The pioneer: chef Abigail Mbalo's culinary revolution in Cape Town

From her restaurant in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha — somewhere she’d sooner not refer to as a township — Abigail Mbalo produces sumptuous riffs on the cuisine of her hometown.

Saturday, July 18, 2020,
By Zane Henry
Abigail Mbalo

Abigail Mbalo owns and runs 4Roomed eKasi Culture, a restaurant in Khayelitsha serving modern versions of traditional dishes.

Photograph by Pete Goding

Abigail Mbalo is leading a quiet revolution. At her restaurant, 4Roomed eKasi Culture, on the outskirts of Cape Town, she’s breathing new life into the food of her upbringing while grappling with the culinary legacy of apartheid.

It’s hard to overstate the effects the policy of racial segregation had on South Africa. It altered its physical and cultural landscape. The government appropriated desirable land from black and brown people, shunting them into townships — underdeveloped, low-income residential areas often composed of corrugated metal shanty houses. Even now, 26 years after the end of apartheid, these areas are still almost exclusively populated by disenfranchised people of colour and are rarely featured in tourism brochures.

It’s in such a community that Abigail produces gourmet riffs on traditional cuisine — breaking down sociocultural barriers in the process. “I’m not the biggest fan of the term ‘township’,” she says. “People have immediate perceptions from media representations — poverty, high crime levels, unsophisticated food. We need to change these expectations of what a township is and break down the artificial borders created by the apartheid government. It’s one of my biggest motivations.”

While Abigail says she’s always had an affinity for cooking, her food journey started in earnest in 2014, when she was a contestant on MasterChef South Africa, finishing in the final six. At the time, she was working as a dental technician and trying out recipes on her family.

“When I got to the top 36, I had to ask myself what my motivation to keep going in the competition was,” she says. “I decided I was going to use food to make a difference. I was going to move back to the township and help to generate an influx of tourism and contribute to the general economy of the community.”

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After being knocked out of the competition, Abigail put her plan into action in Khayelitsha, the largest township in the Western Cape. She started out with a vintage Bedford food truck, serving her version of traditional dishes such as umqa — cubes of pap (a dense cornmeal porridge), coloured by butternut, beetroot, and spinach. It proved to be a good way of doing market research;  she could see how the locals reacted to the twists she was introducing.

“Those first few months took a bit of adjustment,” Abigail says. “Whenever you introduce something new or out of the norm, particularly within communities who feel you shouldn’t mess with tradition, there can be resistance. For example, pap has always been seen as a peasant dish within Xhosa culture. I remember one guest said, ‘I’m not ordering this at a restaurant. When I grew up poor in the rural homelands, we had this for breakfast, lunch and dinner.’ I had to beg her to just try it. But she loved it, saying it brought back memories of her grandmother making it for her.”

Although she was winning over her community, Abigail’s main goal was to draw visitors from outside the township. The food truck was soon joined by a restaurant, 4Roomed eKasi Culture, inspired by the tiny homes found in the oldest townships South Africa. There, in a covered backyard, she serves up creations from a tasting menu to diners seated at handsome wooden tables surrounded by vintage decor, old bathtubs-turned-herb gardens and traditional South African objets d’art.

“So many of my friends couldn’t understand why I was opening a place in the township and not the city,” Abigail says. “But I knew that if I wanted to make good on my plan to stimulate the economy right here, we needed to be producing the same quality of food you’d find in the city and give people a reason to visit the township. That’s how we achieve the integration of class and culture that’s needed.”

Abigail Mbalo serves up communal feasts at her restaurant that encourage sharing and interaction.

Photograph by Pete Goding

Abigail is keen to challenge the idea of ‘authenticity’ within culinary culture by tweaking traditional dishes to suit the contemporary palate and playing around with ingredients and techniques. “In South Africa, we have a tendency to look down on our own food,” she says. “We’re happy to pay lots of money for a Spanish paella — itself originally a ‘peasant dish’. But I want to promote us taking more pride in our own culinary history and remembering where we come from. As long as the story behind the dish remains true, I believe innovation can be ‘authentic’.”

To begin with, Abigail labelled her food as ‘township cuisine’, but found the term too limiting. “I even struggle with a catch-all term like ‘South African cuisine’,” she says. “As a nation, our food comes from a mix of so many different cultures. Townships were created on the edges of major cities by the apartheid government for black and brown people — they would then commute to the city for work, where they would come into contact with other cultures, whose influences they would then bring back into the township.

“And we’re united by common ingredients. Black people in the townships and Afrikaans white people on farms all grew up eating pap for breakfast. Every culture has a version of stew and rice or samp (corn porridge) and beans. What interested me was that these dishes were not being served on restaurant tables. That became my goal.”

Abigail scours the world for techniques and trends, and works out ways to use them in her cooking. Her menu includes dishes such as umngqusho (samp cooked in coconut cream and tarragon) and mleqwa (hand-raised chicken slow-cooked with fennel). She also uses indigenous plants such as spekboom, nasturtiums and dune spinach in her recipes. 

“Our indigenous ingredients are super nutritious, seasonal, tasty and greatly overlooked,” Abigail says. “We have these amazing plants called sour figs that grow wild in the sandy soil around Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plain. When I was a kid, we’d pick them on the way home from school and suck out the delicious sweet-and-sour juices. I’ve started planting them myself and using them in dishes. I also make a point of sourcing produce from our organic farmers right here in Khayelitsha.”

This attention to detail has paid dividends, with Abigail’s cuisine winning plaudits, and her restaurant being fully booked months ahead. She continues to operate her food truck too, and curates occasional pop-up dinners. Plus, her natural charisma and passion has made her an ambassador for the townships of South Africa.

“So, ja, we need to rethink the word ‘township’,” Abigail concludes. “It was created by the apartheid government. I prefer the term ‘e-kasi’, a word that was created by the people. It means ‘our home’.”    

Umqa (pap with butternut squash) served with truffle oil and sautéed mushrooms. 

Photograph by Pete Goding

Recipe: umqa with fragrant tomato & exotic mushrooms

This is Abigail’s take on the traditional Xhosa cornmeal porridge dish.

Serves: 4
Takes: 45 mins

Ingredients

200g butternut squash or pumpkin chopped into cubes 
50ml vegetable stock
100g butter 
A pinch of ground nutmeg 
200g cornmeal or polenta 
200g large tomatoes, quartered 
1 large red onion, quartered
1 medium-sized sweet pepper, quartered 
2 garlic cloves, crushed 
50ml verjuice
20ml maple syrup
150ml olive oil 
Handful of fresh basil, finely chopped 
3 sprigs fresh thyme 
200g various mushrooms
A few drops of truffle oil
Fresh basil, to garnish

Method

- Heat oven to 220C, fan 200C, gas 7. Put the butternut squash in a pot with the vegetable stock and 200ml water and bring to the boil. Add 50g of the butter, the nutmeg and a pinch of salt, then slowly pour in the cornmeal while stirring with a whisk (the mixture should be smooth, creamy and soft). Simmer for 30 mins.

- Put the tomatoes, onion, sweet pepper and garlic into a roasting pan and season with salt, then roast for 15 mins. 

- Transfer the roasted vegetables to a food processor with the verjuice, maple syrup, olive oil, basil and thyme. Blitz to a smooth consistency, then tip into a saucepan with a little more olive oil and simmer for around 5 mins. 

- Sauté the mushrooms in the remaining butter in a separate pan, then add a pinch of salt.

- Divide the tomato mix between four bowls, then spoon over the umqa. Drizzle with the truffle oil, top with the sautéed mushrooms and garnish with the basil.

Published in issue 9 (summer 2020) of National Geographic Traveller Food

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