A greasy spoon's heady mix

Makeshift they may be but Kate Armstrong gets a taste of how a country's casual eateries keep its culinary traditions alive.

"DO YOU know why we call this dish 'smiley'?" Our guide, Nelson, points to the platter before us. It's not difficult to guess the answer. A boiled sheep's skull, looking more like a Halloween prop than an animal part, rests on its side. As the head has been boiled, its skin - by now, grey and leathery - has peeled away from the mouth to reveal a lipless Mick Jagger-like grin.

We - four Australians and our South African host, Bangu - are sitting at a table under the awning of a shebeen (a drinking spot-cum-bar) in a township near Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Named Imkaya (Xhosa for "home"), this small tin shebeen sits among a hotchpotch of shanties and shacks.

Unlike many Asian countries, South Africa doesn't have a street-food culture. Instead, makeshift cafes, shebeens and casual restaurants serve "local" cuisine, much of which reflects the influence of several centuries of local indigenous tribes along with Dutch, Indian, Malay, British and Portuguese migrants.

Unfortunately, most travellers miss out on the chance to sample these dishes. They are drawn (as was I, at first) to upmarket eateries and their delectable venison and seafood menus. But - as I discover while travelling along South Africa's coast between Durban and Cape Town - the more traditional, local dishes reflect the genuine flavour and complex culture of South Africa's past and present.

Back at the shebeen, we pile our plates with the day's offerings: umphokoqo (porridge-like maize), umfino (a spinach-like plant mixed with mielie meal) and tripe in curry sauce, with beans and samp.

When it comes to sampling our share of "smiley", we are polite, if tentative. Meanwhile, local patrons jokingly tussle at the buffet for a share of what is considered a delicacy. Nelson, his mouth smeared with grease, beams: "It feels just like Christmas!"

He doesn't need to explain. For many, deprivation - especially among South Africa's black population - is a way of life.

That evening, still in Port Elizabeth, we head to the township of New Brighton to Jeya's Jazz Corner Tavern. Upturned cable spools serve as tables in this barn-like wooden shebeen. A youth group performs for the patrons, who include township locals and a coachload of Dutch tourists. To a rhythm, song and beat that is nothing but African, 20 brightly dressed teenagers move their shoulders, shake their backsides and pulsate everything in between while we sup on chakalaka, a hearty, traditional relish-cum-stew of baked beans, chilli and vegetables.

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In Durban, it's another story again. Here, specialties have been influenced by the city's proliferation of Indian people. Not surprisingly, samosas and curries are big on the menu.

Sampling a "bunny chow" is obligatory. The "bunny", as it's affectionately known, is a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with a meat or vegetable curry. The meal is believed to originate from times when the Bania group of Indians hollowed out loaves as "containers", into which they spooned curries. Others claim the migrant Indian sugar cane workers carried similar edible lunch boxes to the fields. I head into a greasy-spoon cafe in the Indian district of Grey Street, where I plough through a quarter loaf (half and full loaves are also available). It costs $2 and keeps me going all day.

Cape Town is the self-proclaimed gourmet capital of South Africa. Indeed, with Cape Malay and Indian influences (due to the slaves who arrived in the 17th century), local dishes have spice in their favour. "Roti and curry" signs announce small hole-in-the-wall stalls and roadside cafes. The best-known curry is the Cape Malay, mincemeat infused with a heady mix of turmeric, cumin and cinnamon. Another favourite, bobotie, is a spiced mince bake with a savoury egg custard topping. My preference is for fat cakes, deep-fried yeast dough served with a mince filling, often sold at markets or roadside stalls. These snacks are as artery-clogging as they are enjoyable.

But, as a self-declared sweet tooth, I'm desperate for something sugary. Bangu suggests I try a koeksister, a kind of twisted doughnut that is deep-fried and boiled in sugary syrup.

My koeksister crusade is interrupted by the arrival of the "Cape Doctor", a wind so fierce it whips away atmospheric pollution. It forces us to remain indoors. We take refuge at One&Only resort, Cape Town's newest - and super luxurious - hotel. Jokingly, I ask whether their advertised "high tea" serves a koeksister. This would be like asking Sydney's Icebergs restaurant for a lamington. Thankfully, traditions are not ignored here. "Of course, madam!" the waiter responds.

I sink back into my armchair in the smart lobby. High tea is laid out before us - a melange of pale-pink and blue biscuits and designer cakes.

I bite into my first-ever koeksister. I am sceptical as to its authenticity; trendy kitchens habitually tweak traditional dishes. Bangu assures me that even in this upscale place, this modest treat hasn't been given an upmarket twist. Thank goodness. Like much of South Africa's traditional food, this pastry may be simple but - in the words of Nelson - it feels just like Christmas.

The writer was a guest of South Africa Tourism and Qantas Airways.

Trip notes

Getting there

Qantas has daily flights between Sydney and Johannesburg from about $1430 return. qantas.com.au.

Staying there

Cape Town One&Only resort, Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, doubles from 4770 rand ($703). +27 21 431 5888.

See + do

Calabash Tours (31 Cuyler Street, Port Elizabeth) offers cultural tours to Port Elizabeth's townships, including visits to shebeens (such as Imkaya) and squatter camps. +27 41 585 6162, calabashtours.co.za.

Jeya's Jazz Corner Tavern (visited as part of Calabash Tour), Sheya Kulati Circle, corner Ferguson Road and Avenue A, New Brighton Township, Port Elizabeth. +27 41 454 7567.

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