Well done to Coffeebeans Routes – Participant in the RT Pilot Project

The following article about Coffeebeans Route, who is one of the RT Pilot Participants, was published by Todd Pitock in The New York Times on 28 November 2012.

BEBE ROSE, a Cameroonian who owns Bebe’s restaurant in Cape Town, stood with her arms folded and peered down with one brow raised as she scanned the plates of unfinished food spread out before me.

 “What’s the matter?” she asked. “You don’t like my food?”                                 

I did like her food. There were stews of kidney beans and okra, meat and starches. It was true that one item, the tripe, pushed my boundaries. In a shallow bath of a hearty brown sauce of ground nuts and red oil sat part of one of the four chambers of a cow’s stomach, the rumen, or omasum, or perhaps the abomasum.

I couldn’t be sure. I secured it to the dish with my fork and sawed it with my knife. Its flavor was rich and beefy, though it was more than chewy, kind of resistant, as if it hadn’t decided yet if it was going to be eaten.

The problem, though, was that this was the last stop on a four-hour eating binge through central Cape Town, and my own sorry single-chamber organ was maxed out.

Not from sheer gluttony, though. I had found a novel way to explore Cape Town, a city that I had visited several times over the course of 20 years. A local company called Coffeebeans Routes offered to expose visitors to the city and its subcultures through a tour called the Cape Town Cuisine Route. Unlike many other culinary excursions, the goal is not to find the finest dining (there is no shortage of that) but to use food as an entry to the city’s inner life, visiting home kitchens, alley cafes and markets otherwise easy to miss.

Cape Town, wedged between the towering sandstone mesa of Table Mountain and the Atlantic Ocean on Africa’s southern tip, is marvelously scenic. From its establishment in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company, which created a settlement as a way station for ships bringing spices from Asia, the Cape Town city bowl, the aptly named metropolitan center, has been a stew of cultures like the indigenous Khoisan, Africans from the north, Europeans from the sea, slaves and indentured servants from Southeast Asia who would become known as the Cape Malay.

In the last decade or so, they have been joined by an influx from the rest of Africa — Malawi and Mali, Congo, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe — looking for refuge and opportunity. They have sometimes had to endure searing anti-immigrant sentiment. Nonetheless, they have set up shops and market stalls, changed the look of some streets and neighborhoods and brought recipes from home.

The Coffeebeans itinerary tells the story, a mouthful at a time, said my guide, Michael Letlala, 28, who came to Cape Town from the Eastern Cape.

Our first stop was the Escape Caffe, which has an extraordinary history: it is owned and operated by Muhammed Lameen Abdul-Malik, who was born in Nigeria, and opened the cafe after winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 as part of the International Atomic Energy Agency when Mohamed ElBaradei was the director general.

The clientele, and the baristas, looked like the South African counterparts to my regular cafe in Philadelphia. They are locals and expats, regulars and newcomers, the same set of people worldwide who know their piccolos and macchiatos, settling in at a long communal table in the middle of the cafe.

Although Cape Town already had a robust cafe scene before the arrival of Escape Caffe, few places had decent coffee. Mr. Abdul-Malik has endeavored to fix that. His coffee is great, and he has built a following of people who are prepared to pay considerably higher prices for it.

“Coffee beans are from Africa,” Mr. Letlala said, as we sipped cortados from clear glasses. “And, anyway, coffee is a good palate cleanser before we begin eating. We will have a lot of food.”

Having eaten very little before we started, I felt up to the task. We walked up the cobblestone street into the Bo-Kaap, the Cape Malay Quarter, with its view of bright pastel-colored homes running like a perspective painting up the incline of Signal Hill, and came to a spice shop. The Bo-Kaap, like so much of the area, is in transition. After hundreds of years of being exclusively Muslim (partly because of apartheid-era segregation laws), gentrification and rising demand, property and tax rates are changing the neighborhood, making it all rather a bit too SoHo for traditional residents.

There in the Bo-Kaap, Naima Fakier, a 38-year-old mother of four, talked to us through the aromatic aisles of leaves, bulbs, roots and seeds brought from India, with whom the community still has close ties.

“The difference between Indian and Cape Malay is the heat: Cape Malay is less spicy,” Ms. Fakier explained as we crossed a street and entered her kitchen, where we tucked into meal No. 1. It began with daltjie (pronounced DOLL-chee), or chile bites, which are like falafel but made with pea powder, spinach and fresh cilantro.

There followed roti and Cape Malay chicken, a bobotie (pronounced ba-BOO-tee), or Cape Malay curry, with onion, tomato, garlic, ginger paste, cardamom and cinnamon sticks.

Then a dessert of koesisters (pronounced COO-sis-ters). The Afrikaner version of this pastry (spelled koeksisters) is hard, braided and cooked so that the syrup makes it sticky, while the Cape Malay version is soft fried dough with a simple syrup of tangerine peel, cloves, nutmeg and ginger, finished by a roll in coconut flakes.

The Cape Malay version of malva pudding, a South African favorite, is made with evaporated milk instead of brandy, as it’s made elsewhere, because Muslims avoid alcohol.

We ate. We talked. Leaving the Bo-Kaap, I sensed that I had eaten at an uneven pace; I felt like a boxer who threw too many punches in the early rounds.

I counted on the walk into the City Center to give my appetite a second wind by the time we arrived at our next stop, the Little Ethiopia Restaurant on Shortmarket Street, run by Yeshi Mekonnen. The arrival of tens of thousands of Ethiopians has meant many restaurants specializing in the cuisine of their homeland, but this one is apparently a favorite of Ethiopian food lovers.

A plate arrived covered by injera, the traditional spongy bread East Africans use to pick up and eat food. We had tibs, or beef with onions, rosemary and fresh chile. There were lentils with berbere, a mixture of ginger, black cardamom, cloves and other spices.

Given that it was still a few minutes shy of what would be the early-bird special in America, only one other table was occupied, by a striking group of tall, lissome women, a Canadian and two Nigerian models visiting for a fashion shoot. It was a taste of Ethiopia in South Africa, and yet, like the Escape Caffe, the scene probably wasn’t all that much different from what you would find in Washington or the Bay Area.

STILL the Ethiopians and the other African immigrants in the neighborhood are no less foreign in Cape Town than they would be in North America. Cape Town has somehow become more ethnically diverse, and more homogeneously international, in the same moment.

It would probably have been enough, even salubrious, to stop eating there, and perhaps call for someone with a wheelbarrow to cart me away. I wondered if Coffeebeans should have instead organized things differently — a course, say, at each place, effectively one daylong meal.

I will have to suggest it next time. This trip, we still had another stop to go.

Bebe Rose was waiting.

Pitock, T., 2012. A Culinary Gateway to Cape Town. [online] The New York Times. Available at:  http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/travel/a-culinary-gateway-to-cape-town-opens.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 [Accessed 30 November 2012]