Skip the Oriental Plaza and head straight to Fordsburg’s Mint Street for authentic Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cuisine. Just leave room for the sweetmeats…
For many in Johannesburg, Fordsburg is an emblem of Indian resilience. The previous regime made several sallies into this well-situated suburb, and though many residents were relocated to Lenasia, Indian tradesmen negotiated a settlement to operate in the nearby Oriental Plaza. Meanwhile, it became a hotbed of resistance activity and the first site of white protests against forced removals. Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were regulars at the Delhi Palace.
Today Fordsburg is the best place to mainline authentic Indian food. Being a predominantly Muslim area, most restaurants are strictly halaal, which means no alcohol. Instead, try a cooling yoghurt lassi or a Bombay crush, a lurid pink blend of rose syrup, vanilla ice cream and pistachio nuts that tastes like liquid Turkish delight.
BEST FOR… FRESH PRODUCE
Saturday Farmers’ Market, Main Square (off Mint Street)
Local chef Ishvara, who runs monthly “spice tours” of Fordsburg, says this is the place to find rare Asian vegetables. Farmers drive up from KZN on Friday nights to ply homesick Indian émigrés with bhindi (okra) karella (roughskinned bitter gourd) and luffa (green vines eaten with crushed peanuts). Depending on the season, you can also get fresh figs, African potatoes and green coconuts from Mozambique.
BEST FOR… BANGLADESHI
Bismillah (78 Mint Road, 011-838-8050)
Don’t be put off by the decor, or the menu’s incongruous inclusion of eggfried rice, fish and chips or Russian salad. Bismillah serves proper curry at very reasonable prices, something the bustling Friday service can attest to. Spicing is assertive, and butter chicken is scornfully relegated to the “English” section of the menu. Go for the mutton biryani (a snip at just R20 on Fridays) or paneer masala (Indian cheese in a rich gravy) with butter-glazed naan on the side. Leave room for their homemade ice cream. Our pick? The burfee, flavoured with coconut milk and peanuts.
BEST FOR… PAKISTANI
Daawat (70 Mint Road, 011-492-3956, www.daawat.co.za)
Slightly smarter than its neighbours, Daawat is the place for a date-night dinner rather than a weekday lunch. Excellent dry-spiced Pakistani food, like beef nihari (beef with green chillies and aniseed) and lamb karahi (boneless lamb cooked with ginger, tomato and garlic) is beautifully presented. Curries are served in cute terracotta pots with a saucer of seasonings – finely sliced chilli, lemon and ginger – and a side plate of soft cheese naans. If you’re there on a Monday, when service is slow, have a chat with owner Azhar: he was the Aga Khan’s personal photographer for 16 years and has stories about everyone from Adnan Kashoggi to Hugh Hefner.
BEST FOR… OBSCURE INGREDIENTS
Kwality Spice Works (28A Crown Road, 011-834-2485)
The oldest spice shop in Fordsburg, Kwality takes advantage of the economies of scale and orders huge consignments of spices from Durban, selling them at low, low prices. Look out for obscure ingredients like shai jeera (a kind of cumin used in Persian cooking), kokum (a preserved purple flower used to sour Goan seafood dishes), Indonesian long pepper, anar dana (dried pomegranate) and tukmaria (basil seeds used to thicken South-East Asian drinks).
BEST FOR… VEGETARIANS
Shayona (72 Church Street, Mayfair, 011-837-2407)
Just on the edge of the district, Shayona does Gujarati and Jain cuisine, which means no meat, fish, onions or garlic. This is Ishvara’s favourite Fordsburg restaurant: “It’s clean, healthy food; completely different from meat-influenced cuisine.” His recommendation? The aloo dosa (potato pancakes). Or try the greatvalue deluxe lunch: three curries, rice, roti, farsan (dry roasted pulses), dhal, papad (poppadum) and a pudding for just R60.
BEST FOR… SWEET TREATS
Shaheen Sweets and Bakery (21 Commercial Road)
Indian desserts are even heavier than traditional English puddings – blame that artery-thickening blend of ghee, coconut cream and ground nuts – but taken in small doses, they’re beautiful. Pick up a pastel-coloured selection box at Shaheen and keep it in the fridge to nibble on through the week. Stock up on peda (milk fudge studded with pistachios), cham-cham (flavoured with rose water and lime), almond barfi (condensed milk, cardamom and almonds), mawa (cubes of cream and grated coconut), sohan papri (buff-coloured blocks with a crumbly texture) and gulab jamun (syrupglazed dough balls). A word of advice: don’t come here if you’re dieting.
For more information on Ishvara’s Spice Tours and cooking classes call 084 624 0000 or visit Facebook/ Ancient Secrets Exotic Food and Travel, www.ancientsecrets.co.za.