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TimeOut rates SA city second in the world for food

TimeOut rates SA city second in the world for food
But which city?: Johannesburg image by Simon Hurry on Unsplash; Durban image by Olivia Pedler on Unsplash; Cape Town image by Zöe Reeve on Unsplash.

TimeOut, regarded as a world authority on major cities around the globe, has announced a list of ‘the world’s best cities for food in 2024’. There are 15 cities on the list, and in top position is Naples, Italy, the birthplace of pizza. Second, beating every city in the world other than Naples, is Johannesburg. We asked Johannesburgers who know their city and its food to tell us why.

Many South Africans, especially Johannesburg residents, nearly fell face-first into their breakfast this week on learning the startling news that TimeOut, which specialises in telling travellers what to do, see, eat and drink in the world’s major cities, has chosen Joburg above every other metropolis (except Naples) as one of the greatest cities for food on the planet.

A lot of people, especially in Cape Town, were extremely puzzled, and some doubtless apoplectic. How could this be? But there are reasons for this choice. To start with, people go to foreign cities to experience, among other delights, the local food. And while Cape Town offers a world (quite literally) of cuisines, to the extent that you can virtually travel the world by visiting a slew of the city’s restaurants, in Joburg there’s much more emphasis on real local fare, as well as the cuisines of the greater continent.

But to really understand this, we approached a range of Jozi people; the informed locals who know their city and its food and culture. We approached people who know their Joburg stuff. Gus Silber, one of the city’s most consummate writers. Our own Marie-Lais Emond and Anna Trapido. Sunday Times food editor Hilary Biller. Chef Wandile Mabaso, who goes so far as to predict that Johannesburg will soon be “the New York of Africa”. Chef David Higgs, who relocated from Cape Town to fall in love with Joburg. Political commentator and Johannesburg resident J Brooks Spector, who knows his city and its food intimately. Janine Greenleaf Walker and Gwynne Bramley Conlyn, who are both veteran proponents of Jozi and its food culture.

But first, which other cities are on the list? Following Naples and Johannesburg, in order from third place to 15th, are: Lima, Peru; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Beijing, China; Bangkok, Thailand; Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Mumbai, India; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Portland, Oregon, USA; Liverpool, England; Medellín, Colombia; Seville, Spain; Porto, Portugal, and Marrakech, Morocco.

TimeOut’s justification for choosing Johannesburg is this: “From Ethiopian cafes in Little Addis to Nigerian and West African eats in the south of the city, you can eat your way across the continent here – though the majority of locals we surveyed recommended the city’s traditional South African delicacies, like the Sowetan kota sandwich, bunny chow and mala mogodu.”

‘To put it plain and simple, I think that Johannesburg is the future New York of Africa.’ – Wandile Mabaso

The Daily Mail quotes Grace Beard, travel editor at Time Out, as saying: “Our inaugural list of the world’s best cities for food is a celebration of culinary culture the world over, based on the feedback of Time Out’s city-dwelling readers. While some cities on the list are well-known for their food scene, others might surprise you. This ranking is fully informed by input from on-the-ground locals, who had their say on everything from how affordable it is to dine in their city to the one must-eat dish.”

Gus Silber, inevitably, had a witty take on it: “These arbitrary lists should always be taken with a pinch of salt, but this one is different. It should be taken with a kota. As a Joburger, it warms my heart, in much the same way as a kota does, to see my home city placed so high in the rankings, just below the legendary birthplace of pizza. 

‘Excellent choice by TimeOut, although I would still say you can get a better pizza in Joburg than you can in Naples.’ – Gus Silber

“Seeing TimeOut opening their review of Joburg with the words ‘Cape Town’ is a little harder to digest, but nonetheless, here’s hoping that this global honour will shine a light on Joburg as a destination for the adventurous food lover. It’s especially nice to see Braamfontein singled out as the pulse of the city, rather than, say, Sandton or the parkland suburbs.

“Excellent choice by TimeOut, although I would still say you can get a better pizza in Joburg than you can in Naples.”

Marie-Lais Emond champions Joburg food. Here’s what she makes of it:

Very often Time Out ‘gets’ Joburg better than many of its own people and far better than the other people in our own country. I like to say that everyone from Joburg is from somewhere else and that is the clue to Joburg food.

“There is a helluva lot of choice, style and more cuisines than we easily recognise. We forget that Joburg is more than twice the size of New York, larger than London and that its restaurants are spread all over the place. There is more than enough space for the nearly three and a quarter thousand restaurants in Joburg, not counting little cafes and takeaways.

‘It’s all here if you really want to know about it.’ – Marie-Lais Emond

 

Another clue to eating in Joburg is that the best restaurants are not to be found in Sandton by any means. Forget your expectations, prejudices and maybe even leave your comfort zone. Enjoy the vast array of deliciousness, just like TimeOut does. It’s all here if you really want to know about it.”

Anna Trapido knows her city in and out and up and down. And she knows Lima too, which came third on the list. Her insights are deep and fascinating:

“The list has been compiled by Time Out’s travel editor, so I presume that it is intended primarily for travellers rather than locals. I agree that Johannesburg has (multi) cultural charms that are often overlooked by those who don’t live in the city. Tourists often erroneously see the city (and the Gauteng province as a whole) as a grudge stopover on the way to the Kruger Park or the Cape winelands. Which is sad because Johannesburg is an interesting, innovative city.

“It is a place where for over a century almost everyone has come from somewhere else in search of something better. It does have a special kind of crackling, exciting energy. There are cooks and chefs from all over the world. Afghan kebabs and Syrian flatbreads are sold on street corners.

“There are Somali coffee shops and two Chinatowns. And Congolese market stalls piled high with chikuanga breads. Eating a kota in Soweto or an AK in Eldorado Park is deeply delicious. The cityscape views over Hillbrow from rooftop cocktail bars are achingly beautiful.

“I feel disloyal because I really do love Joburg, and I want it to win awards, but it is only fair to also say that access to such fabulousness is increasingly curtailed by the startling collapse of infrastructure. Especially inner city and township infrastructure. Every week I meet amazing small food business owners and marvel at their stamina in the face of endless water and electricity outages. The restaurant at the Soweto Hotel is virtually inaccessible because the paving in the surrounding Walter Sisulu Square – a national heritage site where the Freedom Charter was born – has been torn up and stolen. Many of the venues I love and would have recommended a decade ago are now either too dangerous or too broken to sensibly send unaccompanied tourists to.

‘If South Africa’s new government supports our chefs, Joburg can be our Lima.’ – Anna Trapido

 

“And yet, the Golden City has always been a best of times, worst of times kind of place. It is a city of extremes. Amidst all of the above, there is also a beautiful blossoming New African Cuisine scene. Johannesburg is the only city in South Africa with significant numbers of black-owned luxury restaurants. With significant numbers of affluent black diners. It is unique in its bountiful bouquet of black chefs with major local and international experience creating high-skill, delicious, terroir-specific food. Such chefs are forming dynamic partnerships with small farmers and foragers who supply them with indigenous and heritage ingredients. Together they are leading the way in defining modern, authentic yet innovative South African food.

“I see that Lima, Peru is also on the list. Lima is in many ways very like Johannesburg. It was until recently the city that tourists flew into and left asap on their way to Machu Picchu. It was associated with kidnap, not cuisine. Not any more. Over the past 20 years, the Peruvian government has actively supported the New Andean Cuisine movement. A modern, regionally specific, luxury food scene has emerged. 

“The investment has paid off. Lima restaurants now regularly feature on best in the world lists. There have been tangible economic benefits and intangible changes to the way the city and the country is perceived. Both the New Nordic (supported by EU money) and New Andean movements show us that cuisine is an effective transformational tool. If South Africa’s new government supports our chefs, Joburg can be our Lima.”

Hilary Biller takes these things with a pinch of salt, as do I. She says:

“I take the flood of so-called ‘World’s Best” surveys that drop into my inbox with gay abandon with a pinch of salt. Glibly touted as ‘scientifically tested truths’ on anything from the best burger, best pizza, best ice cream…. The only thing to do to  this kind of trifling PR spin is to hit the delete button. 

“That said, a recent survey by a respected international magazine had me eating my words when my home town Joburg was listed 2ND IN DA WORLD in a recent TimeOut survey that asked “thousands” of locals to rate the quality and affordability of their food scene. Ah, my eGoli finally cracks the nod on a global list and intriguingly comes close second behind that famous Italian city of Naples, the birthplace of the pizza in the line-up of 15 cities that includes gourmet hot spots like Bangkok, Dubai, Mumbai, Beijing and Marrakech.

“My elation of the city whose hospitality I have long protected from the bias of judges of South Africa’s Restaurant Awards where Gauteng – in their eyes – appears to suck the proverbial hind tit when compared with the gourmet capital of Caaaap Town. Here in the country’s economic hub where one can choose from a myriad of global tastes in a cosmopolitan metropolis that offers anything from fine dining to a plethora of restaurants to fave local eateries to sizzling shisanyama or township restaurants offering local fare. In Joburg one can find something for everyone to suit any occasion and pocket.

“In the afterglow of the glory of this restaurant ranking for Joburg is the realisation that dining out on the rand in eGoli offers exceptional value when compared to the Mother City, Cape Town as the drawcard of tourists to the city means way higher prices akin to international destinations.”

Restaurateur David Higgs left Cape Town to fall in love with Joburg. He says:

“The world doesn’t revolve around fine dining restaurants and especially, if you come to Johannesburg, even less so. What I love about Johannesburg as a city as opposed to London and New York, which are melting pots of all nationalities, is that Johannesburg is a melting pot of African countries, which makes it incredibly vibrant when it comes to food, music and fashion.

“Culturally, it’s a beautiful place to live, so the diversity of food in Johannesburg is quite something.”

Brooks Spector has deep knowledge of the city’s food culture and has a diplomat’s long view:

“There was a time when dining out in Johannesburg largely meant deciding if you wanted monkeygland or pepper sauce on your slab of beef steak, or your eggs with bacon or sausage. Like the rest of the nation, the city’s dining scene was pretty much a study in segregation.

“Yes, here and there, there were a few exceptions tucked away, out of sight or ignored by the authorities, like the now-departed Kapitan’s, famous for its crab curry and the fact Nelson Mandela used to eat there. (It was close to his law offices downtown.) Otherwise, to find authentic Indian cuisine, if you were lucky, you dined in someone’s home.

“Things have changed. Even the simplest strip mall, now, likely offers Italian, Portuguese, Chinese, or Thai cooking — and maybe Japanese food as well. There are neighbourhoods like Cyrildene where a wide range of distinctive Chinese cuisines are on show, and there are still other neighbourhood places offering Ethiopian or Argentinian food. 

“Yes, inventive (= high end, expensive) dining offerings continue to pop up, and some of these feature farm to table, organic ingredients paired with just the right wines, often catering to the so-called ‘black diamonds’. Some of the busier suburban high streets showcase a continually evolving restaurant scene — a cubby hole of a place pops up that offers really excellent mutton, chicken, or fish biryani on one corner, while across the street a kaizen sushiya (conveyor belt sushi) will have opened up as well. 

“The hallmark of Joburg dining is variety of style, substance, and ambience.”

Restaurateur Wandile Mabaso runs his classy Les Créatifs in Sandton but his view of the city is much broader than the Sandton skyline. He sees it from a global perspective:

“It’s exciting to see that Johannesburg has been chosen, and this for me goes to show that I made the right decision in my prediction about Johannesburg as a world-class metropolitan African city that can accommodate and inspire anyone and everyone from across the globe and represent what southern Africa is really about in diversity and culture. And what better way to do it than through food. 

“And I’m happy to say that I am one of the influences that has allowed that to happen: for us to have a very great food culture which I think will grow. I believe it’s the beginning for Johannesburg. I think it’s the capital of Africa and I think, most importantly, that it’s the culinary capital of Africa, not only the economic capital.

“To put it plain and simple, I think that Johannesburg is the future New York of Africa.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker endorsed the prevalent view of Jozi as a melting pot:

“Joburg has a vibrant food scene thanks to its fabulous melting pot of cultures. Although the city’s eating establishments have for years faced a lack of representation in one of the country’s prominent eating guides, those in the know celebrate its top-notch ethnic establishments. We may not have a plethora of fine dining restaurants (although there are some standouts) but we are spoilt for choice when it comes to African, Italian, Chinese, Korean, Greek and Portuguese. The list goes on.

“There’s the Jozi speakeasy which was the first bar on the Africa continent to make it into the World’s 50 Best Bars as well as sophisticated dining establishments featuring African jazz. There’s also an exploding street food culture – with everything from gourmet kotas served with good kasi vibes to shisanyama and skopas popcorn washed down with a Black Label.”

Gwynne Bramley Conlyn paints a nostalgic picture of the city she lived in for so long:

“Johannesburg is a multicultural city that offers an array of culinary gems. Proof is that the chef that does curried crab in Chinatown is as talented and worthy of an award as is the one that is a regular Eat Out award winner. And the woman who had her humble Thai restaurant, also in Chinatown, and because of demand, now serves her growing number of loyal clients from her posh place in Illovo.

“The Madeiran one that used to live in a small shop front in a humble strip of shops in Randburg and now, much to the delight of diners, has its expansive premises in Hyde Park. The mom-and-pop Italian suburban eatery serving superb fare to those in the know.

“Sandile ‘Sanza’ Tshabalala (aka Sanza Sandile) is a prime example of the many Afrocentric restaurants in the city. His hugely popular Yeoville Dinner Club offers such an experience every Friday and locals and tourists alike are fans. He has cooked for the likes of Hugh Masekela and Anthony Bourdain.” DM

 

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