In a scene from Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Nhamo, a peasant boy in colonial Zimbabwe gloats to his younger sister about the prospect of being whisked away to his educated uncle’s home, where he will no longer eat with his bare hands, but now advance to eating with a knife and fork.
In Half of a Yellow Sun, set at the dawn of the Biafran War, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie presents a similar scene, where a houseboy, Ugwu, fantasises about returning to his home village, where he will impress his relatives with an English accent and a brand-new knowledge of sandwiches.
In both scenes, food and ways of eating are not innocent rituals of everyday life. They are loaded, symbolic acts of cultural and racial distinction. Despite being able to grow their own maize and forage the arigbe herb, both characters are positioned by the world to masochistically revel in the prospect of turning their backs against African culinary practises. In this context, food transforms into an anti-Black tool used to measure one’s proximity to success and whiteness. Following this colonial pattern of power, domination and submission, food preparation becomes a zone where we can rehearse a racial mimicry designed to titillate the diner’s gaze.
If fine-dining restaurants are distinguished by the bestowal of Michelin stars, there are no Michelin stars in South Africa, or anywhere in Africa. Perhaps we don’t need them, but we might ask ourselves: What does this reveal about global and local fine-dining standards? In other words, what would a geographical rendering of fine-dining patterns reveal in a racially segregated space such as South Africa?
First, it would expose that, by design, the idea of Black fine-dining is a paradox. The living legacy of spatial apartheid has ensured that Black-owned, African fine-dining establishments do not exist in a plural form within the mainstream hospitality industry. Ask anyone in Johannesburg, it is exceptionally difficult to find an African restaurant or an African menu in a fine-dining context. For every dozen Italian and French restaurants, there are about one or two Ethiopian and La Camerounaise eateries and this is a modest estimation. What would seem to be a commonsense expectation on the African continent, the sight of African chefs cooking African food in Black-owned fine-dining set ups, serving mainly Black diners, is a fantasy in South Africa.
The Black fine-dining experience in South Africa suffers from two main antagonisms: the first one is its blatant exclusion from the mainstream; and the second is the omnipresent whiteness of the diner’s gaze. For instance, most African food eateries are located and limited to spaces that follow the contours of spatial apartheid and “White flight”. These are Black African inner city neighbourhoods such as Hillbrow and Yeoville, taxi ranks, downtown Johannesburg and townships such as Soweto. A similar picture is visible in the rest of the country. These are places where, before going there, you will be forewarned that your meal might come with a side dish of a mugging or a car hijacking, especially if you choose to frequent them at night.
By virtue of this fear and anxiety, sourcing a highbrow African dish in a Black neighbourhood inevitably disqualifies it from being considered as part of fine-dining culture. It’s just too Black. This is unlike in the US where Black neighbourhoods are being suburbanised under the yoke of White hipster gentrification.
In Johannesburg, a yoga studio or a ramen restaurant is just not about to pop up in Hillbrow. Even Uber drivers don’t want to go there. With the exception of a gentrified microspace like the Maboneng precinct, which has merely repackaged apartheid’s spatial inequalities, the inner city remains (in large part) defiantly Black and impenetrable. No matter how upscale your dish may be, food hygiene and safety standards can be weaponised as barriers to block African food from entering the fine-dining realm, especially now during the Covid -19 pandemic.
To attain their Black buttons, all aspiring chefs in South Africa will undergo training under the Fritz-Escoffier cooking system founded on the French culinary tradition. If colonialism was promoted through self-aggrandising myths of discovering a new world and refining the raw native, it follows that when an African ingredient touches the designer crockery on a fine-dining table, it will arrive deconstructed and sterile, a shadow of its former self, stripped of its integrity and origins. This became glaringly apparent in my conversation with a Black sous chef who works in a White-owned luxury resort, where they are routinely tasked with “elevating” a Black recipe before it is offered on the menu. From this scenario, it is to be anticipated that when Black food comes into contact with European methods of preparation that continue to dominate as standards of excellence, a bastardisation process starts to unfold.
Take, for example, umleqwa. Umleqwa is a hard body free-range chicken cooked in many Black households in South Africa. It is normally boiled in water with chicken stock. It has a distinctive gamey taste and is served with pap in a stiff porridge form. Enter French fine-dining hegemony, and umleqwa becomes a “refined” affair, transformed through a three-phased cooking process. Umleqwa is boiled and subsequently roasted so that its pan drippings can be used to make a sauce.
The same umleqwa will be placed under a salamander and grilled down to a black and brown sticky crisp. The starchy side, pap, will be rolled into balls with a cheese filling, dipped in egg, crumbed and then deep-fried into a golden crisp. This hybrid indigenous dish will be presented as a new, expensive product and served for the rich White elite at tables where Black people typically don’t have a seat. Depending on the plating and presentation, in some instances this scene can descend into a calculated, exotic affair designed to attract the lucrative tourist gaze.
On the same week when it was announced that the late Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba’s tooth, his only remains, would be repatriated back to his native land in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I opportunely found myself sharing a dining table with a bubbly group of White Belgians in a Black-owned, Pan-Africanist restaurant in the middle of probably the busiest street in Yeoville. I was there for the promise of Black fine-dining. They were there to celebrate their birthdays, belatedly. All this in the Blackest spot in the city at a moment when hard lockdown rules were being relaxed.
As we waited for our fried plantain dessert, I took the opportunity to poke their bubble of mirth by asking the Belgian woman sitting on my right how she felt about the return of Lumumba’s tooth in 2020. “So many years after the Belgians slaughtered him in the Sixties, and fled with his tooth as a trophy,” I pressed on. Tension hung in the air while she scrambled for a response. Visibly dismayed, she swerved the question by saying: “The Congolese are a friendly and gentle people, you know. Every time I meet them, I am really surprised that they don’t resent us.”
The fried plantain arrived with a side of Inkomazi, a sour milk brand.
“Don’t worry, the Inkomazi is a Zulu in the kitchen but as soon as it touches the table, the Inkomazi becomes yoghurt and European just like you,” our Black host wittily cajoled. Laughter followed.
We all know that Africa is vast and diverse, but under the tourist’s gaze, it is shrunken and infused with European sensibilities, reduced into a palatable size and served on a single plate. For instance, we were taken through a notable list of popular recipes, such as the speciality of Nigerian egusi stuffed inside Italian ravioli and dubbed a “Nigerian Mafia”. We ate a fusion of okra and capers in a dish that mimicked pomodoro and a vegan jollof rice dish for those with plant-based orientations.
It was all delicious until we had to go home and Uber drivers were cancelling our cab requests back to back because they regularly get robbed and attacked in that part of the city. The Belgians left swiftly in an Uber van.
Even if by some stroke of a magic wand, Black cuisine became reflected equitably across the apartheid spatial divide, so long as the White diner’s gaze and palate continues to shape the global norms, local standards of cooking excellence will continue to follow suit.
This article was initially published in Sandwich magazine’s The African Scramble edition (Winter 2021), guest edited by Tunde Wey and Ruth Grebeyesus