06 August 2007

The South Africa Food Post

So, what do I have to say about South African food after seven weeks in the country? Two words: biltong and naartjies. Like other wine-producing countries, the South Africans have a lot of good raw materials to work with here, but I must say that they don't really seem to have capitalized on them in the same way that the Californians, French, Italians, or Australians have. The quality of the ingredients is good. The steaks are good, and the produce is stunning, but the expertise is just not there yet, at least in the restaurants. Granted, we haven't been eating at national-park-run restaurants and some hotel or lodge restaurants where we were a captive audience. Maybe we'd have a different experience in the halls of haute cuisine. We did have a very good meal at Haiku, a swanky, pan-Asian place in downtown Cape Town, but Chinatown dim sum would have won out any day, and at half the price. We just haven't found that sweet spot where good ingredients shine through without pretension. But maybe I'm being harsh. I'll report back after a couple days in wine country.

We have enjoyed the biltong, though. It's basically just beef jerky, sometimes seasoned with coriander seed, but it's far superior to what we get in the States. Plus it's relatively cheap and available everywhere. Quality varies a bit; it's easy to get a batch that's too soft or too dry. But in general, biltong is widely available and of very high quality. My favorite was in Namibia, where for $7 (US), I got nearly a half-pound stick of biltong, plus the pocket knife to carve it up with. In addition, the pocket knife had some surprises: a.) it was a switchblade(!) and b.) it included a tiny LED flashlight. Random, but cool. It's not a dangerous weapon at about 2 inches long, but it was very fun to freak M out by flicking out the knife in the car to slice off a hunk of dried beef.

Naartjies are just tangerines, but they're sweet and plentiful here. With biltong, they make fantastic travel food. The biltong is often preservative-free, so the pair can keep you going quite a while, and they're infinitely more wholesome than a Slim Jim and a candy bar.

Other things:
  • Burgers with fried eggs on them. Why was this innovation not adopted in the US? Too long have we labored under a regime that has left our burgers un-egged.
  • Nougat. This stuff is all over and really good. Not like the stuff in a Three Musketeers bar that's supposed to be nougat. This stuff is pillowy, nutty, honeyed and delicious. I must figure out how to make it.
  • Woolworths. It's a different brand down here. Not only is it a clothing store, it's sort of like Trader Joe's is to the States. They have only one or two brands of everything, and usually favor their house brand, which is often locally and responsibly produced. We like everything we've gotten there... particularly the nougat...
  • Bread pudding and custard. Yum.
  • Savory pies. Steak & curry, steak & kidney, Thai chicken. Delish.
I've figured out a great Durban-style curry recipe with lamb shank. I guess I'll post that next.

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