Some may see South Africa as a tragic country. I’m just back from a two week vacation there and to me it felt like a place of incredible hope.
The time spent flying and in airports was more than a little grueling. (How does Thomas Froese do it all the time?) Still, as I go through my photographs, I realize that this was the most extraordinary space in which I have ever landed. I have happily travelled a fair amount in North America and Europe and spent eons of time wandering about through the remains of earlier civilizations, but this is really where we all began. And there is definitely that primal feeling of travelling far, far back in time to another earlier world. On the other hand, the “rainbow” aspect of the culture puts this country in the forefront of modern civilizations. It is a difficult yet necessary concept that we all will have to adopt if we are going to survive.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a food blog and I did try lots of new edibles on the trip:
One of my favorites was a dish called “bobotie“, a sort of casserole of spicy minced meat (often with curry in it), layered with an egg based topping. A Cape Malay origin — Malaysians were brought in to Cape Town as slaves by the Dutch East India Company.
Less exciting was something that the servers all called “mealies” This was ubiquitous — it looked like mashed potatoes or couscous but actually was corn based. Rather tasteless, it was always paired with a spicy tomato sauce that made it much more palatable.
And speaking of sauces, there was also something called “chakalaka” on the table. It’s a very fiercely spiced vegetable relish that I loved, served with stews and soups.
I also enjoyed “biltong” which is a chewy, cured and dried meat — beef and all sorts of game (or fruit, such as figs). This doesn’t look that great, but it’s tasty — I thought it resembled prosciutto a bit, but also beef jerky. It’s usually eaten as a snack — but sometimes added to stews. There were lots of stews and curries available, as well and game meats — springbok, eland, impala — even crocodile.
The best new meat that I tried was ostrich which I know is available here. Somehow, I had never eaten it before. The steak was really flavorsome and not even slightly “gamey.” Not as tender as a rib eye, perhaps more like a flat iron steak.
And, for a country with such a long coast, I was surprised that we didn’t see more seafood. The fish that was served most often was something called hake (pronounced “hike” by our charming South African guide) and it was a mild, sweet and firm sort of white fish.
I guess I could sum up by saying the cuisine is “rainbow food for a rainbow country.” And not very friendly to vegetarians, I’m afraid.
I should mention that I also did a small tour through the wine country and here I must confess my abysmal ignorance. Because the LCBO does not have a huge amount of South African wine available on its shelves, I had envisioned the South African wine industry as being something like ours: a small, well organized group of wineries in a very enclosed area with a special micro-climate. Well, that’s certainly dead wrong. The area is huge with a vast range of climate and soil types. And the country is among the ten top wine producing countries in the world. It would be simply divine to do a trip just devoted to this subject — research, you know — if only there were world enough and time…
However. No one comes to South Africa for the food. So why should anyone bother with that hellish plane trip?
Perhaps for the sky. Overwhelming, all-encompassing and the essence of blueness. This is the end of their winter (the dry season) and the beginning of spring; the air was limpid and clear and the brilliantly colored flowers were just beginning to sprout — flame-colored bougainvillea, lilies, wildflowers and huge purple-blossomed jacaranda trees. The landscape itself, with its long coastline and high mountains and ravines, is rugged and wild and lonely and glorious.
And if I went back, I would like to spend more time exploring the music. We only had one evening listening to African rhythms, although our wonderful guide Maggi Gibson kindly made up a CD for us which I will use it as an introduction to this huge and complex subject.
But, of course, the real reason that I went was to see the animals and here I wasn’t disappointed at all. On safaris through Kruger National Park and some private game reserves, we were able to see all of the “big five” animals except for the elusive leopard (the lions were pretty far away, I must admit), along with myriads of other creatures. Seeing these magnificent beasts in their natural habitats — often with babies — was quite simply an awesome, unforgettable and life-altering experience.
So here’s a recipe for bobotie that I found on Epicurious.
South African Bobotie
recipe from Epicurious
butter or vegetable oil
2 onions chopped
1/2 tsp crushed garlic
1 tbsp curry powder
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 sliced crumbled bread
1/4 cup milk
finely grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp salt, freshly ground black pepper
3 oz dried apricots, chopped
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled and cored and chopped
1/4 cup golden raisins
1 1/2 oz slivered almonds, roasted in a dry frying pan
6 lemon, orange or bay leaves
1 cup milk
1/2 tsp salt
1) Set oven to 325 degrees F. Butter a large casserole. Heat butter and oil in a saucepan and fry the onion and garlic until translucent. Stir in the curry powder and turmeric and cook briefly until fragrant. Remove the pot from the heat.
2) Mix in the minced meat. Mix together the crumbs, milk, lemon rind and juice, egg, salt, pepper, apricots, apple, sultanas and almonds and mix in. Pile into the casserole and level the top. Roll up the leaves and bury them at regular intervals. Seal with foil and bake for 1 1/4 hours.
3) Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees F. Mix together the topping ingredients, pour over casserole and bake uncovered for a further 15 minutes until cooked and slightly browned.
I see that Epicurious reproduced this recipe from “Rainbow Cuisine: A Culinary Journey Through South Africa” by Lannice Snyman. They suggest serving it with yellow rice.