Vegan Travel in South Africa
Richard Kitzinger and Beverley Smith check out two of the vegan cafés leading the way in Johannesburg’s growing vegan sector
South Africans acknowledge that global trends can often take two or three years to reach them. The huge swell in numbers of vegans is just starting to take hold in the Rainbow Nation and, unsurprisingly, it’s in the cities where veganism is most obviously catching on.
With a population approaching 10 million people in the Greater Johannesburg area, the City of Gold is the biggest in the country. We caught up with the key players at two of the cafés at the forefront of Johannesburg’s vegan movement.
How long have you been vegan?
Dimitri I became vegan in 2011, for spiritual reasons. At first, it was because I wanted to learn a meditation that required me to be vegetarian. I got heavily into macrobiotics, proper grains, not processed foods, and protein in the form of tofu, nuts and seeds.
Kaylee I’ve been vegan since I was 16 years old, so for six years now – I’ve always had a strong connection to animals. At first, I used to take a bag of apples to school, but when that got boring, I began to look into what I could cook and bake. Our chef at Kaylee’s Café is classically trained, so together we’ve put together a really inclusive menu. So many classical meals can be veganised – you just have to make vegetables the star of the dish.
What led you to opening a vegan café?
K We opened in October last year, but it’s been a few years in the making. It had always been a dream of mine. My dad and my brother opened a comic book store – they wanted to put a café in there and that’s where I came in. At first, I was going to do salads, sandwiches and pastries. I was only a home cook though, and needed a chef to show me how to run a commercial kitchen. We ran a ‘cook-off’ interview process and created a menu together. We want to make vegan food cool and interesting, and for non-vegans to come in and find our dishes tasty.
D When I came back to South Africa after living in London, Taiwan and LA, I noticed there was nowhere for me to eat. There were very few vegetarian restaurants and they used a lot of sugar, so the diet wasn’t clean enough for my liking. I’ve always enjoyed cooking, so I opened a vegetarian restaurant in 2009, and in 2011 Greenside Café became the first vegan restaurant in Johannesburg. We’re not only plant-based but also 95 per cent wholefood – that’s important to me. If you care about the planet, you should also look after yourself.
South Africa is generally associated with a meat-intensive diet. Have you been brave opening a vegan café?
K The vegan philosophy is spreading around the world. South Africa is well-connected with social media, but we’ve lacked infrastructure and the more choice there is – restaurants and suppliers – for vegans, the more it will appeal for people to transition. Our supermarkets are starting to launch vegan products and vegan ranges. We’re seeing more people become vegans on a weekly basis.
D It’s not bravery, it was a lifestyle I was living. The United Nations is pushing for people to eat more vegan for environmental reasons. The world is moving our way. There are far more flexitarians now, eating vegan meals more often. We need to do something to avoid environmental disaster. People are starting to understand veganism from different perspectives – environmental, compassion for animals and our own health – so, it’s a good time to have a vegan café. We’re at the front of the curve here.
K In some respects it’s been a risk. Some people come in and, when they find out we don’t serve bacon, they turn and leave. But we stand by our message and by our food. We want to welcome everyone. Most of our clients aren’t vegan, they’re just looking for cool food. We get a lot of families coming in, looking at the comics or at the classic car collection and they see that they can get something to eat and drink, too. Lots of people don’t even necessarily realise that this is a vegan café. We’re actually quite happy about that – we didn’t want to be labelled. We just wanted to create a very inclusive menu and let people figure it out. Very few people walk out disappointed.
D I always say nothing tastes as good as healthy feels.
This is a great space you’ve got here.
K Yeah, at the weekends we have a customer come in and lead yoga classes in here [we’re in the conservatory space of Kaylee’s Café]. Anyone can come and join in. People come for the comics or for the soft play area, but quickly become regulars at the café. We’re just ten minutes from the airport too, so we get people visiting in between connecting flights.
D I set up in the suburb of Greenside, closer to the city centre – it’s a real Johannesburg foodie destination. Mine was the city’s first vegan restaurant and now there must be six or seven. I love how diverse the customer base is – Indians, Africans, hippies, anarchists, lunching ladies from the suburbs, business people and sports fanatics. They all have different reasons for coming here to eat my food.
What about your suppliers? How big is your carbon footprint?
D I get all my fruit and veg from a supplier under 3km away. They get their products from markets, so it’s from farms all around. I make my own vegan cheese from cashews, sunflower seeds and carrots. I make vegan bacon from thinly pressed tofu, sautéed with lemon and soya sauce. You can try our vegan cheese and bacon burger.
K Our main veg supplier is about 7km away. His veg is all organic and he’s been in the industry for 25 years. Unfortunately, until the industry has built up like it is in the UK, we haven’t got too much choice. Right now, it’s about making sure we get the products we need. All of a sudden last year, the country ran out of almond milk because of the boom in veganism here. That was difficult for us. We were just starting out and we couldn’t get the almond milk we needed. We would go to a supermarket and buy all of their crates of almond milk. We’re not as lucky as in the UK. Not yet. We’d love oat milk to get here.
Have you got a signature dish?
K We’re proud of our whole menu, so I’m hesitant to single out one particular dish. But the Lox, our fake salmon and cashew cream cheese bagel is pretty special. At first, we made it with carrots, but it wasn’t right. Then we used pawpaw (papaya). We dehydrated it, and then smoked it and I asked friends if it tasted like salmon – they said it had the texture and the flavour.
D One of my signatures is the Victorino, a macrobiotic meal with sautéed tofu, brown rice, sprouts and gomasio, wilted spinach, carrots and beets. It comes with a choice of sides too. Victor, after whom it is named, was an absolute poet in the kitchen.
K Lots of people enjoy our taco bowl and the pancakes are so popular too. People love them. We serve them with coconut milk-based ice creams. We’re looking at getting more jackfruit onto our menu, so that we can explore other cuisines more.
D Another one of our specialities is the Pizza Yogi on a homemade sourdough or gluten-free base with artichokes, avocado, olives, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, spinach, oregano and fresh basil. It’s just delicious. This was inspired by a friend who travelled the world teaching yoga.
K We’re about to start serving the Beyond Burger, which we’re getting from the USA. It’s the future of protein, made from peas and beets. It’s delicious, and 100 per cent vegan so it’s especially great for people who are transitioning.
D I make my own burger patties, but I also import the Beyond Burger from the States, too. I reckon in 20 years’ time, people will go out for a burger, ribs or a steak and it will be fully plant-based ‘meat’.
Is South Africa a viable destination for vegan travellers?
D For sure. Cape Town and Johannesburg have great vegan restaurants. It’s definitely easier to find a good range of options in the cities, but most restaurants across the country will have things a vegan can eat. Gone are the days when the only choice was a butternut soup. Backpacking isn’t so easy, but the supermarkets are introducing more choices all the time that could be cooked up in a hostel.
Kaylee’s recipe for Pap Chakalaka Morogo
Looking to try a new cuisine? Cook up this traditional South African dish, straight from the kitchen of Kaylee’s Cafe.
For the pap:
- 250g cornflour
- 470ml water
For the chakalaka:
- 1 white onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 2 carrots, grated
- 2 x can tinned tomatoes
- Tomato Paste- 2 tablespoons
- 1 red bell pepper, cubed
- 1 green chilli, deseeded
- 40ml olive oil
- 1 tbsp curry powder
- 200ml vegetable stock
- 1 x can butter beans
- Salt, to taste
- Pepper, to taste
For the morogo:
- 500g spinach
- 10og caramelised onion
- Salt, to taste
- Pepper, to taste
For the pap:
- In a pot, add water and boil on high. When the water reaches boiling point, reduce heat and
add maize meal, continuously stirring.
- Let it cook for 20-30 minutes on low-medium heat.
For the chakalaka:
- In a saucepan, sautèe onions, garlic, carrots, red pepper.
- Add curry powder, and then pour in the canned tomatoes, tomato paste and a sprinkle of brown sugar.
- Add stock and let reduce by half.
- Finish by adding butter beans and green chilli. Season to taste.
For the morogo:
- In a hot frying pan, add Caramelized onions and Spinach and quickly fry.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
Words by Richard Kitzinger and Beverley Smith
Kaylee’s Café, 147 N Reef Rd, Bedfordview, Johannesburg, 2008 +27 11 524 7603
Greenside Café, 34 Gleneagles Rd, Greenside, Johannesburg, 2193 +27 11 646 3444