A Russian, a Viennese and a Frenchwoman are on a slice of bread. No one falls off the edge since these three sausages are well held. Bread, cold cuts and fries form a kota. A thick sandwich like a dictionary that is balanced with a wooden stick, or that is kept wrapped in a plastic bag. Some sit on it, even crush it under the wheels of a car to compact it.
There is no shortage of words to qualify this township snack: “kota” in Soweto, “quota” and “bunny chow” in Durban, “sphathlo” in Pretoria, “Gatsby” in Cape Town or even “AK” in reference to the AK-47 submachine gun for its length, up to “bazooka” in its XXL form. The filling varies by region. Influenced by the Indian community, Durban’s bunny chow is served with lamb curry. In Cape Town, the Atlantic metropolis, the Gatsby can be garnished with fried fish.
“They all belong to the same family of sandwiches, whose origin dates back to apartheid, when black people were not allowed to eat in restaurants and you had to offer a take-out meal,” explains the culinary anthropologist Anna Trapido. It is the shape of the bread that defines the type of sandwich rather than its accompaniment. The “sphatlo” of Pretoria is cut horizontally, while the Cape Gatsby resembles a baguette.
Festival du kota
Let’s go back to Soweto, south of Johannesburg, where the kota is celebrated all weekend for the fifth edition of a festival dedicated to it. “The real one is the one I prepare. Simple and good”, teaser Mpho Modisane, 14 years of kota on the CV. The chef, dressed in a yellow polo shirt bearing the image of Winnie Wandela, cooks with his wife Nomsa in a reconditioned container attached to his grandmother’s house.
Their boui-boui overlooks the entrance to the famous Vilakazi Street in Soweto, known as the street with two Nobel Prizes, where Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela lived. “Prices must remain reasonable to satisfy our customers in the township and we do not make the difference between tourists and locals”, boasts the owner of TNP Fast Food. The “premium kota” costs 1.70 euros.
If it’s the one you want, order a “kota last number”, the last sandwich on the menu. That of Mpho is composed of a thick sandwich loaf, cut in its quarter, hence the name kota derived from the English “quarter”. The middle crumb is removed to make room for a cozy nest. The house fries, double cooking, previously peeled by the chef rest there. Crispy on the outside, melting on the inside, a delight just like in Belgium.
The fries are covered with a quartet of industrial cold cuts cooked in the same oil bath: a large sausage (Russian), a fine sausage (Vienna), a mortadella of reconstituted meat (French polony) and its non-fried version (Special ). Everything is drizzled with three sauces (barbecue, ketchup, french fries), topped with a slice of cheddar. The cook dresses this pavement with a bread hat, kept when digging the bread. Last touch: the plastic packaging which encloses the kota and avoids grease and sauce on the fingers. You have to devour it in its case, “to be able to eat everything at once”, assures Mpho.
So here is one of the kota specimen among a myriad of different species. “There are so many variations… they are all equally charming and funny. South African street food culture is witty. People love to talk about kotas,” enthuses culinary specialist Anna Trapido. The proof with Thimba, met at the counter of TNP Fast Food. While the chef is preparing his sandwich, this young DJ comes to the table and enacts the commands of the “skhambane”. This is the other name for kota in tsotsitaal, township slang.
The kota you will share. The word “sphathlo” used in Pretoria is a derivative of the English verb “to partition”, to share. If it is sometimes crushed, it is to better distribute the pieces. “When your little sister comes to see you to ask you to eat, you’re too lazy to cook and you want something good and affordable. Something you can cut in half and share, you can buy a kota,” Thimba says. The principle of sharing does not prevent low blows. “When a friend wants to share the kota, you don’t give him the front part – the good bits are in front – you give him the heel, where all the bread is. »
The work you will avoid. Once swallowed, this caloric bomb has the effect of a sleeping pill during digestion. “I’ll tell you something, if you’re already tired, you’ll fall asleep after the kota. You won’t want to do anything anymore. The best time to eat a kota is after an activity or a long day.
The hamburger, you will deny. In a country saturated by fast food, where American multinationals are added to local brands, the kota remains the best friend of small budgets and big appetites. “If you’re just peckish, you can eat a burger, but if you’re looking for something to hold your body, it’s kota. That’s real food, it’s the right combination, fries, bread and cold cuts all together, not apart. »
More than 3 euros, you will not spend. The kota escaped from the townships. It is now available for home delivery, everywhere in town, at prices that double those of french fries stands. The price should not exceed 50 rands (3 euros), according to Thimb. They can even be found in Sandton, the chic district of Johannesburg. “Those that are less authentic are often less good,” says Anna Trapido, “I think that kotas should be prepared within their community of origin. When you find kotas in Sandton, you are moving away from the origins. »
To keep roots with the township, the trendiest brands praise the “kasi style” (“like in the neighborhood”). The invigorating piece of bread from the apartheid years has won its letters of nobility and now inspires a festival sponsored by multinationals. Nice revenge for the underdog dish.
Soweto (Johannesburg) : TNP Fast Food, Vilakazi Street, Orlando West
Alexandra (Johannesburg) : Baily’s
Ferndale (Johannesburg) : Currylicious, Republic Mall
Ferndale (Johannesburg ) : Dali Indian Restaurant, 25 Kerk avenue
Athlone (Le Cap) : Super Fisheries, 63 Old Klipfontein