The fine dining restaurant in a Cape Town township
A SELF-TAUGHT CHEF AIMS TO BE A ROLE MODEL FOR TOWNSHIP YOUTH WITH HER TRADITIONAL COOKING.
Once you’ve seen “smiley,” you’ll never forget it – a whole sheep’s head devoured in townships across Cape Town.
In these areas, originally built to segregate non-whites during apartheid, smiley is a street food that outsiders struggle to stomach. But at 4Roomed eKasi Culture, a restaurant in Cape Town’s fastest-growing township Khayelitsha, it’s been reimagined as a gourmet delicacy. The skull is presented totally clean, except for the juiciest bit, the cheek, perched atop bone, basted in aromatic Asian spices and trimmed with teeth decorated in edible gold.
“In the township we have the tendency to like being flamboyant,” says chef and owner Abigail Mbalo-Mokoena. “If you see someone with a gold tooth in the colored community, it’s like that person saying, ‘I made it.’”
And made it she has. Mbalo-Mokoena grew up in the same part of Khayelitsha where she eventually opened 4Roomed. A dental technician by profession, she was a contestant on MasterChef South Africa and made it her mission to showcase the township food of her childhood with a modern twist. Her goal was to change negative portrayals of township life propagated by the media about gangs and the controversial izikhothane subculture.
“I want to be a role model for youth in the township community,” she says. “Being gangster or robbing doesn’t build you a life. You can work hard and change your own situation. It’s about helping to improve the economy of South Africa in the end.”
In 2014, the self-taught chef started a food truck on the weekends. Astounded at the number of Capetonians coming to Khayelitsha for her cooking, she saw the opportunity to revitalise the township, one forkful at a time.
After 20 years spent living outside the township in Cape Town, Mbalo-Mokoena moved to Khayelitsha with her husband and sons. She quit her job to run her fine dining restaurant, named 4Roomed to pay homage to traditional township houses where four families would live in separate rooms.
Dishes are inspired by the Xhosa, one of South Africa’s largest black ethnicities. Growing up, Mbalo-Mokoena would eat umvubo, or cold sour milk poured over pap, a maize porridge common in South Africa. The childhood favorite is at the heart of 4Roomed’s amasi cheese balls: Savory morsels served with either a fresh coating of rosemary and black pepper, or deep-fried and paired with crumbly toasted pap, coconut cream and coriander with citrus segments.
Most creations are also vegetarian. Produce is sourced from Harvest of Hope, a township collective of organic community gardens, while herbs are grown in 4Roomed’s outdoor seating space.
“Growing up we ate vegetables all week, protein on Sundays, but nowadays there’s a lot of shisa nyama,” says Mbalo-Mokoena, using the common Zulu term for takeaway barbeque. “I remember fruits growing in the backyard – figs, grapes, strawberries.”
When apartheid ended, eating habits changed, she explains. New shacks were built where backyards once stood to accommodate a rural exodus into the city.
“We want to change the perception that if you go to the township, it’s dangerous,” she says. “As South Africans, we are quick to celebrate other nations’ food rather than our own. Let’s put our food on the map.”