Taste & Travel
The South African port city offers African and Indian flavours, aromas, and creativity. By ELYSE GLICKMAN.
As Durban, South Africa, is a bit less prominent on the North American traveller's radar than Cape Town, a simple analogy can help explain why it is worth a visit. While Cape Town combines the best aspects of Northern and Southern California, Durban is reminiscent of South Florida with its vegetation, Art Deco architecture, and Technicolor-hued boardwalk attractions... but with Zulu and Indian communities rather than Latin America spicing up the food, beverage and art scenes.
South Africa's third largest metropolis — also the busiest port in South Africa and third in the Southern Hemisphere — first made history books following Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama's sighting of the coast on Christmas 1497 (hence, the “Natal” in the region's name) when charting a trade route connecting Europe and India. The city's actual foundations were set in 1824 by exRoyal Navy officers who established trade relations with Zulu King Shaka. In 1880 the growing city was named to honor Benjamin D'Urban, former Governor in the Cape Colony. While Cape Town's flavour draws upon a lot of European influences (Dutch, British, French, and Greek among others), Durban's is more global and diversified, with interesting contributions from indigenous people and immigrant populations.
In the 200 years following the first contact between the Royal Navy officers and Shaka, Durban became home to the largest Indian community outside of India, thanks to the thousands of labourers recruited to work in South Africa temporarily who ended up staying and setting up communities. Unlike other cities around the globe that have a Little India neighbourhood, Durban has at least four neighbourhoods where the moniker fits. Generations of Indian families brought over their age-old recipes and regional influences, and made them uniquely South African by making use of the spices and produce available in KwaZulu-Natal.
Victoria Market in Central Durban is testament to the greater Indian community's resilience and ability to make Durban home in spite of Apartheid (before it was abolished in 1992). The market tourists visit and residents use today was rebuilt after a 1973 fire, with many multi-generation vendors returning to resume their trade. The Indian community's influence can be experienced in a sensory way through its vendors, who sell alongside others offering African artwork, cookware and souvenirs. Serious home cooks will want to take advantage of the beautifully arranged shops offering spices and spice mixes (including Nando seasoning named for South Africa's beloved fast food chain). Just beyond the market's grounds, local momand-pop restaurants abound as do several interesting landmarks, such as the Juma Masjid Mosque, Emmanuel Cathedral, and Gandhi Library — all playing roles in the struggle for South Africa's Democracy.
A few minutes away by car, the kitchens of twin hotels Southern Sun Elenghani and Maharani draw area residents as well as visitors with their appealing and diverse menus. In addition to various seafood dishes, Elenghani's ground floor bar and restaurant features a refined version of Bunny
Chow with vegetables, chicken, beef, or lamb. The name for this Durban invention — a curried stew served in a fresh bread `bowl' — derives from banias, an unfortunate historic nickname for Indian labourers. While many Indian-owned diners have sold the hearty, portable snack for years, and other modern restaurants are creating their own versions, the Elenghani expression is certainly a good place to start that exploration.
The lunch menu at Vigour & Verve, Maharani's lobby restaurant, meanwhile, lists several familiar curry dishes and Indian-style appetizers that are mild but flavourful — and very different from their North American cousins because of what is locally available. Samosas, for example, are filled with local biltong (South Africa's answer to beef jerky) and squash, and wrapped in phyllo dough.
Recipes from the subcontinent have also found a home at better hotels across town, enlivened with African and European sensibilities. The most famous and widely acclaimed curry buffet can be found at the Oyster Box Hotel, a posh beachfront lodging located in the upscale Uhmlanga district. `All-you can eat' is pushed up several notches inside the hotel's Ocean Terrace restaurant, with the gourmet handling of the various recipes, arrangement of condiments, aromas of baking papadums and garlic naan, and a sparkling beachfront view. Across the way, at the equally fashionable Beverly Hills Hotel, Elements Café offers more adventurous dinners options such as Pistachio Chicken, Durban Lamb Curry, a Shisa Nyama platter (the township term for an informal barbecue or braai, based on Zulu tradition), Indian Ocean oysters, Harissa-spiced chicken livers, and a multitude of fresh shrimp and fish dishes.
Streets of Dreams
A little farther north in the city, one will encounter Durban's trendier enclaves including Florida Road, Morningside, and Station Drive, with their colourful assortment of street art, boutiques, vintage shops, cafes and food destinations. Station Road's star attractions include local hangouts Parkside Coffee and Khuluma Coffee, both ideal for fresh baked goods, coffee, and people watching with nary a chain coffee bar in sight. Those wanting fresh craft beer, inventive pub grub and live local music, meanwhile, should head to the S43 Brew Pub on a weekend night. Serious spirits enthusiasts, meanwhile, should plan a visit to Distillery 031, where some of South Africa's most acclaimed spirits are produced and can be sampled.
Station Road's best hidden treasure is Momenti Gelato, conceived by Edward Papaphotis, who has not only perfected the Madagascan vanilla scoop but also devised such one-of-a-kind flavours as Golden Turmeric Coconut, Lemon, Basil and Mint, and Black Sesame and Fynbos Honey.
Away from the beachfront hotels in Umhlanga, Lucky Shaker — whose cocktail shaker logo is inspired by Zulu and European symbols of hospitality — is another vibrant spot that allows visitors to be locals. The simply decorated bar area, which features an impressive selection of independent South African-made spirits and cocktails built on local produce, is deservedly one of the hottest watering holes of the moment.
Florida Road, which has been at the top of its game for a while now, is packed with people most nights of the week. The hottest eateries include Mozambik Florida Road, Lupa Osteria, Butcher Boys Morningside, Falafel Fundi, Next Chapter, and Freedom Café.
It Takes a Village
Moyo-Ushaka, located at the Ushaka beachfront entertainment hub, is a bright and breezy `township' restaurant, offering a neatly arranged buffet of African-style dishes against a mural-like backdrop. Indeed, `Township Tourism' is big right now. To find the real thing, one has to look no further than Soweto, outside Johannesburg, to see how communities torn by the Apartheid system are now thriving with locally owned businesses celebrating black South African traditions, flavours, and pop culture.
It's also happening in Durban, most notably under the direction of Max Mqadi with his ever-expanding Max's Lifestyle in the Umlaz district of Durban. The flashy space, which has been featured on CNN and other top media outlets, was devised by Mqadi to celebrate traditional Kasie (Ethnic Township Location) culture. His concept began in April 2009 as a butcher shop and shisa nyama where neighbours could gather, cook their purchases on the spot, recover from Saturday night partying and treat it as a social occasion. Over the past decade, a nightclub and live performance space, sit-down restaurant, carry out shop, casual restaurant section and other amenities were added.
The menu remains simple, with various meats marinated in hot chilli sauce and cooked over a pit or grill, along with traditional sides such as rice, chakalaka (a bean and carrot based slaw), pap (a corn meal starch with a polenta-like consistency), cooked wild spinach, and roasted corn-on-the-cob.
Within the Valley of a Thousand Hills region an hour outside of Durban, the Valley of 1000 Thrills brings the customs and foods of the rural townships to visitors. The fact that the company is locally owned and operated brings much-wanted authenticity to the tours of Zulu tribal homeland and villages. Different packages
with buffet style meals are available as are hands-on cooking demos, biking, hiking, and interaction with residents.