Sample the gastronomic side of downtown Joburg on a foodie walking tour.
Starting in Newtown (where Joburg itself was born), over a cappuccino at the City Lodge, Gilda Swanepoel paints a vivid picture of this crazy place that started out as a mining town of immigrants. She motioned to the streets outside. ‘By the early 1900s, one out of every four people in Joburg was Chinese. In fact, the first Chinatown was just over here, on Commissioner Street.’
It wasn’t Chinatown we’d be visiting though, but an area that has, since the early days, been home to Muslim, Asian, Middle Eastern and African residents (who, for years, fought against it becoming a whites- only area like nearby Sophiatown). This rich mix of cultures has resulted in some sensational street food, but most people know Fordsburg best for its bona-fide curries and spices.
To begin, we headed to the Oriental Plaza. ‘This is the only mall in South Africa run on a sectional-title basis, so you’ll not see any corporate branding here. Places like the Golden Peacock Restaurant have been here for 30 years,’ said Gilda.
World of Samoosas was my first taste of Fordsburg – deep-fried deliciousness in at least 12 flavours, including cheese and corn, potato, even sweet coconut. Then, as an added treat, store owner Zaheer Bayant pulled out the restaurant’s visitor book. Inside, Nelson Mandela’s handwriting sang the praises of his meals here, and Zaheer told me about the time cricketer Hansie Cronje ate within these walls. ‘Before his fall from grace,’ he added.
We moved out of the Plaza onto Commercial Road, and Gilda shepherded me to some of her favourite spots in the surrounding streets; her guidance was handy because there were few menus to be found. Vendors offered fresh coconut water shipped in from the shores of Mozambique. There was also Turkish coffee and pomegranate and apple tea as a pick-me-up.
Inside Shalimar Delights store, the proprietor patiently talked us through the selection of sweetmeats in the display case: pretty pastel-coloured shapes of barfi (a bit like fudge), some dappled with colourful nuts. I settled on a customer favourite – pale pink with a hint of almond flavour.
Just down the road, a group of street chefs stood watch over cooking fires and posed for a photograph through the smoke. After a taste of their chicken – spiced the traditional way, then flame-grilled and served with naan bread made in a steel- drum tandoor oven – a mango lassi (a kind of Indian milkshake) was the perfect heat- quencher. While at the Juice Den, I also tried avocado juice – not as odd as it sounds – and fresh sugar-cane juice made with an old-fashioned press.
Dessert came with a show at the House of Schwarma – in the form of spinning laffas (Middle Eastern flatbreads), tossed in the air and then lavishly covered in molten Nutella once they’d landed on the plate. I also tried chocolate kulfi, Indian ‘ice-cream’ lollies in a long, pointed cone shape.
I’ve done many walking tours of Joburg but this one was different. Gilda was not only an enthusiastic guide with wonderful historical knowledge of the city, she also does the neighbourhood justice by telling delightful, personal stories. Admittedly, I found the streets grubby at first, but Fordsburg slowly opened up and it was a wonderful, engaging way to explore a different side of Johannesburg.