Finding the Globo Restaurant was like coming home. Funge meal and calulu stew bubbled on the stove, rumba flowed from the sound system, and the hosts bantered good-humouredly with their guests. So far, so welcoming. I looked at the menu and saw it was affordable. Something strange was going on.
My knee-jerk suspicion was based on weeks living here in Angola’s capital, Luanda, where restaurants can clear you out dangerously fast. Thanks to the nation’s legendary oil ‘curse’, only rich locals and well-paid foreigners eat out. Even in the scruffiest dive, a one-egg omelette would set you back £13.
But the Globo Restaurant in downtown Luanda was different. It was owned by a young Angolan couple, Njaya and Maguí, who had lived in Brazil and were back to run this small venture, serving comida caseira (home cooking), blending Afro-Portuguese-Brazilian food with a twist.
Maguí, with an irrepressibly sunny Brazilian demeanour, would bustle round her modest tables with platters of calulu com peixe, a classic fish stew with local greens and sweet potatoes, or muamba de dendem, a spicy chicken casserole. Sometimes I would find her filling glass bowls of homemade passion fruit mousse, berating her chef for over-salting the food again (a common problem in Luanda). The Globo just seemed real.
It’s hard to describe the joy of finding affordable food in Luanda’s capital. It wasn’t just the comida caseira that recommended the place, but also its almost heroic eccentricity, unafraid to fly in the face of the rampant capitalism that rules in Angola. We were only two minutes up from the £290-a-night, five-star Epic Sana Hotel, but Maguí and Njaya were running in the opposite direction.
Njaya — which curiously means ‘he who has been vindicated’ — is a young man who’s mad about growing his own, keeping chicken hutches, vegetables and fruit trees, which supply the kitchen. “We set this place up last year because there is nothing natural about food in Luanda,” he told me. “We wanted something at least locally grown, to provide just normal cooking. You couldn’t find it here.”
The devastation wreaked by Angola’s 27-year civil war, which ended in 2002, and the oppressive oil economy have all but suffocated manufacturing and agriculture. Today about half of all food is imported, but everything is sold at prohibitively high prices, especially in restaurants.
It wasn’t always like that. Emigrés recall a different Angola of the 1960s and 1970s, when Luanda was an airy and pleasant city. The Paris of Africa, foreigners called it, full of open-air cafes and good food. But the civil war gathered steam from 1975 and the capital ballooned as refugees streamed in from the provinces. Prices surged, infrastructure collapsed, and the pleasure of eating out became the preserve of the very fortunate.
Luanda is still attractive, with a wonderful assemblage of flaking, peach-pastel buildings in the Portuguese style. But the experience of the past quarter century has left a bitter mark on service culture. Departing from the warm embrace of an Angolan family — if you’re lucky enough to find one — can be ill-advised.
The Globo was in the heart of the city, but it could sometimes be strangely empty. I think affordable food is still too new for Luanda’s growing middle class. It was as if Luandans had got so used to high prices they couldn’t get their head around £20 for a main course. This perplexed the couple, and me too.
Njaya, I think, was too energetic to doubt his project. Unlike almost anyone else in the capital, he was mad about his quinta (farm or allotment), which conjured up images of a lush tract on the banks of the nearby Kwanza River. The reality, however, was a concrete yard between the restaurant and a neighbouring slum. Next to gas cylinders and beer crates the couple kept chickens, a mango tree and a fish tank. The street children stole the eggs, the power cut out all the time and there was nowhere to walk the goat, but what is Luanda without effort?
“Come, look at this,” he said to me once with great energy. He took me to his solar panel. “I just rigged it up”, he beamed. “Imagine, if every poor Angolan family had one, they could make their own electricity. I’m just a Rasta at heart. I love the natural. There’s nothing natural about Angola.”
Technically, Njaya was a child of the system. He came from a family of assimilados, a category awarded by the white Portuguese to Angolans who had become ‘civilised’. His grandfather had designed and built the adjoining Globo Hotel, and his father had worked as a doctor to some of Angola’s most powerful politicians. Njaya could easily have capitalised on those connections. But instead he dreamed of organic farming, and his restaurant was a shot of oxygen in a city that chokes on its own oil wealth. I do hope Njaya’s ‘vindication’ really is on its way. facebook.com/GloboResto
Daniel Metcalfe is the author of Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey into Angola, Hutchinson, Random House, 2013.
Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)