Tamsin Snyman

Ocean and mountain landscapes. Safari and game lodges. The Burning Man spin-off, Afrikaburn: all things that lure travellers to Cape Town. Lesser-known yet equally gratifying is the city’s unique food culture. Although Cape Town’s hospitality industry struggled due to the pandemic and (the recently lifted) alcoholic ban, things are starting to return to normal which makes now, according to food writer Tamsin Snyman, an excellent time to visit. The cookbook publisher and World’s 50 Best Restaurants academy chair for Africa has lived in the Western Cape region all her life and understands the diversity and richness of South African food.

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An All-Woman Kitchen Serving Diverse Tastes of Africa

If I’m hosting a crowd that more than a domestic dining room table can hold, the first place I would take them to is Gold Restaurant in Green Point, just outside of Cape Town. No trip to South Africa is complete without eating there. It’s the only restaurant where you can eat proper, heritage South African. For example you can get a true Cape Malay bredie (stew), a samoosa with potato and coriander, or authentically made koeksiters, a very traditional South African sweet treat that I absolutely love. It’s a round doughnut spiced with cardamom and a gorgeous syrup, golden-fried to perfection and tossed in coconut. You usually find the recipe for it in South African cookbooks and it is tricky to get right. Gold does it brilliantly and is an absolute celebration not only of South African cuisine, but different cuisines from all over Africa. The menu is a map of Africa and shows you the faces of everyone who works there: they’re from all over the continent. The kitchen is an all-women team and there’s no hierarchy in the kitchen.

Traditional South African Food in Private Homes

If you wanted the real Cape Malay flavours – the heritage flavours that define South African cuisine – you’d likely find them at somebody’s private home in the Bo-Kaap district on the outskirts of Cape Town’s CBD. This very historical region is the birthplace of most of our national dishes and is a no-drinking zone. Many Cape Malay families welcome travellers to their private homes. You can book online quite easily but they chop and change often. It’s a unique experience and some of them such as Kombuis are divine. Another incredible food adventure would be to visit 4Roomed eKasi Culture in the largest informal settlement outside Cape Town called Khayelitsha. This authentic township grazing space gives you so much insight into how one lives, eats, thrives and survives in poverty-stricken townships in South Africa. It’s important to share these connections. Those guys can show you the real backend of township eating. You get a taxi there and back of course. You don’t try to self-drive because you could end up on the wrong side of a township and wouldn’t know how to get out.

Coffee for the Road

We’ve got such a growing coffee culture now. My new favourite spot also happens to be in the Bo Kaap district and is called Against The Grain. The best part about it is that it serves fresh, hot koeksisters. It celebrates everything that Bo Kaap is about in a tiny hole-in-the-wall cafe in a beautiful, vintage building that’s been a 1000 different things in its past. Truth Coffee is where the glitz and the glamour of the coffee world is in Cape Town. It’s got an extensive menu and everything is roasted on-site. It’s somewhere you go for a goosebumps moment on Buitenkant Street, one of the oldest streets in the city, and a super wide one that once saw ox-wagons drive up and down. 

South Africa’s Top Dining Experience (if You Can Get a Booking) 

Kobus van der Merwe is bringing a lot of spotlight to that Swartland winemaking region and is working with its best producers. He serves only hyperlocal, natural wines at Wolfgat, his restaurant that’s received a lot of recognition. The restaurant is about a two-hour drive from Cape Town and is, by far, the best dining experience you can have in our country, on every level and for a million different reasons. Kobus is very much about local ingredients. He literally walks along the nearby shoreline with his kitchen team to get the ingredients for the restaurant. In his kitchen no one began as a qualified chef and there’s no hierarchy. Kobus is pretty strict on the fact that Wolfgat is a team effort and not his. The 20-seater restaurant celebrates hyperlocal, West Coast food, so much of which is from the sea. He and his crew do their foraging in places often discovered by local communities after asking for their permission. He asks them to impart their knowledge and the generations-old stories behind the name of every ingredient, every plant and every seaweed from the shore, which they keep a record of and translate onto a seven-to-10 course tasting experience that will blow your mind. The food has got so much integrity and so much history. There are ingredients on a plate that you will eat there and probably nowhere else in the world. It’s so of-the-region and very seasonal. There’s a certain flower they will have on the menu for 14 days because that’s as quick as the buds will open. They won’t start growing it or try to make it work in a false environment. They just celebrate it for 14 days and then it’s gone. 

Some Very Good Fallback Options if You Can’t Get a Booking

Korbus’s mum owns a farm store called Die Winkel op Paternoster where she sells West Coast ingredients that you often won’t find in any other shop in South Africa. You can pick up freshly baked farm bread and pastries, local olives, oils and amazing salts harvested on the coastline. On the same property, Kobus opened a bistro called Oep Ve Koep Bistro that takes Wolfgat’s overflow bookings. He trained an amazing chef called Adél Hughes who does the little sister version of the Wolfgat experience. It’s not as polished and a lot more accessible, which I think is even more exciting. Kobus will propose an ingredient or idea to play around with and Adél will create something and serve it in her space. If I’m passing through the West Coast, I’ll definitely pop into Adél’s space, because I’m always excited to see the stuff they’re practicing there. 

Cape Town’s Hippest Baker

Jason Bakery in Green Point is quite special. Everyone knows Jason Lilley because he’s always making something new and innovative. For example, he’ll take the traditional South African dessert, milk tart, and make a doughnut filling out of it. He’s also fully tattooed, well-muscled and looks like the kinda guy you don’t want to meet in a dark alleyway, but is actually a gentle giant who’s one heck of a baker. It’s ironic to see that character turn up a perfect cronut or pastry. He makes amazing croissants in every shape and size and incredible bread. He plays on local flavours and will infuse it into whatever the bake of the day is. 

The Birth of Modern Zulu Cuisine

Makers Landing in the V&A waterfront where all the ships dock was created for talent to have the space to celebrate what they love doing, even if they didn’t have the funds to open a full-fledged restaurant. Kitchens are set up for them in this industrial space and they get the necessary help to make things happen. We’re starting to see some exciting young chefs occupy a space there for a few months to develop and test out their recipes. Mmabatho Molefe is a young and passionate chef who found her confidence at Makers Landing. She is now celebrating Nguni cuisine with South African ingredients on a polished dining platform in her modern Zulu-inspired restaurant Emazulwini. She highlights traditional tribal food and has got talent that I have not seen in a very long time. She’s so authentic and super emotional about where she’s at, and what she’s able to do. She speaks so much of her family and her heritage, as she has learned a lot through food at home. She comes from generations of very focused farmers that cultivated their own crops and always observed a zero mile diet. We’ve only just woken up to the fact that some of our dishes present beautifully for discerning guests who are starting to come to South Africa and want these authentic dishes. For me it’s not just about doing it nicely. It’s all about authenticity. I know the flavours and textures so well and I think it’s important that the historical background of a recipe is honoured and carried through correctly to international guests. 

New Businesses Thriving in a Precinct To Watch

Woodstock is only a 10-minute drive out of Cape Town, but the rent there is more affordable which means places like Dolce can flourish. It’s a bakery I’ve discovered recently that makes the most sensational vegan bakes in the entire Western Cape: something really difficult to nail. It’s run by a family with a humble, honest background. They do all sorts of baking but the vegan stuff is next level and you’ll now find them creeping onto a lot of menus. They’re near where The Test Kitchen used to be down in Woodstock. One of the city’s best food markets is The Neighbourgoods Market at The Old Biscuit Mill and is a must-do for visitors to Woodstock. It’s a really old but beautiful region which is very exciting.

The Test Kitchen’s New Incubation Restaurant

One of my favourite restaurants at the moment is TTK Fledgelings, which is also in the revamped Woodstock suburbs. It’s under the umbrella of The Test Kitchen by Luke Dale Roberts, but it’s his wife Sandalene who runs the whole thing. It was like a dream realised by her. When they closed down the restaurant during lockdown, they reinvented the space by bringing young locals who want to be chefs, and trained them on site, where they then worked alongside their mentors, receiving full salaries as if they were qualified chefs or sous-chefs. Anyone that works there has the most unique story, as they took some of these kids literally off the street and welcomed them into an incubation hub type of restaurant. The food is so simple, no frills, and I love everything about the way it’s presented. It’s so accessible in that it’s honest and affordable, and is also so delicious. Each dish has definitely got the x-factor. If it wasn’t a drive for me, I would dine at Fledgelings twice a week. 

A New-Age Restaurant Serving Pizza, Cocktails and Springbok 

The new-age restaurants that are popping up nod to all sorts of countries’ flavours and they do it really well. I think it’s clever that they don’t pretend to be, say, a fully Mexican restaurant and then get most of it wrong. Instead they make different dishes inspired by different cuisines and do them all really well. There’s a beautiful one called Ëlgr on a very busy street in town. It’s doing amazing things: you could just go for pizza – thick-based, American style with imaginative toppings – and cocktails in the courtyard and have a complete experience. Every cocktail is a tasting sensation. Many people go there just to grab a drink after work before making their way out of the city centre because the restaurant is located in a perfect spot for that. You can also enjoy a full tasting menu. I’m always seeking out anything that’s plant-based and I like to see how innovative the chef can be. Something that I’ll remember is a beautiful dish of baby veggies where the vegetables were treated gently and with the utmost respect. They were blanched, gently smoke-fired and served on a sunflower seed tahini, then topped with a texturally beautiful nut and seed crumble with sugar and cracked black pepper. They’ll serve a beautiful piece of South African Springbok – which is gorgeous venison – very simply seared and the sides will support it. It won’t be over-seasoned or over-marinated. You could pretty much taste the region of South Africa where the animal grew up and what it fed on. 

A Special Occasion Restaurant Celebrating Provenance

We have amazing lamb in South Africa, including Karoo lamb which tastes different from east or west. It’s all in the keeping and feeding of the animal. I love when some restaurants bring you a meat course to the table and will slip a card explaining the connection to the farmer and land. Traceability is very important and stories of food are told more than ever before. A lot of us are looking for that authenticity and connection in every plate of food. Peter Tempelhoff does that at FYN. It’s in the middle of the city with views of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. He’s an insanely talented chef and what he’s doing there is mind-blowing. Japan is his favourite place on the planet and you can see strong Japanese influences in his dishes but with magical South African twists, honouring some of the most precious indigenous ingredients. This is my go-to restaurant for a special occasion without a shadow of a doubt.

Sustainable Seafood Meets Modern Technology

The Abalobi initiative is insane. It’s really changed the landscape of traceability and sustainable fishing in South Africa. We’ve become very good at tracing where our seafood comes from. We know exactly who our fishermen are through a QR code attached to an app created by Abalobi. It’s nice to see the fisherman’s face on the app and know that you have a connection with the livelihood of his family by eating that piece of fish. Most of the restaurants I speak of are part of the initiative – their fish comes straight from the boats to the restaurants – and they have a few ambassadors like Margot Janse, ex-executive chef from the world-renowned The Tasting Room. During lockdown, Abalobi moved into the domestic space and you can now get the fish home-delivered. They thought on their feet quite quickly and not only cut out the middle man, but also made sure that the fishermen were still being sent out to sea when restaurants were closed. Each farmer can see where their fish went and how much they earned every day from every sale.

A Historic Hotel With a Time-Honoured Menu 

Established hundreds of years ago, Chapmans Peak Hotel was one of the first properties to ever be built in Hout Bay and is an important place to visit. It’s at the start of a very iconic drive: tourists come just to drive Chapmans Peak. It’s a scary road that was literally built by hand and carved into the side of a mountain. With the Indian Ocean on its right, it leads you down to Cape Point which is where the Indian and the Atlantic Oceans meet, so it’s geographically a very important part of South Africa. The Chapmans Peak Hotel is known for the best calamari, golden-fried and served with a side salad of crispy iceberg lettuce, fresh tomato and a vinaigrette that they’ll never give you the recipe for. They do a very good Prego Steak (Portuguese steak sandwich), chorizo and baby squid. The Nobregas, the Portuguese family that have been running this place for decades, are well known in Hout Bay. Their bar makes classic cocktails well and has the most superb wine list. Lidia, one of the owners, is very well-versed and runs a wine shop next door. She and her brother Carlos are so entrenched in the winemaking fraternity and work closely to preserve the beautiful property they’ve inherited from their folks. Along with their younger sister Linda, they’re keen on offering visitors – locals especially – the best experience. If you can attract the locals, you’ve got a place that will stay open.

A South African Natural Wine Star

In parts of the Swartland region, you will find a handful of amazing winemakers that are making wine from grapes, and only grapes. One of the most exciting wines in South Africa is Testalonga by husband-and-wife team Craig and Carla Hawkins. The wine was established in 2008 with the first being a four-week, skin-macerated chenin blanc. The Hawkins currently rent 11 hectares of organically farmed vineyards, growing on the granite soils of the Paardeberg, and four hectares on the sandstone soils of the Piketberg. In 2015 they purchased a farm on the slate-sandstone soils of the northern mountains of the Swartland called Bandits Kloof. The first vineyards were planted there in 2018 and the focus was on Mediterranean grape varieties.

The Alcohol Ban

In a country with a very prominent winemaking region, the alcohol ban was utterly devastating. It crippled our winemakers’ dreams as farms just folded. No alcohol was allowed to be served or sold for over a year. We exported beautiful wines all over the world and suddenly we were not allowed to export a drop of it. Wine is a huge industry with massive income revenue that has a ripple effect on employment, the livelihood of many homes and consequences on production capacities. Restaurants were knocked hard, of course. Some closed and whichever ones could open came up with a lot of clever, alcohol-free pairings. This has brought a whole new zero-alcohol market with a festival around it showcasing brands with no alcoholic volume that have emerged.

An Introduction to Cocktail Culture in Cape Town

My sister and I come from a cocktail culture. Our parents were big food and wine people and made the meanest cocktails at home. Our holiday house is a three-hour drive up the east coast and growing up we’d have a lot of friends over. Every single morning at 11 o’clock, my parents would serve margaritas to everyone even if they had to bring it to their bed. There are some cocktail bars in Cape Town doing great things. One of my favourites is Cause Effect in the V&A waterfront. They call themselves a “cocktail kitchen and Cape brandy bar” and their connection to raw ingredients drives the masterminding of their cocktail flavours. They are next-level sips and have a decent international food menu. A lot of restaurants have also opened up their bars for cocktails so that they have a dual purpose.

A New Generation of Speakeasy Bars

The Art of Duplicity is another one of my favourite bars and is a little bit of an enigma. If it’s your first time going, you’ll get a code and address only on the day of your reservation. You arrive and there’s no door. You’ll have to punch your code in somewhere and walk through the backdoor of a ramshackle house into a beautiful old 1894 Victorian warehouse where you will have amazing cocktails. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time. A lot of these little bespoke speakeasies have popped up all over the city during lockdown and were modelled to accommodate only 25 people in a room, so you would have to book to go out for a cocktail, which is bizarre to us, but we all feel like we need to connect. 

Further Cocktail Adventures in Joburg 

If you’ve made it to South Africa, the safari adventures will probably lead you to Johannesburg – a two-hour flight from Cape Town – which has a discerning market of diners. There’s a cocktail bar, close to where we’ve always stayed when in Joburg, called Sin + Tax. It’s flipping amazing. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in South Africa, there were certain sweet treats and flavours like Peppermint Crisp, Bar One, Marmite and Creme Soda that are super South African. The bar has taken all those childhood lunchbox favourites that are so bad for you and transformed them into beautiful cocktails. The flavour profiles they nail are so insane that you’ll close your eyes and be transported instantly.

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