Cape Town’s eastern fast food scene

“How are you?” I ask the man behind the counter, who wears a smile as wide as his belly, at the Eastern Food Bazaar, a fast food joint in a corridor between Longmarket and Darling Street in the heart of Cape Town.

“Ey, I’m tired!” is his response.

“Tell me you at least get a free meal by the end of it all?”

“Yes, but I’m tired of the food. You know you get some people coming here every day. Buying the same thing every day,” he says. “There’s this one guy that comes here every day, and he comes here just to buy hummus. Every day!

It’s a Saturday night at the busy eatery. Dimly lit in a way that secludes it from the traffic-laden open-air streets, the restaurant’s thrilling chaos of sound, scents, humans and heat consumes the senses.

On arrival, I meandered through droves of slow-moving queues made up of people clutching trays of food too full to handle. I made my way to a strategic viewpoint of the menu signboards. Working the floor, runners dressed in black were not lagging in their continuous efforts to clear abandoned trays and napkins, wiping counters amongst indecisive non-regulars who held up the flow of procedure to negotiate quizzically with distracted chefs. All the while, an interchanging playlist of commercial pop music and Bollywood hits filtered through the bazaar-like atmosphere. Acting on a sudden craving for palak paneer, a spinach-based vegetarian curry, I was careful to avoid a couple with arms weighed down with polystyrene take-aways –too busy scanning the area for free seats to notice anyone oncoming. I eventually reach the order counter.

The establishment, explicit in its conformity to halaal standards, is a popular weekend supper spot for Muslim families, extended families and friends that claim the family connection. It is not unlike other Indian fast food places in its guarantee to generate a thick air of activity and noise, created through the participation of a fascinating diversity of the city’s citizens. What is it about eastern fast food that enables it to provide a space that relates to, pretty much, everyone? Is it a subconscious rebellion against americanised commercial fast food hangouts and the elitist fine-dining alternatives that dot the city? An offer of an ‘authentic’ lesser evil? Or do people flock here to satisfy a common craving for cheap, hearty grub?

I asked a fellow patron who was waiting for his order.

“The food is good,” was his entirely justified response.

Not convinced just yet, I embarked on a follow-up venture to a Long Street eastern food hotspot, The Food Inn. Recognisable from blocks away by the tube of LEDs flashing above the name board, the restaurant conveyed an ambiance not so different from the Eastern Food Bizarre.

Deciding not to disturb the Kaizer Chiefs fan, donning his team’s t-shirt, staring attentively at a screened soccer game, I approached the patron second nearest to me, who was eating tandoori chicken. The city centre-based IT programmer defended his confession to very regular patronage by explaining pragmatically how the popularity of the place ensures that the food is always freshly made, and that you get your money’s worth.

I scanned the array of people: the lone rangers, the young families, African immigrants, die-hard Capetonians; those seated at tables, those settled in booths, a kid in a beanie unashamedly watching the ice-cream in the glass stay cold, an adult in pyjamas furtively grabbing a three-course takeaway.

In less than 30 minutes a complete changeover of people occurred. The place moved. Or rather, the place, in all its colour and sound, allowed people to move, freely. By welcoming patrons to leave unnoticed with food-laden packets or stay a while to be distracted by nothing but familiar conversation and the ravenous craving for the food in front of them, these fast food hubs provide an all-encompassing sense of acceptance.

How many places exist in the city that allow people to pass by unseen, have their senses consumed, get their hands dirty, and provide them with taps and soap to wash off the evidence afterwards? Perhaps it is the discovery of just such a place that keeps people from all walks of life coming back for more.

Image credit: EasternFoodBazaar

Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Christy Zinn is a postgraduate researcher and urban thinker striving to interrogate the social and spatial dynamics of cities. Believing that people make a city tick, she focuses on invoking a culture of active citizenship within urban communities​.

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