A Tantalizing Taste of Zimbabwe at Zweli’s in Durham, North Carolina

New ways with familiar ingredients will set your tastebuds dancing. Take Southern staples like collards, cabbage, and rice. Combine them with cooking techniques and spices from Southern Africa, and you have an irresistible combination culminating in a unique dining experience.

Location: Zweli’s Kitchen & Catering is located 12 miles from downtown Durham and one mile off I-40 at 4600 Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd, Suite 26, Durham, North Carolina (in the Oak Creek Village Shopping Center). Website here.

Menu: Zweli’s offers a variety of flavorful dishes inspired by Chef-Owner Zweli Williams’s childhood memories. “The menu reflects what she ate growing up in Zimbabwe,” said her husband and business partner, Leonardo. “What you have on the menu here is what she ate as a child.”

Zimbabwean food is definitely on the spicy side, but it’s not all about the heat. The piri-piri chicken – star of Zweli’s menu – is marinated for three days in a spicy piri-piri pepper sauce with a combination of three kinds of vinegar and a special mix of seasonings, making it especially tender and flavorful.

Appetizers include piri-piri chips, fried plantains, and vegetable or beef samosas.

The piri-piri options include individual choices of chicken parts with or without sides and piri-piri tofu for vegetarian diners.

The “Ehkaya” menu features options for the more adventurous, including braised oxtail, braised goat curry, and boerewors sausage. These can also be ordered with or without sides.

Shareable platters include a variety of combinations perfect for your group to sample a wider selection of savory options.

On the “Sides” menu you will find such traditional dishes as Zimbabwean peanut butter spiced collard greens, chakalaka, and jollof rice. Most of the sides are vegan-friendly and can be combined for a substantial and tasty meal.

An assortment of salads and sandwiches provides lighter options. And for dessert, you might want to try Zweli’s magwinyas, Zimbabwean sugar-coated donut bites

Beverages include sodas, lemonade, specialty lemonades such as strawberry mint and blueberry basil, as well as wine and beer.

Thoughts: When you enter Zweli’s Kitchen and Catering, the friendliness of the restaurant’s owners and staff, the unpretentious yet cheery décor, and the aroma of savory delights to come will woo you into a state of anticipation.

Zweli’s is a new kid on the block on Durham’s vibrant food scene. The restaurant opened its doors in the Summer of 2018 and since then, Zweli’s has made the list of the top 10 restaurants in the Triangle area and was named the best new restaurant in Durham.

The restaurant’s location in a shopping center takes the stress out of finding parking, and the welcoming atmosphere created by owners Zweli and Leonardo Williams takes the stress out of everything else.

Zweli’s seats 60 in the main restaurant and can accommodate approximately 120 for buffet-style events in the back room.

The heirloom red walls with tiffany blue accents are adorned with local art. The wood furnishings, including tables, benches, and bar, were lovingly built out of recycled pallets by Leonardo and a friend with guidance from YouTube. But what immediately grabbed our attention was Leonardo’s friendly, helpful manner as he answered questions from diners about menu items and their level of heat. In fact, Leonardo likes to greet all diners when they walk in and thank them for coming.

While her husband interacted with customers, Zweli was cooking and supervising in her kitchen where she reigns as the culinary queen. They were shorthanded that evening, so we didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Zweli herself, but we did meet her creations, and they were superb.

“Zweli looks at food as art,” Leonardo said proudly. And the quinoa salad with piri-piri chicken – our first of several shared delights – brought his point home. The salad was layered upon a bed of vibrant greens with grape tomatoes, quinoa, pickled onions, a mixture of roasted corn and black beans, then topped with piri-piri chicken, coiled red onion and mango. The edible canvas of flavor, texture, and color was dressed with Zweli’s lemon oregano vinaigrette. The dish looked too good to eat but tasted too good to simply admire.

Leonardo then introduced us to chakalaka and jollof rice. The former was a complex flavor combo consisting of seasoned beans in a savory broth and topped with shaved fresh ginger. The rice was flavored with a sauce of pureed tomatoes and habanero peppers, giving the dish an orange color. It produced an intense flavor with a delayed wave of heat that quickly disappeared.

Other treats we sampled included piri-piri chips, piri-piri wings, boerewors sausage, curried cabbage, and spicy collards. The chips were thick-cut, crisp, and elevated to new heights by the piri-piri element. The wings were exceptionally tender with a smoky flavor. The sausage had a coarse texture and consisted primarily of beef with a little pork and an exquisite blend of seasonings. The recipe comes from Southern Africa and the Williamses have a Zimbabwean butcher who custom makes it for them.

The peanut butter spiced collards had a serious kick but weren’t so hot you couldn’t enjoy the flavor combination. Representing Indian influences in Zimbabwean cuisine, the curried cabbage offered the kind of intense flavor familiar to those of us who enjoy Indian food. Both dishes were over-the-top delicious.

Zweli’s talent for combining the familiar with a pop of unexpected flavor, and perhaps an opportunity to meet her in person, will have us returning to Zweli’s the next time we visit Durham.

Price range: Appetizers range in price from $5.29 to $7.00. Piri-piri options run between $7.00 and $16.99, depending on the amount of chicken and whether you choose an option that includes sides. Items on the Ehkaya menu cost between $15.99 and $19.99, and sharable platters range from $15.00 to $99.99, depending on how many you’re feeding. Sides are $5.39 each, sandwiches $11.39, salads $8.39 to $10.29, and kids’ meals cost $4.50.

Disclosure: Our venture into Zimbabwean cuisine was generously hosted by Zweli and Leonardo Williams.

Guest reviewer bio: Penny Zibula is a freelance travel writer and blogger based in New Bern, North Carolina. She travels near and far with her photographer husband, Simon Lock, and her adorable guide dog, Splendid, in search of the best things to see, do, eat, and drink to share with her readers. You can follow her global adventures, fascinating discoveries, and fabulous food finds on her blog at Six Legs Will Travel and photos are by Simon Lock (see his portfolio here).

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