Peer into a pot of Angolan Muamba, and you are not just looking at a spicy chicken stew thickened with palm oil and okra but 500 years of history.
Ever since Portuguese navigators began in the 15th century to chart the seas between Europe, the New World, Africa, and Asia, recipes and ingredients have floated from one continent to another. Perhaps nowhere is this collision of cultures and cuisines and centuries of trading more evident than in the kitchens of two former colonies -- Mozambique and Angola.
At A Palhota (''The Hut''), a family-style restaurant in downtown Johannesburg, Luis Pena presides over a hot kitchen replicating the specialties of Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) Africa. The eatery, decorated with wooden masks and sculptures, is a mecca for African immigrants and visitors nostalgic for dishes from back home.
Situated on a busy central street that houses many of the city's Portuguese restaurants, A Palhota is a prime meeting place for the Lusophone African community. Conversations chart the latest political development in Angola and Mozambique or the prospects of Portuguese soccer teams.
Diners tuck into dishes with names like Caulu or Muqueca (both Angolan fish stews) -- the only place in Johannesburg where they can be found outside a family kitchen. There is a word in Portuguese for homesickness -- saudades, -- and it echoes through the dining room.
''This is just how my aunt made it!'' exclaimed one Mozambican man, animatedly forking into a portion of grilled chile prawns.
A Palhota's cuisine bears the legacy of the days when Portuguese ships called into the ports of Africa to pick up slaves, gold, and ivory, leaving behind food from three other continents. From Brazil, they introduced cashews, pineapples, fiery red chiles (piri-piri), peppers, tomatoes, manioc, and potatoes. Limes came from China, and cinnamon, rice, cumin, and coriander from India. Portugal added to the list wine, goat, and garlic.
Culinary hints of Brazil can be tasted in the peanut sauces and hearty sausage-and-bean dishes. Creamy puddings enriched with egg yolks are tropical echoes of Portuguese desserts. Mozambique's flavorsome curries bear testimony to the Arab traders and Goan settlers who came from the East.
Perhaps nowhere is the blend more evident than the hallmark dish from Mozambique's Zambezia province -- Matapa, which is a delicious combination of spinach or manioc leaves, ground cashew, red-hot chiles, coconut milk, and prawns or crab.
A Palhote also serves, along with such African culinary gems, traditional Portuguese classics for those with simpler tastes - the ubiquitous potatoes, hearty fish soups and meat stews, tender grilled cuttlefish, and garlic steak ''prego'' sandwiches.
Whenever possible, ingredients are brought fresh from other countries. Friends had just given Pena some palm nuts from Angola to extract the oil. He is a devoted fan of Mozambique's famed prawns and was awaiting another shipment. Pena uses olive oil from Portugal, which has a distinctive nutty flavor.
While Pena bustled about the kitchen with an army of Mozambican assistants, an English visitor sampled a plate of Angola's national dish, Muamba, trying to decipher the unaccustomed pungent flavor of palm oil. He poked curiously at an accompanying plate of funge - Angola's version of the African staple maize porridge, without which no meal would be complete.
''Odd, but tasty,'' the visitor said.
Observing the man's reaction, Pena admitted some tastes are acquired and time is often needed for the palate to adjust to flavors of different cultures.
Pena's background is as much a blend of cultures as the dishes he concocts. A fifth-generation Angolan who left after his homeland after it gained independence from Portugal in 1975, he lived in Rio de Janeiro and then Lisbon before settling in Johannesburg. After a series of odd jobs, including working as a driver and agricultural engineer, he decided five years ago to take over A Palhota and do what he loves best - cook.
Every touch is his own, including the wall murals of African huts and village scenes, which he painted himself.
''You could say I found my calling with this restaurant,'' he says. ''I am an African, this is an African restaurant, my clients are African. I have found a spiritual home here in Johannesburg cooking the dishes of my youth.''
*This article is the first of two about the cuisine of South Africa. Part II will appear next week.