Chinese New Year is a loud, colourful affair celebrated at the end of January or beginning of February. In Johannesburg, the suburb of Cyrildene, known amongst locals as Chinatown, is overrun with onlookers and celebrants who revel in the Chinese dragon dance and ring in the New Year with majestic firework displays. The neighbourhood’s many restaurants carry their tables outside and prepare exotic feasts to accompany the festive atmosphere. Once the festivities are over, many visitors abandon the littered streets of Cyrildene until the next year’s festivities, missing out on the many wonders Derrick Avenue has to offer in the light of day.
Exploring this part of Jozi is to be transported to another world. A multitude of obscure hole-in-the-wall restaurants invitingly display pictures of dishes in shop windows, exotic vegetables are sold on the street, and whole shops are dedicated to animal entrails. This is the place to find anything from Indonesian nasi goreng ingredients to violet tea flowers, vegetarian products from Taiwan and animal hearts – should you be so inclined. It’s bon vivant heaven, and exactly the place you’ll find ingredients you only ever see on cooking shows.
Tackle Derrick Avenue on foot and take a moment to admire the ornate arch before getting your eat on. With all the restaurants and street food to explore, it’s inadvisable to have a sit-down meal at any one of the restaurants on your first expedition. Start your culinary exploration at Longmen Chinese restaurant, but not before admiring the huge Chinese white radishes, pretty little snake beans and leafy greens at the street market next door. Remember that the street is quite long and a visit can easily take a few hours, so buy all your veggies and treats on the way home, not at the start of your journey.
Between Longmen and the fresh foods market is Tang Ren Wan Ha Chinese supermarket, stacked with hundreds of Asian products like canned bamboo shoots in water, pickled quail eggs and White Rabbit sweets – that most irresistible of Asian treats.
Stop off at Han Kee for a delicious spring roll, but try not to look too rushed to avoid a crispy roll that is still frozen on the inside. The Han Kee menu is an opus consisting of hundreds of dishes, from seafood, chicken and meat dishes to chow mein, foo yung, fried rice and sizzling beef. Each of the tables is equipped with a gas burner hooked up to a main gas line. This restaurant alone would warrant a return trip to Cyrildene.
The much smaller restaurant to the right of Han Kee (with its name written in Chinese only and therefore completely unknown to us) has the same sort of setup, with the addition of a fish tank, a golden beckoning cat and a stretcher where the owner takes naps in the afternoon.
Stop off at Indomart, an Indonesian supermarket, for kecap manis, terasi and palm sugar. Mentally prepare yourself before popping in at China Town Butcher Shop next door, though. Here you’ll find everything from frozen crab sticks, whole crabs and prawns to cuts of pork that look suspiciously like human fingers.
Once you’ve taken a moment to recover, grab a fresh squid, prepared on hot coals and sprinkled with coriander, to eat on your way to Friends Thai Supermarket. This little market is stacked to the ceiling with hundreds of fragrant ingredients. Stock up on paste for your next Thai curry and use the opportunity to find some new ingredients for the purposes of brave experimentation. Grab a bottle of Thai spicy and sour coconut soup paste, a bag of dried red chillies, tamarind candy and whole preserved mango to play around with at home. If you’re feeling particularly plucky, get a can of fried catfish or clams with chilli. By this point you might feel ready to burst, but you still have a long way to go. Break up your day by stopping in at Ruixin Beauty Salon for Fire Therapy before continuing on your victual adventure.
At Zhong Qiao Supermarket you’ll find pre-packaged egg rolls with pork and shrimp (it’s obviously been a long time since Cyrildene was a Jewish neighbourhood), myriad Chinese sauces, the incredibly elusive canned jackfruit and tiny tins of coconut milk among hundreds of other products.
At Delicious Casserole Food next door you can dish up any number of grilled or fried meats, buffet-style, or you can continue down the street to Gangnam Korean BBQ where live fish is kept in a bucket until it’s time to kick said bucket for the gratification of customers. Lao Di Fang across the street is slightly more upmarket and a balcony seat will give you a nice view of the goings-on on the street below.
Stock up on rice at Chinese Rice Wholesale and get your fish at Hua Wei Seafood. Tea lovers should certainly pop in at the aptly named Tea for a choice of delicious teas and beautiful tea pots.
The end of Derrick Avenue is dedicated to fish. Get your fresh specimens at Feng Yong Seafood Trading or pick up fresh squid and clams at a street fish market down the road. You could also stop in at Fisherman’s Plate or Chinese Northern Foods Restaurant for a fishy treat. By this point you might be close to saturation point. Luckily, Simplicity Coffee and Tea is your next stop. Here you can grab a Pearl Milk Tea to help you digest the day.
It’s imperative to book a table at any one of these restaurants for the Chinese New Year festivities on Friday 31 January 2014. Derrick Avenue will be abustle on the night!