In the late 1980s, Anthony Mlungisi Baker lived in Spain and other parts of Europe to dodge the military draft in South Africa. On February 11, 1990, the release of Nelson Mandela signaled the end of the apartheid regime and time for Baker to return home and become part of a new creative transformation. With a love for entertaining and cooking for his friends, Baker saw a gap in the “New South African” market for something different in the bohemian Observatory district (known as Obz to locals). The result was Café Ganesh, which opened its doors on November 10, 1990, and has since gone on to become a neighborhood institution.
“We started more as a cultural center with plenty of music and events, which became our marketing plan by default. The food as the central element only came gradually. The menu is inspired by local South African favorites as well as my travels, with something from the different places I have visited,” explains Baker. Drawings and paintings of the elephant-headed deity decorate the inside and outside of the café. Ganesh is a symbol of wisdom, knowledge and new beginnings, and to Baker, Ganesh also represents his admiration for elephants and the seven months he lived in India.
For some clients, the café feels like a funky extension of their own dining and living rooms, making it a popular choice for locals to celebrate and host parties here with bar service and family-style food. Crawling ferns climb up to the high ceilings next to the three steps that lead up to the open kitchen. The eclectic mix of art on the walls and on shelves creates intimate dining areas, with secondhand tables and chairs adorned with oil and vinegar condiments in upcycled glass cider bottles.
Daily chalkboard specials include bobotie, a famous South African baked dish of minced meat, bread, eggs, lentils and spices that represents the diverse culinary traditions of the country’s colonial history. Kyle Berry, the friendly waiter whom you may just see dancing in the kitchen, told us, “You can’t leave town without trying Aggie’s lamb shank potjie.” The stew is slow-cooked in a cast-iron pot, traditionally over an open wood fire, and served with rice or pap, the South African staple of cornmeal porridge. Potatoes are freshly cut into wedges and fried crisp to accompany the homemade lamb and ostrich burger served with fruit chutney. One of the six gas burners gets turned down to a low heat to warm the umngqusho, a popular South African staple made up predominately of slow-cooked sugar beans and samp (crushed corn kernels), served with a lamb knuckle stew, while the oil sizzles for crayfish samosas, a house specialty sprinkled with fresh lemon juice and coriander leaves.
Vegetarians enjoy rich offerings like the melanzane parmigiana (oven-baked eggplant in tomato sauce with parmesan) or the “Spinach Ka Beauty,” a simple, nutritious Xhosa dish served with rice and chakalaka (carrot, tomato and onion relish). “Wholesome home-cooked food that fits any vibe, any culture,” said the jovial chef and manager for over 15 years, Agnus Theron. “It represents South Africa.”
(photos by Athena Lamberis, video by Luke Mason and Athena Lamberis)
Address: 38B Trill Rd
Telephone: +21 21 448 3435
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11am-6pm (lunch); Mon.-Sun. 6-11:30pm (dinner); full bar service 6pm-2am
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