[Free stuff by Wilfrid: November 2, 2011]
How thoughtful of South African Tourism to make lunch plans for me this week. A chance to eat through some flavors of that complex nation, prepared by chef Wamukelwe Zuma at the De Gustibus cooking school in Macy's.
All good gear, with wine pairings, and chef Wamu, on his first visit to New York, was a cordial guide.
As became evident from the discussion (if not from prior knowledge), the diversity of South Africa implies a diversity of cuisines, from the roast and smoked meats of outdoor cooking, through the plain boiled food of Wamu's family heritage, to the spices introduced from the east - by indentured Indian slaves brought to work the sugar cane fields, to Malay workers imported by the wine-growing Huguenots. Quite a tapestry. Although chef Wamu brought some childhood memories like "fatty cake" to the menu, his professional interest is inclined towards the Indian and Malay fusion element of South African cuisine.
Fabulously colorful "bunny chow" was the appetizer. Its origins lie in curries made by cooks in restaurants where they weren't allowed to dine; stuffed in bread and smuggled out the back door. The chicken here was marinated overnight in yoghurt, and cooked with cilantro, cumin and plenty of fresh tomato. The slick slice of bread was richly fried.
The dish's other component was a chewy hemisphere of "fatty cake," a dough snack here topped with mango achar pickle.
Bobotie, a semi-sweet ground beef dish, popular in the Afrikaans community, seems to have had Malay roots, although it reminded me of a South American dish of ground meat mixed with fruit and topped with a light custard I ate years ago. The name? If I find it, I'll tell you.
The beef is mildly spiced, topped with pieces of bread soaked with milk, which essentially melt into the dish during cooking, and finished with a layer of custard and a watercress garnish.
Chef Wamu likes to add raisins, which is a good idea. I could eat a lot of this. It came with a straightforward vegetable curry (a traditional braai accompaniment, known as chakala for its Mumbai origins), mainly cabbage and carrot, a fine balance to the main dish's complexity.
We finished up with koeksisters, a dish I last ate at Braai Restaurant in midtown west.
The sisters are made by braiding strands of sweet dough which is then baked and lightly soaked in syrup. It was presented here with a cool crème anglaise for dipping, marinated orange segments, fresh raspberry and an unusual pairing:
This was Amarula, a cream liqueur made in South Africa. It derives from the marula, a tart fruit related by the mango but looking and tasting a bit more like a kumquat.
The pity for me is that this food is hard to find in New York. The Tolani restaurants offer South African wines, but international menus with just a few South African touches. Braai's focus is grilled meats, but it does have bobotie and koeksisters.
This is hardly South African Tourism's concern, as what they want you to do is simply go there.