From bunny chow served in traditional steamed bread to umleqwa (‘runaway chicken’) skewers, Khayelitsha restaurateur Abigail Mbalo-Mokoena takes her diners on a trip through her childhood with township food “made for the 21st century palate”
The dental technologist-turned-chef behind 4roomed eKasi Culture – comprising a fine dining restaurant, the Mphako/Padkos/Mofao takeaway outlet, and a food truck – is drawing international tourists and homesick suburbanites to the province’s biggest township for her take on traditional cuisine.
Since swapping her lab coat for an apron, she has made it her mission to get Khayelitsha on the tourism map in a bid to improve the socio-economic challenges facing residents, while preaching the benefits of traditional foods with a healthier twist.
Inspired by her brother, who died of diabetes-related complications 10 years ago, Mbalo-Mokoena is on a one-woman crusade to improve eating habits in townships.
“Black people never died of these modern diseases when we ate from the back yard,”
“Black people never died of these modern diseases when we ate from the back yard,” the mother of three told News24.
“It is important that we move from our meat-centred lifestyles back to the cooking like our parents did.”
Her business concept stems from the eKasi four-roomed homes of yesteryear, in which houses in the country’s oldest townships comprised a kitchen, living room and two bedrooms.
“This is how I grew up in Gugulethu”
“We lived in our house with four other families, surrounded by the spirit of ubuntu. I am from humble beginnings and never realised we didn’t have much, even when there was only bread with coffee for dinner.”
Some of her favourite memories were made in the kitchen, watching her single mother cook and her sister bake. Mbalo-Mokoena never had the opportunity to stand behind the stove, but was allowed to lick the bowls, she joked.
She started dabbling in the kitchen as a student on a shoestring budget, creating new recipes with limited ingredients. After marrying her husband, she had a new guinea pig to sample her creations, Mbalo-Mokoena quipped.
4Roomed eKasi Culture- Abigail MbaloTaking you down memory lane
He and their three children eventually convinced her to enter season three of MasterChef SA, where her cold audition dish was a terrine made with umleqwa, duck and turkey.
“Throughout the competition I made dishes which celebrated our township cuisine, such as lamb served with mushrooms and butternut mqa [pap],” she explained.
Mbalo-Mokoena made it to the top six, where she was eliminated for failing to create a glass disc using treacle sugar, glucose and isomalt. The burnt sugar which cost her her spot in the competition eventually inspired the toffee apple which features on her dessert menu.
Mbalo-Mokoena believes in celebrating the history and recipes stemming from the country’s oldest communities, from isiXhosa to Cape Malay.
“It saddens me that we celebrate other nations’ food instead of our own. We order paella – which is actually peasant food – in restaurants, but won’t have our own umngqusho [samp and beans]. We look down on it.”
The Mokoenas previously lived in Melkbosstrand until they bought a house in Khayelitsha from which to run their fine-dining restaurant.
There they grow their own vegetables and allow diners to walk freely through their home, from the pantry to the dining room.
Mphako/Padkos/Mofao, situated 200m from the restaurant, was opened two months ago. Here Mbalo-Mokoena grows her own herbs – which she uses in all her dishes – in old bathtubs.
She employs three locals, and on busy days has two scholars who help her run her business.
While it was originally planned as a takeaway business, tourism agencies convinced Mbalo-Mokoena to extend it to include a seating area.
Over the coming months she plans to transform it into an open-air replica of a four-room house, where township stories can be shared.
“I want to invoke memories and nostalgia through food and dialogue. Guests should take that home with them and share it with their neighbours,” she said.
Young people still live in poverty
Too many successful people are moving from the townships to the suburbs, leaving young people still living in poverty without any role models to look up to, Mbalo-Mokoena insisted.
“It’s important that our young black professionals also contribute and invest in the economy here, in areas like Khayelitsha. They are moving out and taking their stories with them, when we should be using our achievements to motivate the youth who still live here.”
Historical communities with their rich history should be celebrated and developed for tourism opportunities, to decrease poverty and enable job creation. And she is on a mission to do just that.
“I hope to see this business grow to include our country’s oldest townships, from Soweto to Port Elizabeth,” Mbalo-Mokoena said.
“It is up to us to put ourselves on the map.”