You know those service counters in shopping centres where you walk up, choose your ready-to-go meals and salads or sides and then watch as the attendant slops it all into plastic containers, sticky-tapes them up (rarely avoiding leakage on the way home) and then you take a risk with your dinner guests – claiming it as your own – and just hoping it tastes okay?
I have one such “signature” side dish that has been a faithful saviour when I’m short on time and need to feed a crowd. If anyone I know is reading this, the brown rice with sweetcorn, cashews and currants in a soy dressing is definitely my recipe, handed down from generation to generation. (Thank you, Pasta Deli.)
On the topic of generations, this story of descent starts with Africola, more specifically its head honcho Duncan Welgemoed who legitimately did lean back into his family’s rich South African culinary heritage when he set up the original restaurant in the city eight years ago. In the years that followed, it was awarded and applauded for its design and dishes, all while causing a stir on the restaurant scene with everything from roasting cow heads to hosting Katy Perry. Things seem to have simmered down over the last few years but it still pulls crowds, with loyal punters going back to try its evolving menu that became more vegetable-centric following a shift from the cuisine of the southern part of Africa to the north.
The focus on vegetables and the dishes tried and tested through time now have become the basis for Africola Canteen, the next generation of the brand. It’s promoted as a casual spin-off eatery and open for lunch and takeaway, based on The Parade in Norwood. Welgemoed has relocated one of his star chefs from Africola, with Joel Tisato heading the canteen crew. He’s the one in charge of daily dishes and I’m told there are over 50 on the menu’s rotation, with around 10 options each day, so you’ll never quite know what you’ll be getting for lunch until you arrive.
The first challenge might be finding the place. There’s no obvious signage from the street, and it seems like a bit of an “if you know, you know” situation. In basic white lettering there are just a few words on the shopfront window: “Salad” and “Not Salad”. Some marketing types must have brainstormed long and hard to come up with that, but I guess we know what to expect.
Simplicity follows through to the interior. It does feel like a high-end deli, with a refrigerated counter dividing the shop, cabinetry with some retro inspiration that displays all manner of kitchen utensils like the wall of a tool shed, and a few jars of pickles and condiments sparsely arranged on the rear shelves between a few curated accessories and some funky shaped squash and pumpkins.
Pumpkin is also the first in a selection of today’s salads. Roasted, the first flavour to hit is quite sweet, thanks to maple honey drizzled over everything. The next is heat from a spicy green concoction called zhoug which is made using herbs, spices, and green chillies. More spice and sweetness is offered by agave with chilli, and the addition of whipped tahini. Toasted and spiced pepitas provide some savoury to offset the sweet.
Next is a salad made without too much fuss, but plenty of spice. It’s a mix of sprouted lentils, couscous, and toasted sesame seeds, coated in Africola’s signature fire sauce and hit with a mild bitter note thanks to preserved lemon added to the dressing. Lentils aren’t really my thing, but I’m pleased with the unexpected freshness and just-cooked crunch of the dish. And that fire sauce sure does pack some punch.
Also just-cooked-enough to be salad-appropriate are big chunks of roughly hewn broccoli coated in a herbaceous and creamy green goddess dressing. There’s not much else to this, aside from a scattering of crispy fried onion for texture, but you will feel healthy just eating it.
Last in the line-up for today’s salad selection is roast potato, pickles, garlic, capers and watercress. Perhaps the most run-of-the-mill dish of the day, it’s still tasty and would certainly qualify as a crowd pleaser, whether you’re eating in at the canteen, or serving it up at home and claiming it as your own.
Now on to the promised “not salad”. Chicken is prepared New York style, which means cooked, diced and smothered in an unhealthy amount of mayonnaise, then stuffed into a fluffy Turkish bread roll, just how everyone should like it. To amp up the health star rating and flavour, there are crunchy and piquant kosher pickle slices and some fresh Chinese cabbage leaves. Just like those little chicken finger sandwiches at parties, this is a sandwich you’ll probably go back to, because, as they say, a real classic never goes out of style.
There’s just one more dish to mention before our visit to the canteen is done and that’s firm tofu, displayed as a standalone protein for you to add to your salad selections. It’s been cubed and lightly fried then tossed in another fiery chilli dressing. The spice has soaked right through to the centre, so there’s nothing bland about this (often boring) addition.
It’s clear that while they have paid attention to everything back in the kitchen, the salads really are the star of the show. There’s freshness and flavour present in every dish, plenty of spice and nuanced balance.
And the next time I throw a dinner party, my guests will probably be enjoying my new, signature roasted pumpkin salad, drizzled in maple honey and zhoug, served with a delightful mix of chilli agave, whipped tahini and toasted pepitas, with some kind of protein on the side: a recipe that’s been handed down from generation to generation.
89 The Parade, Norwood
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