Why you should care
Because this version of township beef actually tastes good.
The intoxicating aroma of barbecued meat hits me as soon as I get out of the car. I follow my nose to the Oshetu Community Market, where row upon row of young men toil over open fires in the desert heat. Spoiled for choice, I diplomatically order a portion (around $1.50) each from the two sellers who shout the loudest. Theguy Mafa and Alexander Nghefekwena slice thin strips of beef (and chunks of pure fat) and toss them onto sizzling iron trays welded atop brick fireplaces.
After a few minutes they give me a ball of scrunched-up newspaper containing a few dozen strips of kapana — “grilled beef” in the Oshiwambo language. I dip the slivers, one by one, in a scuffed beer carton containing a variety of salts and spices, and chew them slowly. Over the years I’ve had loads of variations of township beef in several African countries. But Namibian kapana — packed with flavor and not too tough — is the only one I’d order again.
The thin slices mean fast cooking times (no angry customers) and reduced health risks.
The secret, explains food columnist and restaurateur Christie Keulder, lies in the wafer-thin strips. “They’re using every part of the animal,” he says, so anything chunkier would be “like eating car tires.” The thin slices mean fast cooking times (no angry customers) and reduced health risks. “There are no fridges at the markets, so everything has to be really well done,” Keulder explains. Come to think of it, I did see a man hacking at a freshly slaughtered cow with an ax, and a collection of severed heads swarming with flies …
Cows are a big deal in Namibia, and you can find kapana sellers all over the country. But for the loudest, busiest experience, hit up Oshetu or one of the other markets in Katutura, on the outskirts of Windhoek. Meaning “the place where people do not want to live” in English, the sprawling township was created in 1961, when the country was governed by apartheid-era South Africa.
After I’ve eaten about 10 pieces of kapana, I find myself craving some carbs to break the cloying (but delicious) fat overload, so I wander further into the market. There, for 5 cents, I buy a slightly sweetened, soft bread roll that is baked, Keulder later tells me, in a tuna can. Further on there are basin-loads of dried goods — mopane worms, spinach, fish, beans — that are scooped into old motor oil cans and sold by the pint, for use in soups, stews and the like.
Out back, on a dusty dirt street, a dozen or so butchers in tumbledown shacks with gleaming band saws vie for business. Because of the refrigeration issue, these guys don’t actually sell meat, but — as the “we cut meat” signage suggests — they will butcher anything a customer brings in. Not surprisingly, the kapana sellers are some of their biggest clients.
The whole setup may seem haphazard, but, Keulder has discovered, the entire supply chain is controlled by farmers who provide the cows and offer much-needed employment to the chefs, butchers and spice ladies. “The amount of money they make out of a single cow is crazy,” says Keulder. “We restaurateurs could learn a thing or two from their portioning …”
EAT SOME: NAMIBIAN KAPANA
- Get There: Visit Oshetu Community Market as part of a township tour, or get your hotel to arrange a reputable driver (map).
- Steer Clear: You may notice customers dipping their meat in a bowl of greenish fluid. This contains cow bile and is said to cure even the meanest hangover. Try it at your peril.
- Hot Tip: At Christie Keulder’s upmarket restaurant, the Curious Kitchen, Keulder is a wealth of knowledge on Namibian street food.