Thanks to our British colonial heritage, many South Africans imagine tea with food as something to be taken in the afternoon in the 1850s high-tea tradition of Anna Russell, duchess of Bedford, with cucumber sandwiches, cakes, scones, crumpets, cream, jams and tarts.
Tea made by infusing hot water with a fruit, flower or leaf is found all over the world. Among the most well known are maté (from a type of subtropical holly) in South America; Labrador tea (from Arctic rhododendrons) in Canada; manuka (from a native tree first used for tea by Captain Cook) in Australia; and buchu and rooibos in South Africa.
But true tea comes from a single plant species, Camellia sinensis, and it is one of the many great gifts that China has given civilisation.
Last December Lisa Tsai, wife of tea merchant Mingwei Tsai, opened O’ways Teacafé where one can luxuriate in choosing teas from a selection of more than 60 varieties and, appropriately, enjoy Chinese and fusion cuisine. To the best of my knowledge it is also the only exclusively vegetarian restaurant in Cape Town.
There are no chocolate cakes rotating in the window here and the food is many notches above what one expects from a café; the chef, Marion Kumpf, was for years the sous chef at elite Aubergine.
The interior is welcoming, neat, open and clean and the decor has that honest, quirky charm and appeal that an individual proprietor — as opposed to an interior decorator — often brings to his premises. The designer chairs are transparent with honeycomb backs, the mismatched tables high-sheen white and the bar built from face brick.
Teapots dangle from the ceiling, an oriental rug is a wall hanging and hessian bags with exotic labels cover a concrete ceiling beam.
Breakfast with a twist
Mrs Tsai spontaneously plays a repertoire of popular classics on the baby grand piano. For those who at this point might be growing nervous, I should add that she plays well and that there is also a good selection of artisanal roast coffees: Ethiopian Harrar, Kenyan Gethumbwini Estate AA, Brazilian Cachoeira, Bolivian Colonia San Juan 8 and more.
Instead of cured pig and eggs, consider the following for a delicious breakfast: warm almond waffle with spicy mango and coriander salsa; Taiwanese dan bing (egg pancake) with guacamole and lime yoghurt; or an open brioche sandwich with melted mozzarella, pesto and mushroom paté.
On the second occasion I lunch here Mingwei Tsai is preparing nine different flower teas for their public tea club, which is held every month on the first Saturday at 3.30pm.
But this time I am after the dim sum experience. Manager Nehemia Simons suggests as companion the jasmine Dan Bai Hao, a semi-fermented oolong tea scented with jasmine blossoms, formerly reserved, apparently, for the exclusive use of the Imperial Court. The tea develops an alluring golden colour as it brews on the table in the glass teapot warmed by a tea-light candle.
Kumpf, who knows I’m there, sends out a basket of delicious freshly baked breads with a carrot dip and, as an amuse-gueule, roasted tofu with shredded beetroot and paper-thin slices of cucumber.
I start with a petite bowl of green asparagus, light, fluffy risotto and rocket leaves. A generous bowl of wonton soup presents itself with a rich soya aroma, almost caramelised on the nose. It is a punchy broth with cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, chili and whole peppercorns, halved cherry tomatoes, shitake mushrooms and goji berries. The dumplings are filled with crushed mushrooms.
Keeping the regulars happy
Next is a vermicelli salad with a quail egg and a rice-stuffed bean-curd pocket with wasabi on the side. The plate is elegantly sprinkled with finely crushed pistachio nuts and desiccated coconut.
Finally a substantial platter of delights arrives that, at first, seems insurmountable but is soon conquered with relish: a pancake-sized spring roll with peanut purée; a vegetable fritter; several delicious har gau (shrimp dumplings); tender stem broccoli, snow peas, mushrooms and a carrot salad.
Interestingly, these yummy dishes seem to be accomplished without resorting to onion or garlic.
Kumpf says a substantial number of customers are regulars, some of whom come in daily.
Testament to this is the wall of loyalty cards with the patrons’ names on them. She feels she needs to change her affordably priced menu every six to eight weeks to keep her clientele interested, and she adds that it keeps her on her toes and the standards high. I know for sure that this is one restaurant I will return to often.
When you leave you will find a gong near the exit. You are encouraged to strike it and shout “O’ways!”
O’ways Teacafé, Shop 2, Heritage House, 20 Dreyer Street, Claremont. Tel: 021 671 2850