South Africa

SCOFF: Taste travel for grounded gourmands

Welcome sign in the foyer of the revamped Urban Ethnic Market. (Photo: Alex Nwarueze)

Covid-19 has constrained our travel plans but, with the right African ingredients, it is possible to be transported through taste…

The author supports The Lunchbox Fund, transforming South African education one school meal at a time. 

It has been over a year and many of us are getting seriously itchy feet. We are bored with our same-old, same-old South African surroundings but we lack the funds and/or vaccinations required to undertake international adventures. Which is where Urban Ethnic Market at the Blackheath Pavilion, Johannesburg comes in. Whether you are craving the taste of a distant homeland or hungry for unfamiliar foreign flavours, Lovelyn Bassey’s über-elegant African food emporium serves up wanderlust mitigating cross-continental culinary journeys for grounded gourmands.  

Lovelyn Bassey, owner Urban Ethnic Market. (Photo: Eno Bassey)

The business is not new but rather recently relocated and revamped. Previously situated amidst the hustle, bustle, crime and grime of Beyers Naude Drive, Urban Ethnic Market has always kept quality ingredients but the original, cramped, fluorescent-lit space had the look and feel of a storage unit rather than an aesthetically enticing experience. Consequently, customers tended to dash in and out seeking specific items rather than lingering long enough to discover novel taste treats. 

As Bassey observes: “We opened in 2017 and the shop evolved organically as the business grew so it was never as considered in its layout as I would have liked. I always felt like the space didn’t do justice to the products we keep. Moving to Cresta has given me an opportunity to create the upmarket and ‘boutiquey’ environment I always wanted.” Mission accomplished. The new, stylish and streamlined Urban Ethnic Market opened on 1 June 2021 with an interior designed for calm, comfortable, suburban-chic shopping. 

There is now sufficient space for clientele to browse without bumping into merchandise or each other so it is possible to properly appreciate the breadth and beauty on offer. As Bassey says: “One of the things that I am most proud of is that we are truly Pan-African in what we sell. There are many wonderful African food shops in Johannesburg but most of them specialise in a particular country or region. If you want Congolese you go here. If you want Eritrean you go there. For Nigerian or Zimbabwean you need yet more shopping trips. It can be exhausting. At Urban Ethnic we not only have a comprehensive selection of African ingredients all under one roof but also many African Diaspora, Caribbean and South American items too.” One might quibble that North Africa is under represented on the shelves at Urban Ethnic but, in the face of such superb stock, it seems super-churlish to say so. Especially since dukkah and harissa have been in Woolworths for the past 20 years and Urban Ethnic keeps rare and delicious delights such as Ghana’s glorious (if unfortunately named) shito hot sauce.    

A sashay through Urban Ethnic’s aromatic spice aisle reveals other Ghanaian glories (such as prekese pods) which compete for customer attention with Ethiopian berbere blends, Nigerian suya seasoning, Rwanda’s startlingly strong Akabanga chilli oil, Mozambican piri-piri and soothing Sudanese karkade hibiscus flower infusions. Jollof spice blends are cleverly kept next to the racks of Malawian Kilombero landrace rice and Nigerian Ofada indigenous rice. 

Rwandan Akabanga chilli oil at Urban Ethnic Market. (Photo: Alex Nwarueze)

The impressive African ancient grain assortment includes Ethiopian teff, Senegalese fonio, Zimbabwean pearl millet and South African sorghum. Looking for legumes? Bambara from Benin, medesu Congolese red beans, black and white Basotho dinawa, Egyptian tinned ful medames, Nigerian oloyin honey beans and olotu drum beans and Ghanaian gluten-free akidi flour offer up bean-based delights to suit every inclination or ailment. 

Speaking of ailments, those bored by or broke because of the extortionate prices and limited selection of hypoallergenic flours sold in most health food shops should check out the very reasonably priced African alternatives. Gluten-free flours made from plantains, yam, coconuts, bambara nuts, chickpeas, teff, fonio, sorghum, amaranth and cassava flour are cheap as chips at Urban Ethnic. Too tired to make your own gluten-free food? Take home a couple of the banana leaf-wrapped, steamed chikwanga Congolese cassava breads.   

Ethiopian teff flour at Urban Ethnic Market. (Photo: Anna Trapido)

Healthy doesn’t always hit the hot spot so it is good to know that Urban Ethnic also keeps an impressive array of cholesterol-laden comfort cuisine. From the salt-slaked joys of Zimbabwean Thingz (“the spicy siesta snack for desperados”) and Chompkin’s chips through the fried fabulousness of Cameroon’s Kwuli-kwuli peanut crackers and on into the sickly-sweet sensation that comes with every mouthful of Kenyan Kona Kona candy chew there is a regionally specific, African junk food fix to suit each and every occasion. They keep Indomie “Indomitables” instant noodles and the complete Maggi-Naija stock cube range too…

Nigerian Indomitables noodles at Urban Ethnic Market. (Photo: Anna Trapido)

In the fresh fruit and vegetable section there are yams and plantains plus pretty pink kola nuts, glossy green Congolese bitekuteku (spinach) and Nigerian ugu leaves. Dairy fridges have Ethiopian niter kibbeh (spiced, clarified butter) and (when the currently Covid constrained air travel allows) Fromage du Kivu cheese. Whether you want sundried Zambian matemba (kapenta), fresh catfish or tins of Titus sardines there are all sorts of aquatic treats in store. In the mood for meat? Carnivores adore Zimbabwe’s legendary Colcom pork pies, hardbody chickens and goat meat galore. There is even a freezer devoted entirely to giant snails. 

Zimbabwean Thingz chips at Urban Ethnic Market. (Photo: Anna Trapido)

If the selection seems overwhelming, friendly, well-informed staff are on hand to offer recommendations and recipes. Want to try before you buy? The store hosts regular, Covid-compliant tasting sessions. The next such event takes place on June 16. Not in Johannesburg? Online options are also available. So, what are you waiting for? A continent of delights awaits and, until real travel is back on the table, cooking across borders with Urban Ethnic Market is as good as it is going to get. DM/TGIFood

Urban Ethnic Market, shop 8, Blackheath Pavilion, 309 Pendoring Road, Blackheath (Cresta). Call 011 029 5015

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