With one month left in South Africa, I really want to try eating the South African “delicacies” that I’ve heard about, like mopane worms or skopo (sheep’s head). Thinking since it is traditional food, my best chances would be in Soweto, around Mandela House, which is quite a mission to get to with public transport. However, I still managed to get myself there after an hour and a half of traveling and that’s when the day adventure began.
It started with walking to Mandela House and asking all the street vendors and restaurants on the way where I could find skopo or mopane worms. They suggested I ask the photographer working at Mandela House. He looked at me with a “I have no idea” look, then started asking other street vendors in Zulu and finally translated that I should go find Shoprite because they sell mopane worms across the street, in front of the supermarket. As for skopo, most people eat it as a hangover cure and since it was already past noon, they would have finished eating it by that time.
Souvenir street vendors along Vilakazi street, where Mandela House is.
It took me 10 minutes of walking around the neighbourhood looking for Shoprite and the street market around the area. I kept asking almost all the vegetable vendors and the egg vendors for mopane worms but the closer I came to Shoprite, the less people seem to even know what mopane worms are. Even the security guard of Shoprite suggested I go look for those in aisle 4 of the supermarket, where tissues and diapers are located…Clearly she had no idea what I was looking for.
Leaving Shoprite, I crossed the street and started asking the vendors on that side. You could find vendors selling all kinds of things on this block: vegetables, live hens still in their cage, eggs, laundry buckets and baskets, electric plugs and extensions, phone cases, jewelry, clothing, etc. By the time I got to the end of the street, I found a jewelry vendor who also clearly didn’t know what mopane worms were and told me to go back down the street where I just came from. When I said to her it was food, she just suggested I go to KFC which was only 10 steps away.
Disappointed and hungry, I just decided to go to the fish and chips place next to KFC, asking them one last time for mopane worms and if no success, I could just have a small order of fish and chips for lunch. Just what I thought, the young man working there also didn’t have any idea what mopane worms were and after he asked his boss in Zulu, she gave me another “I have no idea” look and turned to ask the customer in line behind me. The 50 year-old woman with plastic bags full of grocery suggested I take a taxi to Baragwanath Hospital as they sold those on the street in front of the hospital. “They are like African sausages, you should try”, she added before leaving.
Defeated and not wanting to take a taxi to somewhere I wasn’t familiar with, I went back to Mandela House to wander around and look at the souvenir stalls on the street. Some of the vendors who recognized me from earlier in the day asked if my quest was successful. The sand artist on the street then told me about “the best skopo place” in front of Orlando Police Station. Orlando is a neighbourhood within Soweto and anywhere not near Mandela House or Orlando Towers is not exactly the safest place for tourists in Soweto. So that wasn’t an option either. Another souvenir vendor offered to show me to a place nearby, a house where a lady made skopo. His instructions: “there’s a house where they sell alcohol, keep walking to where the pink house is. Do you see that tree? It’s the second tree after it”.
Orlando Towers, viewed from Orlando West, near Mandela House
Following his instructions, I ended up in the front lounge of someone’s house which they seem to have turned into a small bar. A lady was further inside the house across the small yard and when I asked her where I could find skopo, she said there wasn’t any place nearby where I could find it. I ended the day with an unsuccessful quest for South African “delicacies” and some lessons:
- When asking for directions, if they know for certain where the place is, South Africans will point in that direction instead of saying “go straight/left/right”. They will use objects such as tree or stop signs and buildings such as Shoprite or KFC to point you in that direction.
- South Africans will never tell you right away that they don’t know the place/can’t give you directions. But you will be able to tell that they can’t give you directions by their facial expression: a little frown and their eyes will be fixed on something in the distance or the space behind you, as if the answer is written somewhere in the clouds.
- When giving you directions, they will do so not because they are certain the direction is correct but because they believe that option is the one with the highest probability of being the correct answer.
- If they cannot give you an answer, they will still genuinely try to help you by even asking everyone they can around them (generally asking in Zulu) and then translating the response later to you.