Find out who cooks what in Cyrildene’s vibrant Chinatown, where fireworks explode at New Year and every day is a fresh celebration of flavour
The restaurants of Derrick Avenue in Johannesburg’s Cyrildene reflect the culinary diversity of the estimated 300 000 Chinese immigrants who have arrived in South Africa since 1994. This foodie hot-spot offers a plethora of Chinese culinary styles including those of Shandong, Sichuan, Guangdong, Fujian and Manchuria. In addition to the eateries selling classic Chinese food, the area also services a growing taste for South East Asian (Vietnamese, Cambodian and Thai) dishes.
So far, so delicious. The problem is that with so many unfamiliar food genres to choose from (and so little English spoken) it is easy to end up feeling not only spoilt for choice but also somewhat lost in translation. Food is always best eaten in context – where it comes from and who cooked it is so central to the epicurean experience. So who are the restaurateurs of Derrick Avenue? Read on…
Chinese Northern Food
20B Derrick Avenue, 082 668 8082
Zengcai Li and his wife Feng Qin Hu opened this small, family-style eatery after arriving in South Africa in 2006. They hail from Harbin, a sprawling industrial city on the banks of the Songhua River in north-eastern China. Speaking through a translator, Chef Li explains that Harbin winters are not for sissies. He says that winds from Siberia regularly force temperatures below -20°C, and these icy conditions demand food that is both warm and welcoming. The people of Harbin pride themselves on “sincere and honest flavours” and a hospitality style which Li sums up as, “If we like you, we like you. We don’t play games or hide our feelings.” My translator corroborates this with a description of a meal he once ate in Harbin, where “there were only six guests, but we were served 52 dishes.”
While Harbin’s weather partly explains the predominance of rib-sticking, one-pot stews, filling dumplings, sweet sauces and piles of pickled vegetables on the menu, past poverty is also a factor. Li savours a crackling-crisp morsel of chicken and muses on how different his son’s life is to the boyhood he experienced. “I grew up during the height of the Cultural Revolution,” he says. “My parents worked at Harbin Number 3 State Tool Factory. We lived through such turbulent and impoverished times. Resources were very few, but I can still taste the full flavours that my mother put into modest meals such as Gou Bao Gilow (wok chicken in sweet sauce) and Zhurou Dun Fentiao (braised pork with potato noodles). Every time I eat those noodles with my son I think about how amazing life’s journey can be. We have travelled so far to eat the same foods at the end of the day!”
3rd Floor, 32 Derrick Avenue 082 257 7771 or 076 222 2818
Wu Wen Hong comes from the subtropical Jiangsxi province and focuses on large-scale socialite affairs. When we meet, she and her sisters-in-law are supervising the clearing up after a feast for 300. The banner over the dance floor states that last night’s gathering was hosted by the 6th Council of the All Africa Association for the Peaceful Reunification of China. And judging by the number of champagne glasses, whisky bottles and ashtrays being tidied away, this organisation is much more exciting than its name suggests.
Wu Wen Hong is radiant in sequins, faux fur and diamanté. Her restaurant glows with chandeliers and gold silk. Unexpectedly for one so confidently glittering, she says, “I come from a rural, rice-growing region. When my husband and I first arrived here in 2008 I was terribly frightened of the customers. I hid behind the bar because I was so terrified. But now I love it.” Wu’s three-year-old daughter Chen Chen has inherited her mother’s dynamism, attention to detail and love of all things shimmering. As she totters around the restaurant in pink sequinned slippers she points out that one of the tables still needs saucepots. But for all her ability to spot missing traditional condiments, Chen Chen’s taste buds were definitely made in Johannesburg: when I ask what she most likes to eat she replies that cheeseburgers make her very happy. Tang Cheung offers a glamour gourmet experience that reflects the owner’s personality and aspirations more than her origins. Wu loves pretty presentation, vibrant colours and extravagant descriptions. Her menu includes glitzy dishes such as Phoenix Comes Greeting and King Bids Farewell to His Consort. Her signature dish is a bling fusion creation called Golden Silk Prawns – bouffant tempura puffs that reflect our hostess to perfection. Golden food for a golden girl.
Shop 1, Cyrildene Centre, cnr Marcia Str and Derrick Avenue, 011-615-1339
Sai Thai means “connected to Thailand” and it is impossible to imagine anyone more enthusiastically, emphatically Thai than Thitiporn (aka Micky) Liu. She bounces through life with a passion for flavour and an avid desire to make customers happy. While she cooks up chilli and basil-rich mother-in-lawclams (so named because “you cook the clams then they will all open their shells, mouths open to talk, order and complain the whole day. They cannot be closed and the dish is spicy just like the words from the mother-in-law’s mouth”) she observes that she dreams in flavour: “Even when I am awake some spirit in my body just tells me what to cook like in a dream.” Micky has been cooking professionally since she was a child in Surin on the Cambodia/Thai border. Her Hong Kongborn husband Dennis still finds Thaiflavours new and exciting: “So unlike the unadorned Cantonese cuisine I grew up with,” he says.
“But the two genres work well together. We have my gingersteamed, Cantonese-style fish on the menu because it suits gentler palates.” Dennis says his Cantonese name Ka Pang is derived from Tai Pang Bay on the Chinese mainland, the bay his parents swam across to escape persecution in the Cultural Revolution. They braved dangerous currents and saw several of their co-swimmers drown in search of the freedom that their granddaughter, Dennis and Micky’s eight-year-old daughter Joyin, now so deliciously takes for granted. “My cooking is from my heart,” says Micky. “It’s what my father loved, what Dennis loves, what Joyin loves. When I went back to Thailand I was surprised that I wasn’t so excited to be there, and I realised that it is inspiration that makes a good cook. I am inspired by love and my strongest loves are here. Johannesburg has home, husband, children, food – and that is everything."