China in your hand

If a change is as good as a holiday, Jo’burg residents are mighty fortunate to have the exotic aromas, sights, tastes and sounds of Chinese culture on their doorsteps. We follow CRAIG CANAVAN’S foodie trail down Derrick Avenue in Cyrildene, downtown Johannesburg

CRAIG CANAVAN

While the area resembled a ghost town during the recent xenophobic related unrest, Chinatown’s vivacious spirit returned as soon as tempers had calmed. Its reputation as one of the most fun places to spend a day in the city of gold remains intact and untarnished.

Fun and undeniably delicious to boot, Chinatown is paradise for anyone with a taste for the Orient. Being Chinatown, the emphasis is naturally on Chinese cuisine, but it is Chinese cuisine in all its complex and eclectic glory, from Cantonese and Szechuan to Shanghainese and Fujian cooking.

For those looking to explore Asian food further, the area also boasts some fine sushi outlets and some of the best Thai restaurants in the city. Though a very short stretch of road, and miniscule when compared to the Chinese districts of cities like New York and London, Derrick Avenue is packed cheek by jowl with all manner of restaurants, hole-in-the-wall eateries, supermarkets, fishmongers, butchers and fresh fruit and vegetable stalls. The compact nature of the area also makes it very easy to explore.

Start at either end of the street, park your car and walk, because parking can be hard to find. It’s also the only way to indulge your senses, especially during the day, which is the only time to really explore. Evenings are fine for an excursion to a restaurant or two, but the real buzz is found as the sun sits high in the sky and the dumpling merchants sell their steaming buns to passers-by, while Chinese matriarchs look through the day’s fresh produce displayed along the sidewalk. 

Language can be a slight problem when attempting to communicate but that is as it should be – rather than make it difficult, the otherworldly feel of the suburb makes it an even more attractive place to visit. It’s Chinatown the way it should be – confusing, delightful and just slightly odd. 

The language hurdle aside, Chinatown is beautifully accessible to the senses of sight, smell, taste and touch, all of which get an extended workout during even the most leisurely visit with the kitschybordering- on-garish neon signs; the scrumptious aromas of roasted duck and pork; the delicacy of freshly pressed tofu; and the plump juiciness of jumbo garlic. Change within Chinatown, however, is frequent and rapid. This month’s brilliant new dumpling shop may turn out to be less great in a few months, but that in itself is part of the charm: you just never know what to expect. That said, there are a few stalwarts of the strip that deserve repeat visits.

Chief amongst these is The Fisherman’s Plate, among the best purveyors of seafood in the country, and one of the cheapest. Like most venues, the decor of the Fisherman’s Plate goes no further than plastic checked tablecloths, mismatched crockery, linoleum floors and tattered posters on the walls. But when the food is this good, the surroundings matter little, if at all. Crab is the best, though not only reason to visit this establishment. Owner Kevin Su only uses the freshest he can find (strike up a friendship and you can buy your own live crabs) to create four very different but equally good dishes. A personal favourite is the chilli crab, rich with coriander, garlic and chilli, in a sauce of such a fiery hue it had me sweating before even taking a bite. The spicy black bean sauce crab was milder, though with an incredible depth of flavour. 

Thai curry fans will adore the coconut richness of the crab curry, while those with more sensitive taste buds will be bowled over by the spring onion and ginger-sauced crustacean. Be warned, though, this is not food for those who dislike messy hand-to hand combat with their food. As a friend remarked after her first crab encounter: “It’s delicious but hell on your manicure”. So if the thought of wrestling crab intimidates, there’s plenty more good stuff on offer, including superb prawns, deepfried with heaps of garlic and chilli, and succulent calamari in a variety of guises. 

Meat-eaters shouldn’t really be wasting their time here, though the sizzling steak will satisfy any carnivorous cravings. Meat-eaters should rather visit one of the many Cantonese restaurants, among them Mongkok, Southern Flavour and Sun Fat. The first of these features superb Cantonese roast duck and pork, available both as a sit-down meal or takeaway. The Cantonese restaurants also boast exceptional dim sum, some daily, some only on Sundays. As an alternative to Sunday brunch with friends and family, a leisurely dim sum lunch of dumplings and tea amidst the clanging of the tea trolleys and the hubbub of Chinese families out en masse takes some beating.

If it’s soup you hanker after then the tiny Fong Mei, next door to the Fisherman’s Plate, is your port of call. As a pick-me-up on a cold day, little can beat its wondrous dumpling or noodle broths, while those possessed of an adventurous streak may want to try a bowl of Aphrodisiac Soup containing slices of bull’s penis. Most restaurants feature hot pots bubbling with pork intestines, ox tendons, sea cucumber and the like, while Long Mon restaurant does an extraordinary dish of sizzling intestine and duck blood in a complex sauce of quite incredible depth and flavour. Do try it, in the spirit of “once in a lifetime”.

Yet, despite the undoubted excellence and affordability of Chinatown’s restaurants, it’s the street food, stalls and supermarkets that truly astound. Shopping here is both a joy and an adventure. Start out with the fresh produce stalls that sit outside just about every shop. Here you will find rare pink-skinned daikon, snake beans, water lilies, Asian greens of incredible variety, Thai aubergines, and crisp fresh oyster and shiitake mushrooms among a plethora of vegetables and fruit. 

The stall outside the Lian Fu Seafood Emporium even boasts freshly made tofu – get there early at around 9am, and you can watch them make it before buying a still-steaming block of silky-textured bean curd. Next door to Lian Fu is a tiny little room christened Green Tea and here you will find every tea known to man along with a tempting array of beautiful Chinese teapots and cups. If you’re planning an amorous evening, you may want to stock up on a brew simply called “Good Sex Tea”.

The grandfather of Asian supermarkets is Yat Kee, a warehouse-like cavern of Asian ingredients. If you cannot find what you are looking for here, it probably doesn’t exist. Be sure to take along a Chinese cookbook or two for reference: just point out an ingredient in a picture and they will find it for you. Though the undisputed stalwart, Yat Kee has some serious competition from the likes of the CJ Chinese Supermarket, the Happy Life Supermarket (especially good for Asian kitchen equipment) and Tang Ren Wan Jia – the latter boasting fresh lotus root and a superb selection of Asian mushrooms. All the while you will be surrounded by the most amazing smells of things steaming, frying, baking and roasting. Everywhere you look there are dumpling sellers, their woks piled high with steaming baskets. 

Shop windows sport glistening roast pork and duck, perfect to take away for a sumptuous dinner or to enjoy there and then wrapped in a Chinese pancake, slathered over spring onion bread or stuffed into a dumpling. Rice and goodies are wrapped in lotus leaves and steamed, the leaf acting as a plate and the package perfect for onthe- move eating. Chinatown is an amazing experience, the next best thing to being in China itself. Just remember to take your wallet – nothing is pricey, just enticing, and you will be buying plenty.

Chinese Tea 084 458 0168
• Fasao Seafood and Vegetable Market 072 515 6895
• Fisherman’s Plate 011-622-0480
• Fong Mei 011-615-1384
• Good Taste Food Company 072 157 1166
• Joung Hwa Meat 011-616-1410
• Lian Fu Seafood Trading 011-622-7588
• Long Mon 011-622-6861
• Yat Kee Chinese Supermarket 011-615-3911

SOURCES
VANESSA GROBLER

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