Amawele's Cuisine Brings South African Flavors to San Francisco

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Pam and Wendy Drew are South African identical twins who do everything together; from travel to entering the same career paths and now owning and operating Amawele’s Cuisine in San Francisco. The name of their restaurant came easy—it simply means “The Twins” in Zulu.

 

Young Pam and Wendy.

Amawele’s Cuisine serves what Wendy and Pam consider to be Durban-inspired dishes. Pam and Wendy grew up in Durban, South Africa, in a culturally diverse community. Not only was their community heavily diverse, so was their family. “We are what they consider as colored because of cultural mix,” says Pam. “Our family is extremely diverse. So we [have] Indian aunties, we have Black uncles, white grandparents. [Also], Cape Malaysian is part of our DNA as well.”

Pam and Wendy as children with their mother Nadia Drew Loretta.

As a city, Durban is considered to have the largest concentrated population of Indians outside of India. Indian influences had a major impact on the dishes that Wendy and Pam consumed growing up, and they quickly learned how to prepare such dishes at a young age—many of which can be found on Amawele’s menu today.

One of the components that they use on their menu is Roti, a buttery, thin Indian flatbread that is dipped in a variety of sauces and curries. Although Roti is traditionally Indian, Pam and Wendy decided to reinvent it with secret spices; they call it South African Roti or Amawele’s Roti. (Currently, their South African Roti is headed to retail nationwide.)

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The idea of opening Amawele’s Cuisine didn’t materialize until they moved to the United States. In South Africa, they had both worked in finance, and were eager to travel. Their initial plan was to move to the U.S. for a year or two, but upon arrival they saw the opportunities for business and decided to stay. While working to pick up jobs to make ends meet, they kept the faith that something bigger and better was heading their direction.

When South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup, Pam and Wendy started planning a party with friends. They soon realized that San Francisco didn’t have any South African restaurants that could provide food for the party. Without a beat, they decided to prepare their favorite dishes, and sure enough, their spicy, flavorful meals were a hit. The next day, their friends encouraged them to open a restaurant. 

Pam and Wendy with a friend at the World Cup 2010 party.

But Amawele’s Cuisine didn’t happen overnight—in fact, it took nearly three years to finally open. In the meantime, Pam and Wendy marketed their business while driving rideshare, saved money by working as nannies, and eventually borrowed $100,000 on credit cards. Although they had supportive friends, the realities of opening a business as two black immigrant women in San Francisco was a challenge. “People didn't look at us and say, ‘Oh, I see success in you.’ It was a little hard,” Pam says. “it wasn't like they just said, ‘Oh, well, yeah, they'll just sign the lease. Go in.’ We had to do a lot of begging and pleading.”

Pam and Wendy in 2012 in Las Vegas for the Rugby 7's.

In May of 2013, Amawele’s Cuisine finally opened its doors in the Financial District at San Francisco’s Rincon Center. Like most restaurants, the first few days were a struggle. “We went home and we literally cried ourselves to sleep,” Pam says. “We were like, ‘What did we do?’”

Pam and Wendy at the Amawele's Cuisine brick and mortar.
Pam and Wendy with their mother and brother at the Amawele's brick and mortar.

Fortunately, things changed by the end of the week, when customers came fluttering in. Some customers had trouble understanding the dishes, and even asked if the restaurant ever served exotic dishes like ostrich eggs or crocodile meat. “I never had an ostrich in my life, so I'm not going to sell something I don't know,” says Pam. “And again, it's not a typical South African dish, it's not. So there was a lot of educating in terms of...South African Cuisine.” 

One of the most popular dishes at Amawele’s is Bunny Chow, a cross-cultural dish of English, Indian and Zulu cuisine. Bunny Chow is a hollowed-out quarter loaf of sweet white bread filled with either chicken curry, vegetable curry, lamb curry or beef curry, served with a side of pickled carrots to ease the spiciness. The name “Bunny” is another word for Bania, an Indian caste of merchants who used white bread as bowls to transport their curries.

Initially the twins were against putting it on the menu; they simply couldn’t imagine seeing men in suits digging into Bunny Chow. So they introduced it to diners as similar to a soup bowl, and it soon became their most popular dish on the menu.

Preparing the Bunny Chow. (Cecilia Phillips / KQED)
The plated Bunny Chow (Cecilia Phillips / KQED)

Another best-selling item is their Cape Malay Rice, a popular dish from the Cape Malays of Capetown, South Africa. The rice, vibrant yellow from the tumeric, and made with curry, cinnamon, and vegetables. They like to call it a type of Biryani rice—familiar, but with a different taste. 

Despite success at their brick and mortar, Pam and Wendy decided to close the restaurant in 2019 and focus primarily on online subscriptions, corporate catering and retail. “I feel like that was a massive blessing in disguise, because none of us knew what was going to happen in 2020,” Wendy says. 

Currently Pam and Wendy rent kitchen space at Eclectic Cookery, located in Bayview-Hunters Point, and have a monthly rotating subscription box of South African dishes for customers to order. Says Pam, “Each box has about three full South African meals. [Also], every month a double crusted savory pie is featured, because that's also one of our signature dishes coming from Durban.”

Online, Pam and Wendy also sell Rooibos Refreshers, an herbal brew made from leaves that can only be grown in Capetown, and Peri Peri hot sauce. At the moment, Amawele’s only accepts Bay Area orders, but will soon expand nationwide. 

 

And as for the future? Says Wendy, “We just want to move forward.” 

 

For authentic Durban South African cuisine, head over to Amaweles.com

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