Food from the hood gets up­wardly mo­bile


T he kota, a fast food quin­tes­sen­tial to Mzansi’s town­ships, gets its name from its sig­na­ture in­gre­di­ent — a hol­lowed-out quar­ter loaf of bread. Typ­i­cally, the cav­ern that re­mains is filled with atchar, chips and op­tional lay­ers of sauce, pro­cessed meats, cheese or egg. It may also con­tain fish or stew, but there was some mut­ter­ing about the ex­per­i­men­tal cre­ations on of­fer at last week’s Soweto Kota Fes­ti­val — spicy chicken feet in one; scram­bled egg, but­ter­nut and spinach (the “veg­e­tar­ian break­fast kota”) in an­other.

Some were full of praise, but not ev­ery­one wel­comed these in­no­va­tions. Purists on so­cial me­dia crit­i­cised the lav­ish new com­bi­na­tions, say­ing the fancy ko­tas “look like they went to a Model C school”. What these crit­ics fail to ac­knowl­edge is that many Model C ma­tric­u­lants had their school fees paid for by the pro­ceeds of kota busi­nesses in South Africa’s ro­bust in­for­mal econ­omy.

Just as the kota can have many fill­ings, it also has mul­ti­ple names. In Mamelodi or At­teridgeville you buy sphatlo, and in the Vaal Tri­an­gle it is iskham­bane.

Apartheid leg­is­la­tion in­ad­ver­tently made town­ships the sites of lin­guis­tic and cul­tural amal­ga­ma­tion. Out of these fu­sions, new iden­ti­ties and cul­tures were formed.

As Sasko Soweto Kota Fes­ti­val or­gan­iser Sid­well Tshingi­lane says: “Ev­ery­one can re­late to kota, espe­cially if you are from a town­ship. Ev­ery­one knows kota, ev­ery­one grew up eat­ing kota.”

In gath­er­ing as many kota ven­dors from as many Gauteng town­ships as his fes­ti­val venue could ac­com­mo­date, Tshingi­lane was moved by the over­rid­ing en­trepreneurial spirit he en­coun­tered, re­gard­less of whether kota ven­dors sold their wares from back­yards with hand-painted menus or at fran­chised restau­rants.

“Kota is sup­port­ing fam­i­lies,” says Tshingi­lane. But in the free mar­ket not all ko­tas are equal. The most de­sir­able kota sur­vives at the ex­pense of lesser ko­tas, and what is in that U-shaped cav­ern of bread crust can mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween suc­cess and fail­ure.

True to cul­tural roots

Ge­orge Mnguni (aka Okay Wasabi) and Da­luthando Mon­a­geng (aka Daliii Dan­ger) be­lieve that the best ko­tas are those that stay true to their cul­tural roots. The two mil­len­ni­als run Kota Past 9, a web se­ries that re­views ko­tas from around Gauteng. They find kota take­aways by word of mouth and through so­cial me­dia.

Wasabi be­lieves that kota ven­dors out­side of the town­ship are “try­ing to bring the hood to the city, which I don’t think peo­ple will re­late to”.

Kota Past 9 has pro­vided many op­por­tu­ni­ties for Wasabi and Dan­ger to big-up Vosloorus, where they were raised and still live.

“We’ve never lived in the sub­urbs,” says Wasabi. “What you see on Kota Past 9 is how we are in the hood. We make sure you never for­get we are from the hood. Ko­tas are from the hood and that’s where you’re go­ing to find the best kota — in the hood.”

But Wasabi and Dan­ger set their per­sonal opin­ions on kota ap­pro­pri­a­tion aside when they gave a pos­i­tive re­view to Ke Monate restau­rant, on the out­skirts of the gen­tri­fied Mabo­neng Precinct in Jo­han­nes­burg.

Ke Monate is the brain­child of young chef Phahla Thobe­jane, for whom the kota is not a cul­tural icon but a culi­nary op­por­tu­nity.

“Ko­tas are the eas­i­est thing for me to make be­cause I’m alone in the kitchen,” says Thobe­jane. “I could sell pap and rice and stews, but I don’t have enough hands.”

Apart from the kota’s prac­ti­cal ad­van­tages, Thobe­jane en­joys his role as a con­trib­u­tor to — some might say dis­rupter of — kota cul­ture.

“You need to have an im­pact,” he says. “I couldn’t come in with a reg­u­lar kota. I feel like my skill has taken it to the next level, work­ing with more flavours.”

Thobe­jane’s menu re­flects a con­sid­ered reimag­in­ing of the kota. He has in­tro­duced new in­gre­di­ents like red onion, fresh chilli and home-made pick­led cu­cum­ber, but these are com­bined with tra­di­tional items, such as rus­sian sausages, that have made the kota fa­mous.

In some ways, Ke Monate has many ties to town­ship cul­ture.

Thobe­jane and a group of friends formed a stokvel to fund the busi­ness, which opened in Fe­bru­ary. The grand­mother of one part­ner owns the build­ing and they rent the space from her.

In other ways, the busi­ness is up­scale in its lo­ca­tion, decor and tagline — “Food, Drinks, Art” — all of which res­onate with the crowd at nearby Umuzi, a mul­ti­me­dia train­ing academy.

Re­duce the calorific con­tent

In a bid to re­duce the calorific con­tent of ko­tas, some ven­dors, such as Carol Dooms of West­bury, use rye bread, fewer pro­cessed meats and more fresh veg­eta­bles, but the Healthy Kota Cam­paign, launched in 2015 by Mpho Pha­latse, Joburg’s mem­ber of the may­oral com­mit­tee for health, has not been an un­qual­i­fied suc­cess.

A re­cent slew of so­cial me­dia posts by the City of Jo­han­nes­burg have raised the ire of even the most lib­eral kota con­nois­seurs.

The images showed ko­tas made with brown bread and filled with a va­ri­ety of healthy al­ter­na­tives, from boiled eggs and raw veg­eta­bles to sautéed lean cuts of meat.

Pha­latse is not the only evan­ge­list ad­vo­cat­ing that South Africans lead health­ier lives.

At a na­tional level, Health Min­is­ter Aaron Mot­soaledi has waged war on the com­mon cul­prits be­hind noncom­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases that are crip­pling peo­ple, fam­i­lies and the na­tional health sys­tem — di­a­betes, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­eases and high blood pres­sure.

But the elu­sive en­emy in Mot­soaledi’s war re­mains un­la­belled, un­reg­u­lated food pro­duced in the in­for­mal econ­omy and not sub­ject to the rules of the for­mal one.

Both Mot­soaledi and Pha­latse would do well to recog­nise that cul­ture is not eas­ily de­bunked — espe­cially when it drips with flavour­some, deep-fried in­gre­di­ents, car­ried in soft white bread and so pop­u­lar that it has be­come a bea­con of cul­tural iden­tity.

You need to have an im­pact. I couldn’t come in with a reg­u­lar kota. I feel like my skill has taken it to the next level, work­ing with more flavours Phahla Thobe­jane Kota chef

Pic­ture: Blake Wood­hams

THE EAS­I­EST THING Chef Phahla Thobe­jane makes tra­di­tional ko­tas with a gourmet touch at his Ke Monate restau­rant in Jo­han­nes­burg.

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