The Roving Bantu himself is Sifiso Ntuli, a wryly amusing and popular host who has lived as an exile in foreign lands. He says that while many people consider drink as an excuse to get talking, “food is the best Mzansi conversation inspiration”. Sifiso Ntuli and his wife, artist Ashley Heron, were behind House of Nsako, the music, poetry and food spot that you may remember from across the road.
At last, a place that provides a real South African experience. It’s wholesome soul food, as Sifiso says – a different take on traditional dishes. Almost all of the dishes are made from scratch, with items sourced from local communities rich in South Africa’s food traditions and ingredients. The menu changes according to what’s available and what’s fun to serve.
On a typical night, things could kick off with cheese-and-spinach samoosas (from neighbouring Mayfair) or Sifiso’s peanut soup, made with onion, garlic, coconut milk, homegrown herbs and mung greens, almost veering in a Thai direction, but turned straight back with the unmistakeably smoky flavour of ground, dry-fried peanuts.
A main course could be a curry of typically South African sugar beans, with locally sourced spices and chilli, the mild and moreish flavour somewhere between the Eastern Cape and East Africa, served with softly folded rotis and extra accompaniments like mango atchar and Sifiso’s divili-divili. His African risotto is always a winner, a version of samp and beans with spicy beef mince and morogo. Sometimes he offers jerk chicken, marinated in local spices and liquor, done on an outside braai-grill, and served with coconut rice and peas. “Dhania is key,” says Ashley as she festoons the plates and trays with the fresh herb before they leave the kitchen. Especially when pre-requested by visitors, Sifiso has cooked chicken feet, mogodo (tripe) with okra pap, and even a smiley (sheep’s head). They were all deemed delicious. He’s also held special Mozambican prawn evenings, which are wildly popular.
Desserts are fun: look forward to South African favourites like caramelised, curry-dusted pineapple pieces on sticks, koeksisters, or super-sweet watermelon platters – with dhania, of course.
Thursday nights are quite often film evenings, which attract many Wits and UJ students, so Sifiso grills beef burgers and prepares other less-expensive items to appeal to their pockets.
It’s BYO for now. Ashley says she likes to see people bringing something iconic like Zamalek (Carling Black Label) in quarts, so guests can pass their bottle around to pour into the printed glasses or chilled enamel mugs. There are painted tumblers for wine. Sifiso and Ashley also make their own zingy ginger beer and a delightfully cloudy East African lemon-and-limeade.
The team comprises Sifiso, Ashley and Lucy Msomi, who’s been front of house and sometime-cook since Nsako days. It’s very friendly and personal. The trays are styled to look something like shebeen trays, with the salt in little Cerebos plastic bottles and the food on enamel plates.
This is part of the Roving Bantu Kitchen’s success. People come to ogle, but love the smells of the food and end up staying for a meal. It’s very eclectic, with Ashley acting as curator. There’s a wonderful section devoted to the infamous World newspaper posters with their ubiquitous exclamation mark: Man Takes Boere out of Wors! There are old vinyls on the walls, a Bob Mugabe poster, a kitschy fairy-lit guitar, posters of Athol Fugard plays, and a Remington typewriter. There are also old but faintly familiar logos like BB tobacco, Hart kitchenware and Radio Bantu. The floor is lino, of course, the walls crimson, and the ceiling light is one of those platteland wagon wheels, studded with bulbs. Ashley has taken the international man and woman symbols and put them in over-the-top gilt frames for the loos.
There are only 13 tables, but the restaurant gets quite crowded. It’s quite strange these days to hear so much chatter and laughter and see no-one texting. Behind the happy hubbub is mbaqanga music.
With the bill come Chappies bubblegums in their wrappers, for everyone at the table. Do book; this place is rightly very popular and becoming more so. Roving Bantu is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from noon till 9pm. On other evenings of the week, the restaurant is often hired for book launches, private parties and product launches.