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Tasting kapana in the Katutura neighborhood of Windhoek is a must-do foodie traveler experience when visiting Namibia. Kapana, the famous Namibian street barbecue, was delicious . . . but not quite what we expected.
We had just finished a two-week road trip exploring wide open country and wildlife in Namibia (including the goofy Zebras in Etosha National Park). Our self-drive safari included stays in Namibia lodges, where we feasted on all types of wild game meat: oryx, impala, springbok . . .even wildebeest. We had even experimented with biltong, which is what they call jerky in this part of the world. By the time we returned to the capital city of Windhoek, we were ready for some good old-fashioned beef.
The Soweto street market in Katutura
Our friend Jim asked us if we wanted to experience a true Namibian street market. The answer was, of course, YES! So he took us to the Soweto market in the Katutura neighborhood. Katutura is a former apartheid-era village, dating back to the days when Namibia was governed by South Africa. (The country gained its independence in 1990.)
What was once a neighborhood that exemplified the rigid rules of apartheid, Katutura today is a thriving, bustling community. The Soweto street market is a hive of activity. Food and clothing vendors are intermingled with hair dressers and seamstresses in the open-air market. A tall metal metal canopy provides shade from the vivid African sun. But it is at the market’s edges where the magic is happening.
Kapana at the Soweto street market
The charcoal grills sit at the perimeter of the market, away from the canopy. Whisps of smoke curl through Katutura, luring all in their path with that signature scent of grilled meat. This is kapana, the famous Namibian street barbecue.
“Live fire cooking and barbecue have been so intimately linked with human evolution and history and politics. Everything we do, barbecue informs it in some way.” ~ Steven Raichlen
The grills are made of oil drums cut in half with grating laid across the top, resembling community cookouts everywhere. And just like community cookouts everywhere, there are guys clustered around the grills. Some are offering advice to the cook (the guy holding the big knife); others are just waiting for the meat to be done.
We had been traveling for 12 months and thus far hadn’t needed our emergency supply of Cipro—a streak we didn’t want to break. But after watching Jim gobble down strip after strip of beef mixed with a bit of fat, we couldn’t resist.
Locals demonstrating the proper way to eat kapana.
The best way to eat kapana
There is a set way to eat kapana: Tell the vendor how much you want to spend and he pushes that amount of meat over to one side of the grill. Then pick it up with your hands—since it’s still over the open fire this part is a bit tricky—and dip it in a salty spice blend. The spices are contained in a communal cardboard box at the edge of the grill, which gives them a slightly roasted aroma. After eating a few pieces we picked up some freshly baked rolls from a bread vendor to make a sandwich out of ours.
Make sure to get a freshly baked roll.
What, exactly, is kapana?
The meat was delicious, fresh, tender and perfectly chargrilled, while the spice blend had the right amount of peppery kick. After he saw that we were enjoying ourselves, Jim remembered a detail he had forgotten to mention. Oops, it’s not beef after all . . . but donkey meat we were chowing down. Apparently it’s a local delicacy.
The mystery meat.
We have to admit we couldn’t tell the difference, it still tasted pretty good. Back at our B&B later, our host said it wasn’t donkey meat at all. But that was hard to believe—we had seen the butchers’ tables a few feet away laden with fresh donkey meat. (We could tell by the furry skin still attached to the meat.)
The butcher’s tables at the market display their years of use. To keep clean they are covered with fresh cardboard every day.
So I found myself pondering this eternal question:
If you are what you eat, am I an ass? ∼ Michael Milne
Maybe it was donkey, maybe it wasn’t. Sometimes when eating food in foreign lands, ignorance is indeed bliss. A lesson we learned when we tried kokorec, a sheep intestine sandwich in Istanbul. We loved it but didn’t know what it was until after we ate it.
Here’s a video of the kapana sizzling on the grill at the Katutura market:
What foods have you accidentally tried? If you’ve got a wacky foodie traveler story, send us a note through the “contact us” form. We’d love to hear about it!
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We’re Larissa and Michael, your typical middle-aged couple from Philadelphia who’ve been traveling the world full-time since 2011, seeking off-beat, historic and tasty sights. To receive updates and valuable travel tips subscribe to our free travel newsletter here.