By Erin McNeill, Semester at Sea, Spring 2017
When my father first suggested we go to the townships for dinner my first day in Cape Town, I was skeptical. In our pre port orientation to Cape Town, we had been told to stay away from those areas as they were extremely dangerous. My mother was adamantly against it but my father soon convinced me and we headed off.
The restaurant was in a home and our taxis were met by people tasked to guard them while we were inside. There were bars that could be pulled across the front of the door like a jail cell. Still, despite all the uncertainty leading up to the meal, it was the best food I had in all of South Africa. The restaurant was called Mzansi and it was run by a woman known only to us as Mama. She lived up to the name. I have never had a more gracious host. We were served on a homemade buffet. Everything about the place and the people who worked there made you feel welcomed. We feasted on spinach, roasted root vegetables, crispy potatoes, chakalaka (a South African salad or relish), rolled eggplant with cinnamon and stewed meat. Another interesting menu item was Umngqushod, a mixture of white corn and sugar beans. This dish was pronounced with the traditional clicks found in a few of the languages of South Africa. The spinach was incredible and had more flavor than I expected. We were also given an option for Pinotage wine. Pinotage grapes are native only to South Africa. Everyone’s favorite part of the meal was the malva pudding which is a traditional Dutch dish that has become a staple of South Africa. It is a soft spongy cake with apricot and a dense cream sauce poured across the top. It was truly delicious. Despite how delicious this dish was, something much deeper came from this meal.
There are times in your dining experiences that the atmosphere is more important to the meal than the food itself and this was true of Mzansi. The food was incredible, but the people even more so. She asked us how many of us had been told we would die if we came to the townships for dinner; most of us raised our hands. She said that for the 50 reservations she had had for that night, 15 people had shown up. Sometimes not even that many would. Her restaurant survived thus far due to the efforts of students traveling through South Africa. They fell in love with the food and with Mama and wrote about her on Trip Advisor. Her popularity there boomed with hundreds of five star reviews and recommendations until she was the top of the board. Still, few people seek out this place for fear of their safety. I will also leave my review on TripAdvisor once home in hopes of sending more adventuring food lovers her way.