North Indian Coffee House, Fordsburg
Andrew Unsworth went to Fordsburg to find a Nepalese chef with an unusual CV
In a nice bit of racial profiling, I invited an Indian colleague to an Indian meal in Fordsburg. Actually, not so much because he's always rabbiting on about curries, but because he drives a nice BMW.
It's not every day that you have lunch made by a former football-playing policeman from Nepal, but then anything is possible in the thriving inner-city suburb of Fordsburg.
We were a block away from Fordsburg Square, where the miners' strike of 1922 came to a violent end with a shoot-out between government forces in a bank and strikers entrenched around a public toilet. Both buildings still stand, but the history is probably forgotten by newer residents.
Today, the place seems to be home to a lot of recent immigrants, who are adding variety and quality to its traditional Indian culinary offerings, just as more recent immigrants have enriched Chinese food.
Jo'burg may pale in comparison to Cape Town when it comes to fine dining and latest trends, but it may be becoming the country's best city in which to explore the foods of Asia and Africa.
The North Indian Coffee House is slap in the centre of Fordsburg, the offspring of the Dosa Hut, which does south-Indian cuisine. It opened in December with two chefs, Ramhari Thapa from Nepal, who specialises in curries and rice dishes, and Raman Sharma from Punjab, who does the tandoori oven and breads. That's the theory, but, in fact, both do everything.
"Our customers have to be patient," Thapa told me. "We make everything to order, fresh. Especially our tandoori, which we do in a proper clay oven. Even the yoghurt we use is made on the premises, and we roast and mix our own spices."
That all sounded good enough for me, and I liked the idea of a Nepalese chef cooking North Indian in South Africa.
But no, he was not a chef in Nepal. He was a football player for the police academy and occasionally for the national team.
I settled for a Nepalese football player cooking North Indian - which he has learnt to do in South Africa since 2004 - convinced that he arrived with some idea of what he was doing.
The brown wood and beige décor of the oddly named coffee shop (it's a restaurant and serves a range of coffees too) is tasteful, and a suspended ceiling has transformed a barn of a room in an old hotel into something far more intimate.
The menu is extensive and interesting, with a selection of chaat - sort of Indian tapas or mezze.
We started with spinach pakora (R15) and paneer finger pakora (R25), a spinach chilli-bite and a cheese fritter, roughly. The first was delicious, the second somewhat bland without the tamarind dipping sauce.
My guest avoids meat on Thursdays (I didn't ask) so had a hot fish curry: fish in an onion, tomato and yoghurt gravy with ajwain (carom seeds), tamarind, garam masala and fresh lemons (R65). I tasted it towards the end of the meal, broke into a sweat and almost gave up on my curry.
That had been a great Punjabi lamb chop masala (R75), for which chops had been cooked in the tandoori oven then cooked with potatoes and peas in the same gravy as the fish but with fresh ginger and coriander added. I had it with a rogini naan (with sesame seeds) because you can't make naan at home, but the basmati rice for the table was also perfectly cooked. I enjoyed the meat being precooked with even bits of burn on the chops - this way they keep their texture and don't disintegrate in gravy.
To finish, the rice keer pudding (R25), also made to order, was fabulous: a hot dish of lightly spiced sweet rice cooked in milk and ghee. Rice puddings are a much-neglected treasure in many cuisines, even English, but then they probably got it from India. Many are light and cooling, this was the richest I've encountered. More rice pud please.
Hours: 11am to 10pm every day.
Cost: Our bill was R251 for two, including a salt lassi and one soft drink.
Vibe: No music at lunchtime and lots of Fordsburg traffic noise, but not intrusive.
Parking: On the street.
What to wear: Casual.
Regulars: An eclectic Jo'burg mix.
Need to know: Halaal establishment: no alcohol served.
NORTH INDIAN COFFEE HOUSE,
CORNER MAIN AND CENTRAL ROADS, FORDSBURG, JOHANNESBURG