South Africa exploded in the 1990s, surfacing from a dark past. Feral but stylish, hospitable yet hazardous, the world wanted to visit her exotic safaris and drink her fabulous wines, partake in the mushrooming art scene, and dance to the beat of new rhythmic sounds. Age-old race divisions were out: Afro-chic designers, hunky surfer dudes, and Nelson Mandela were finally in.
The largest influx of immigrants to the USA arrived in 1994, due to the many uncertainties surrounding the new political regime in South Africa. Unlike many other immigrant communities, this English-speaking, well-educated, and ethnically diverse group of professionals quickly assimilated into an American way of life. Fortunately, they brought with them many of their culinary and cultural traditions that we can enjoy today.
America’s first South African restaurant — Madiba — opened in Fort Greene, Brooklyn in 1999. Inspired by a traditional shebeen (a makeshift watering hole), Madiba serves up authentic, traditional fare — braaivleis, boboties and bunny chows.
Often called Rainbow Cuisine, South African fare is inspired by the unique customs of the indigenous tribes (Xhosa, Zulu, and Khoikhoi) and culturally diverse settlers (Cape Dutch, French Huguenots, British and Portuguese), as well as the workers they brought in from Indonesia, Malaysia, Java, Zanzibar and India. One dish, the bunny chow or kota, as the locals call it, is a hollowed out loaf of bread served with a curried lamb stew, pickles, and chutney, and is a blend of Malaysian and Indian influences.
South Africans get their passion for barbecue, or braai, from the Khoisan tribe, who roasted meat and dried the leftovers. Even today, a typical weekend meal consists of maize meal and grilled meat: “pap and vleis.” Game, like impala, kudu, and organ meats are all thrown on the braai. South Africans take braai-time very seriously. In NYC, the NY NJ SPRINGBOK CLUB, a community organization that holds events for ex-pats, suggests pre-ordering meat to avoid the line at parties!
Sautéed chicken livers with onions and chilies, prawns in Peri-Peri sauce, grilled calamari, and carpaccios of birds like ostrich and big game like venison are served both at home and in restaurants.
The Dutch East India Company had colonies in Indonesia, and brought with it many influences of the Malay Archipelago. Bobotie — a traditional Cape Malay favorite made of curried mincemeat baked and topped with an egg custard — is served with rice, raisins, and an assortment of condiments: mango chutney, banana, coconut, cucumber mint sauce, tomato, and onions.
NYC offers us ample opportunity to indulge in the colorful variety of South African cuisine. Be sure to try the succulent ostrich sliders at Restaurant Braai, or the well-spiced Durban samosas and the rich malva pudding at Kaia Wine Bar. Xai Xai South African wine bar in midtown Manhattan has an extensive variety of South African wines to sip, swirl and swallow — their list of Chenin Blanc and Pinotage is extensive. And look for a new Madiba opening in Harlem.
Luckily, our City offers us a rainbow palate…one that I guarantee doesn’t disappoint.
Video produced by Thomas Peisel