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AAfro-Cantonese cuisine has its origins in the arrival of indentured mineworkers from Guangdong (formerly Canton) Province who came to Johannesburg in the 1890s. These workers returned home with such enticing tales of the city they called Gam Saam (Golden Mountain) that by 1940 there were approximately 8 000 Cantonese people living, working, eating and cooking in South Africa.
Apartheid and communism don’t mix, and the ancestors of these early immigrants found themselves cut off from their motherland for so long that an Afro-Cantonese cooking style developed. This food genre is characterised by a higher ratio of red meat to vegetables and a much gentler spicing than in classic Cantonese cuisine.
Authentic Afro-Cantonese food can be eaten at Swallows Inn, in central Johannesburg. Founded in 1938, it is rumoured that Nelson Mandela frequented this restaurant as a young lawyer and it still sells the Shanghai steak that the waiters swear was his favourite. The neighbouring Yung Chen Noodle Den is a similar food history classic.
Those who don’t like the fusion style of Afro-Cantonese cooking should rather head for the area that Johannesburg locals call ‘New Chinatown’ in Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene, where the restaurants are owned by chefs who arrived post-1994 and are consequently closer to their culinary roots.
When in Cape Town, the lamb pot stickers and dim sum at South China Dim Sum Bar is a drawcard at this hipster hangout. Free State foodies rave about JC Chinese in Ladybrand. Durban’s China Plate offers all the usual suspects and some delicious dishes from the traditional menu. Try the traditional menu crispy garlic langoustines and the barbeque pork served on steaming, garlicky bok choi.
Be warned, regardless of the chef’s arrival date, South African Chinese food is full of monosodium glutamate. If you don’t do MSG, the only Chinese chef who explicitly caters for your needs is Emma Chen at the upmarket Red Chamber in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. Alternatively, ask the chef to leave it out of your food.
TTravel tips & planning info
Who to contact
South China Dim Sum Bar
289 Long St Cape Town 8001
Tel: +27 (0)78 846 3656
6 Commissioner Street, Johannesburg
Tel: +27 (0)11 838 2946
Yung Chen Noodle Den
4 Commissioner Street, Ferreirasdorp, Johannesburg
Tel: +27 (0)11 833 5924
The Red Chamber
68 Upper Level, Hyde Park Shopping Centre, Jan Smuts Avenue, Johannesburg
Tel: +27 (0)11 325 6048
Shop 12, Park Boulevard, 11 Brownsdrift Road, Umgeni Riverside Park
Tel: +27 (0)31 564 6437
21 Loop Street, Ladybrand
Tel: +27 (0)51 924 0555
What it will cost
Chinese takeaways fit the budget-conscious, whereas more upmarket Chinese restaurants such as The Red Chamber in Johannesburg are a little most costly. Expect to pay around R250 p/person for a three-course meal excluding wine.
Things to do
The Chinese Lunar New Year and all other key Chinese festivals are marked in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. Chinese lunar New Year (late January, early February) is especially festive in both old and new Chinatown - expect plenty of dragon dancing.