lineage.
If you’re a Durbs native you’ll no doubt know it was Indian fishermen who founded the Durban fishing industry in around 1870, after being released from their indentured contracts. See this link for a thumbnail overview. You’ll also know that by 1885, having completing their indenture, many ancestors of Durbanites of Indian descent had rented land to grow fruit and vegetables to quickly dominate the local produce market. See South African History Online: Indian community for a good succinct backgrounder.
So finally, on Tuesday two weeks ago, I meet up with Leona at her stylish fine-dining waterfront eatery. She has pressed me several times to come see where she gets the “market” fish that make it onto Chef Theo Chiloane’s menu and onto a pairing suggestions list co-ordinated by sommelier and GM, Job Jovo. The Victoria Street Fish and Meat market is to her “like a family stall”. Her mom’s father, her mom’s brother and several others in her family tree have sold fish, still sell fish, there; the business passing from generation to generation.
“It goes back generations, us supporting each other. If you buy from Bartho’s, you’re good. But with a lot of other fish shops, you don’t know if what you’re getting is fresh. Some chefs have the expertise. But those guys can just lie to me.
“Here at the market, though, because they are family, I know I can trust them. They will WhatsApp me and say, Leona, a boat just came in with some special fresh fish caught on the South Coast. Why don’t you come and take if for your restaurant? That’s the kind of relationship.”
Variety is the spice
While we wait for family fishmonger Ayub Khan, Leona and I pop across what used to be called Fishmonger Lane, although the sign seems to be gone, to the Victoria Street Market. I am on a mission to see a certain “spice girl” previously written about in Foraging at Durban’s eclectic markets. A tour of these markets is my recommendation for any overseas visitor to Durban who wants a “must-do”.
Putting this story together I asked more than a dozen random folks what they consider “Durban food”. To a person, all replied “curry”. Which leads us, after quite a search, to Sanusha Moodliar Ponen. Twice I tell Leona “that’s not it” when we pass a small shop with the piled-high shiny bowls of mother-in-law exterminator, turmeric, biryani mix, tandoori tika spice, jeera powder, dhania powder; the garlic, the ginger, the chillies and the rest. The shop I had in mind was bigger. But then I spot the familiar Sanusha. Learn she has downsized.
Why is not a pretty story, if a Durban story. Turns out her retired school teacher mom, Premla Moodliar, who often helped out in the family’s spice business, was murdered in her Overport flat going on three years ago. “The case is in court now,” says Sanusha. Her mom and dad started their spice business before the historic old Indian market burned down in 1973 [read some history here]. Winding up the estate has impacted the spice shop; the reason it is smaller.
Fishmonger Khan, when we connect, tells me he helped in the fish business “since school days”. Before him his father and his father’s father ran it. But none of his children, all of whom went to UCT and are now married with children, want to take over. “They’re all accountants,” he laughs wryly. How the fish scales flake.
Being involved since way back, and still now, means buying fish direct from the skiboats in Richard’s Bay, Park Rynie and the Eastern Cape. “We go to the boats, load the fish on our bakkies. Salmon, soldiers, cuda, steenbras, musselcracker. Supply our own shop, Khan’s Seafood.” Sell to the public and any restaurants wanting fish.
“Leona likes the geelbek (Cape salmon), the cuda, the kabeljou. When the catch is special, we let her know.”
Pastry dreams and coffee
Three years ago we ran our TGIFood story, Dough Girl: At just 20, Courtney’s prepped, baking and ready to roll. Courtney Stuart, a Jackie Cameron alumna who had been baking and pastry-making since age 11, had recently opened, at an unlikely location near Essenwood Park on Durban’s Berea, what remains the only place in the city turning out “classic croissants, buttery, four times book-folded, voluptuously squidgy to the touch before they go in; airy and perfectly-golden-crispy when they come out. Sometimes plain. Sometimes savoury. Sometimes filled with custard, or something else luscious and tasty.”
Curiously, anywhere else you get what tastes like a “true” croissant, it has likely been imported frozen. Don’t believe me? Ask to look at a box label. You may see “Belgium”.
Since back then Courtney has kept her core menu of favourites, her “oh-so-chocolatey and fudgie, chewy-melty and crispy-to-bite-into, sensual” chocolate brownies, her pastéis de nata and cinnamon twists, her croissant dough “Marco’s pain au chocolat” named for Durban’s legendary foraging chef, Marco Nico, who — before he died in December 2020 of Covid-related complications — would go in at least once a week to get his pain au chocolat fix. And would say Dough Girl was the only pastry shop holding its own by Europe standards.
Every week Courtney, now with a small team, delights her social media fan base with divinely decadent creative specials, never overly sweet. See last week’s “brownie cruffin”, pictured above, “filled with gooey brownie custard and white chocolate ganache, glazed with Callebaut milk chocolate, topped with chocolate buttercream and a brownie shard”. On the same plate, strawberry poppy cake layered with strawberry jam. And croissants.
Now for the new part of this Durban story.
Back when she opened, Courtney said her dream going forward was to add, at some point, breakfasts and lunch. The sophisticated venue with new branding and many stylish and quirky accents has come two years earlier than planned, given that her old-place lease ended and her landlord wanted to sell.
Now she will be in a house, she says two minutes from the old Dough Girl, I say four. The finishing touches are going in as I write.
Meanwhile know that on the menu will be two inspired Eggs Benedict options done “her style”, items like loaded flapjack stacks. And her new signature offering that make her eyes light up even more than usual, her “croffle”, this being a waffle made from croissant pastry. Hearing her descriptions, it seems this will be her irresistible pièce de résistance. Check out Dough Girl’s Instagram for pictures and updates.
Young Amy Gardiner, too, has expanded, a year after winning Coffee Magazine’s café of the year for her Humble Coffee roastery [see Drinking in the rich story of Humble coffee] in such an outlandish industrial location you couldn’t imagine people lining up for tables. But there you are. Now, business having returned post-Covid and having dealt with a hacking and blackmail attempt on her Instagram account, she has opened a mini-Humble grab-and-go in a location, location, location spot on Florida Road.
Food as a religious experience
Dough Girl is halaal certified. Humble is halaal friendly. Florida Fields, when we wrote about it four years ago in the context of a Florida Road revival, was a garden with sculptures and eateries and an entrenched drinking legacy. Jack Salmon Fish House — before that a Squires Loft and an RJ’s — was then in the gorgeous historic mansion with its stained glass windows, high ceiling and veranda seating, now home to Jack’s Grill.
It was during Covid that Mohammed Paruk, who previously ran a Spur franchise in Chatsworth, took over, downsized the menus from two to one, the upstairs in Jack Salmon time having been a grill house.
He then looked at the taste profile of the items on the menu and “tweaked the flavours for the Indian palate. Made the peri-peri hotter, for instance, because around 70 percent of our Muslim customers are Indian.”
When I was growing up in Durban, I tell Mohammed, many more women wore saris but never did I see a woman wearing a hijab or niqab. “A sari is cultural. A hijab is religious,” he says. And Durban, he adds, is staunch.
A great many of the city eateries are now Muslim-owned, therefore halaal, with no wine or other alcohol allowed. In turn milkshakes have become something of a fine art. And mocktail choices on menus that can be exotic. “People want a different drinking experience at a restaurant,” Mohammed says. “Not just the virgin daiquiri and things they can buy in the supermarket. We’ve created what we think of as an adventurous mocktail menu.”
I tell him I have Muslim friends, the late legendary Farook Khan, an erstwhile journalist colleague being one. He disputed the accuracy of the belief the Qur’an prohibits a couple of glasses of wine.
“Intoxicants are forbidden. So wine is not outright banned because it depends on your intention. In Johannesburg and overseas, there are some places you can take your own. But Durban is staunch. Rigid. If we served alcohol we would lose all our halaal trade.”
So Durban food is in part a religious experience.
Except when it’s not.
Which takes us to one of the city’s gems, tucked away on 8th Avenue off Florida Road. The salumeria and deli that is Col’Tempo. Read the story, Bag a salami in SA’s ‘hidden pantry’ – guess where?
Sitting in the garden of the stylish converted house, Hylton and son Paul Rabinowitz’s Col’tempo, sipping on an espresso and biting into sourdough ciabatta layered with bresaola, pancetta, coppa, prosciutto — any of their traditional Italian-style cured meats — it is easy to feel one has been raptured to Italy. The time I lunched there with a favourite larger-than-life friend, I recall him jovially informing one customer after the next that “I’m going to tell the rabbi!” Because of course all the cured meat is pork. Any many of the customers that day were Jewish.
“So is it a common question?” I message Paul. Being asked how they reconcile the pork focus of their business?
It’s true, he said, that there have been quite a few jokes about the irony of a Durban Jewish family working in an artisanal Italian salumi business. “But I never grew up in a kosher household and so we have never made a thing of working with pork. And in fact, I think the shock of a Jewish family in Durban starting a business that uses porks is a minor detail compared to the fact that my father (Hylton) had the belief he could start a business that is usually passed down from generation to generation and uses secret (Italian) recipes. This with no guidance from any Italian, but with a passion for food.
“And then succeeding in making a product that is said to be comparable to some of the best Italian cured meats. If you speak to any Italian and ask if this is possible I’m almost certain they’d be more shocked to learn of a Durbanite who started making salumi from his garden cottage than that he also happened to be Jewish.” Touché.
Faces of pavement dining
If it’s a Monday or Friday evening in Durban, you’re likely to find the pavement outside The Glenwood Bakery crowded with tables, people, conviviality and flavour. Orders going in for items from the small menu that changes according to the whims of baker-chef Adam Robinson, a super-hero for many of us who are into delicious, casual, affordable, regular, companionable eating-out experiences. You BYO being the chardonnay on the top. Not forgetting great staff, easy parking and it being a neighbourhood spot. What’s not to like.
You might order, looking at last week’s menu, a Lahmajoun Armenian pizza with lamb mince, minted yoghurt and a herb salad; a Margherita pizza with Gourmet Greek mozzarella, smoked haddock, spinach and cream; spaghetti puttanesca with tomato, olives, capers and anchovies; the lightest tastiest potato gnocchi you’re likely to find anywhere, perhaps the one with bacon and peas; for dessert, crême caramel (when they have it, their chewy pavlova is sublime). They also make and offer the best ice cream in Durban. Good ingredients. Not too sweet.
Some people like to eat out, multi-courses, at special restaurants, on special occasions. None of that here. Yet it always seems special. We reserved a table for a gathering of old friends and to join our London mate here. Forgot about the ills of Durban. Had a jolly time.
Starting in April, Glenwood Bakery Bagels, their Morningside branch, will do something similar on Wednesday nights: with burgers.
Pavement eating has other faces too. When we travel, many of us look for street food. Back home in Durban, some of us cock a snook or forget to look.
The WhatsApp that alerts me, reopens my mind to the probability of many possibilities we who live more formally forget about, comes a day after I go visit Thomas Wright for a catch-up and to and ask for his thoughts on Durban food. Thomas at his Poké Box [read the article here], a hot-pink strip-lit hole-in-the-wall find-it-if-you-can converted garage takeaway joint just off Florida Road. Many of Durban’s gems are small, unpretentious places you stumble upon, hear about through word of mouth. If you ask someone for a suggestion and they come up with a franchise outlet or part of a chain, know you need another source.
The WhatsApp tells me I have to meet this guy. “He works as a waiter. Also has an inhloko business.” I Google inhloko, which translates as cow’s head. I know the Bovine Head Market near the Victoria Street Market and on the Markets of Warwick tour. There, women with huge pots of water boil up cow heads that lie bloody on counters waiting to be axed, as in how the women chop them. This sounds different.
Givemore Taranhike turns out to be an enterprising, entrepreneurial, thoroughly pleasant 27-year-old who studied engineering — fitting and turning — at a college in Benoni. While there, he worked for three years at an Ocean Basket as a griller; more recently at OB Suncoast as a waiter. Like Charlize Theron, a career option extricated him from Benoni.
“I went to work at an engineering company in Amanzimtoti.” A nice company, he says, where he stayed for two years before departing on good terms. “I like working with my hands. I can fix anything.” By the time he left he felt he was going to work, doing a job, but his future was stretching out before him with limited growth prospects.
I hear this when we are sitting at a table at Starbucks on Florida, the spot he asked me to meet him, arriving on his scooter with an Uber-eats delivery to drop off. His third job.
Where eating never stops
Following that meeting, at 7:30am last Saturday we met gain. This time at a “pin” spot he sends, which takes me to near the run-down old Plaza Hotel. It is close to where he will set up his pushcart-box with his gas stove, pristine chopping board, pots and take-out boxes at his regular spot near a street corner. He already has an employee he’s training, so once the meat is cooking and in a separate pot the crumbly Nyala brand putu-pap, he can dash off and do his other work.
When I remember my car is in a metered parking space and I’ve been wandering around the city centre chatting to people for a couple of hours, I do a double take. Then remember the municipality oversees the meters. Scant chance they will be working, which they’re not. On the other hand, a permit is required to sell food on the street but these are not readily issued. “So it’s a life of running for your life,” he shares with good humour. “Hoping someone will buy and hoping the (Metro) cops won’t chase you.”
He’s set up near the SAPS office. They’re interested in criminals, he says, and leave the traders alone.
Givemore buys his cows heads from Spar or Boxer. He stores them in a deepfreeze in his room. Takes out what he needs for the day.
He is Shona. He says the Shona and Zulu way of prepping heads is different. “The Shona way, you burn and scrape off the hair so you eat the hard skin. The Zulu way, you skin the head. You debone it. You can’t have bones when you serve it. I use water, salt and good meat, that’s it. Have fresh chillies, Aromat and peri-peri sauce on hand. Yes, I’m sure the Indian influence is why people round here have learned to like things spicy.”
He used to cook the meat at home. “But then people don’t get the smell when they’re rushing past and don’t stop and read what we’re cooking.” The aroma of the meat cooking is what lures.
Givemore has aspirations to cook and sell at other venues and in fact, set up at a Westville food market the day after we met downtown, where several regulars came by and told me how good his meat is; how well-cooked.
I asked to buy R80 worth to take home, including putu-pap. He sliced the cooked meat into bite-size chunks on his white cutting board, well-cleaned between each customer. Back home I felt a little squeamish when my mind took to thinking about the nose, the brain, and other possible bits I’d be biting into. But hey, my father, a Pole, brought me up on offal. I was only going to have a few chunks, a bit of the putu, then give the rest to my Zulu taste-test friend.
My first bite and I was blown away by the flavour. My Zulu friend pronounced it fabulous.
Last week, at interval during the morning rehearsal at The Playhouse of the KZN Philharmonic summer season concert, I dashed across to the old post office precinct. Looking for street food. And there was plenty to be had. As the sign on a stall where a man was frying up chicken read: “Where eating never stops”.
Here I’ve been tell visitors that Durban’s beachfront is the city’s greatest asset, it’s diversity being the reason. Forgetting the culinary diversity; the food. So yes, we live in a strange city. In unfortunate times. But as with most relationships, until we are totally driven to leave them, there are redeeming features. DM/TGIFood
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