If you have read my earlier Blank Slate article, you would know that I am a travel bug. I was not born with a silver spoon, but have made it my life’s mission to make travel work. For me, travel is about absorbing the culture and lifestyle of a drastically new habitat compared to mine. Of course, food forms a core aspect of the above. I have been told that I am open to new ideas, to a fault. My reputation was put to a strenuous test last autumn, on our family trip to South Africa. This is my account of my tryst with South Africa’s exotic meat based cuisine, of the ‘gastronomic’ experiments that I survived in the beautiful Cape Town.
Many Influences that is South African cuisine
The indigenous population of South Africa comprises of the Bantu, Khoi and San ethnicities. Each of these groups has a distinct influence on the food of the country. The country has been colonized multiple times. Each set of European immigrants, and their Asian slaves, have enriched the cuisine with their respective flavours. Consequently, South African cuisine is diverse, with Dutch, German, French, Italian, Greek, British, Indian and Malay influences.
I had just four days in Cape Town. To optimize cost of the trip, we were eating home-cooked breakfast and dinner at our rented apartment. This left me with only four opportunities to explore local food. And, I wanted that to be centered around indigenous cookery, rather than the colonial influences.
The Trepid Meat Extravaganza
Our first lunch was at the Cableway café on top of the picturesque Table Mountain. This is a modern-day, multi-cuisine café, that was far removed from my need for ‘authentic SA’ experience. But, I found a way out.
For South Africans, meat is, almost always, the hero of the meal. A large segment of the population were hunter-gatherers, which meant that meat – both roasted and dried – became a common gastronomic star.
I am a non-vegetarian Indian, with a relatively high tolerance for the exotic. So, I decided to go for the meat platter. My husband and kids ‘chickened out’, literally, and gulped down roasted chicken for lunch. I had in front of me a large platter of the most ‘out-there’ meat samples I had never tasted – Ostrich, Zebra and Antelope grills.
I tried the Ostrich first. The Ostrich was akin to beef, just drier and blander. While I kept making a dent at the pile with salad and pilaf, I cannot say that it was a delight. I went to the Antelope next. My taste buds had kind of numbed out by then, but the Antelope’s sticky sweetness was a mild relief. The meat had a very rough texture though, kind of like chewing meaty sandpaper.
I had kept the Zebra for the last, owing largely to my deference for the animal. An Indian’s tryst with a zebra is usually limited to zoo visits, or National Geographic surfing. To see the mighty animal reduced to pedestrian meat on my plate was a little hard to process. But, I hadn’t come halfway round the world to back out of an experience. So, in went my fork.
The Zebra was a pleasant surprise. It was much closer to the familiar red meat taste, had a unique flavour, and was exquisitely cooked. Despite the complete non-cooperation from the family, I had survived, in retrospect even enjoyed, my tryst with SA’s exotic meats.
Biltong, Pap, and more
The next day, I took a soft break from my resolve to be wild. We stopped at a seafood joint and chowed down fried Calamari, fried prawns and Fish-n-chips. Our third morning was spent strolling at the Victoria Waterfront. The view was spectacular, to say the least.
All we needed was a unique food experience to make it an indelible memory. I knew I had to taste Biltong, the famous dried meat of South Africa. We found a perfect opportunity. We stumbled on to a Biltong joint shortly, and bought a few grams for tasting.
Biltong is kind of like beef jerky, but there are subtle differences. The meat is cut much thicker for Biltong than for jerky (which are super thin strips). It is not smoked like the jerky, and can sometimes be fatty and chewy, unlike the dry jerky. Unfortunately, it did nothing to excite my sensitive Indian taste palate.
We perched ourselves next at a place called ‘Africa’s Best’. Here we sampled the famous Pap, or mieliepap. Pap is the staple for the Bantu people, and is essentially maize porridge. It is usually accompanied by a savoury dish, typically a meat stew. We ordered our sticky, steamed Pap, with a side of Chicken stew (to be safe), and fried greens. It was a very filling, tasty and wholesome experience.
Along Came Mr. Crocodile
On our last day at Cape Town, we went for the Roben Island tour. At the end of the tour, we revisited the Market on the Wharf. This time I was determined to have a unique South Africa experience. I zeroed in on Crocodile meat. The meat was pink, chewy, and not very well done. It was firm, and tasted like fishy chicken – the texture being mid-way between the two. I can only say that I would not pay to have the experience again.
We topped it off with a brilliant sea-food lunch of Thai fish cakes, sautéed Octopus, mussels tossed in white sauce, cocktail fish fry with yellow rice, tartar sauce and lemon.
I continued my food experiments in Krugger, a post that I keep for another day. My first brush with South Africa’s love for the exotic meat was, to put it mildly, bittersweet. However, I strongly believe that experiencing a culture, and empathizing with it, is impossible without sampling the food. Therefore, I feel a deeper connect with South Africa today, than I would have felt without sharing their meat love. Cheers to that!