In a country where people gather around outdoor braais (barbecue grills), chowing down boerewors (farm sausage), steaks and walkie talkies (chicken feet and heads), most would think a South African vegetarian would be an anomaly.
On September 24, Cape Town will celebrate Heritage Day, which was recently also declared National Braai Day. Even Archbishop Desmond Tutu has become a “Braai for Heritage” supporter. The idea is that South Africans, once separated by law, can unite around a common national heritage of grilling meat, irrespective of politics, race and culture. Mealies (corn on the cob) are always welcome on the grill, but there’s yet another, more veggie-oriented side to South Africa’s “heritage.”
Home to the greatest population of Indian descent outside India, South Africa has one of the largest concentrations of Hindus in Africa. Due to British colonial history, a large number of Indian traders and enslaved workers arrived in the country in the late 1800s. Even Gandhi spent his formative years on South African shores. And in a historically Indian neighborhood of Cape Town, a culturally vibrant street offers vegetarian delights whether or not there’s a shisa nyama (braaiing meat) public holiday.
The strong culture and culinary traditions of the Indian community in Cape Town are celebrated at Shayona, which offers a wide spectrum of veg-friendly dishes that stem from the tradition of an Indian Hindu diet. “You hardly find places to buy pure vegetarian food,” said Hiren Patel, the manager of Shayona and member of BAPS (Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha, a group formed from the Swaminarayan sect of Hinduism). “And our food has no onion or garlic, which supports a more peaceful mind too.” Shayona is a Gujarati name that derives from three spiritual teachers who promote a peaceful society through values of purity, non-violence and devotion. BAPS volunteers have run this nonprofit café since 2011. The funds raised from Shayona’s delectable dishes support its charity projects in impoverished areas of Cape Town.
At the entrance, an array of daily handmade specials decorates the counter, including bright orange jalebi (maida wheat flour and yogurt batter fried and dipped in saffron sugar syrup). Hundreds of mung dal samosas are made fresh daily and huge pots of milk are stirred to make paneer for spicy curries. The most popular dishes are pani puri (crispy dough balls filled with a thick dry curry), masala dosa (thin crispy rice and lentil flour pancake wrapped around a spiced potato curry) served with chutneys and sambar (stewed lentils and vegetables). In the back of the café, there are small tables and seats for about 20 people, but most locals come for takeaway, to fill their baskets with imported spices or to treat themselves to a rich mango lassi. After school, kids file in to choose from snacks like kachori (round fried dough stuffed with mung beans) and corn and potato samosas.
On a recent visit, we sat down for the daily thali, a combination plate of sambar, curry, biryani (mixed rice dish) and roti (pan-fried flatbread). The vibrant displays of sweets were mesmerizing: bite-sized diamonds of chickpea flour painted with edible silver leaf, sweetmeats molded into peach and watermelon shapes. We chose a few nibbles of almond, pistachio and coconut burfi squares, made from milk, sugar and ground nuts, as well as cardamom-scented sweets of cashew, fig and carrot halwa. Shayona also offers an alternative to the bags of potato and corn chips sold in most Cape Town corner cafés: Their handmade snacks consist of various chevdos (crispy deep-fried rice, beans, nuts, cornflakes and a variety of spices) and potato gathiya (deep-fried strands of spiced potato flour), which are typically enjoyed at teatime.
“When people think about Indian food, they think about curries,” says Hiren Patel, “but we have so much more.” And when smoky meat aromas spread across the city on Heritage Day, Shayona’s kitchen will be spicing its pots and rolling its rotis.