SA’s spicy rainbow cuisine is lighting up the international restaurant scene. Johannesburg-based Nando’s led the way in 1992 and its flame-grilled chicken is now eaten in over 1 000 Nando’s outlets in 30 countries. On a smaller international scale are barbecue chains Spurs, Steers and the Meat Co.
But expat owner-chefs around the world are giving diners more than just flame-grilled burgers and ribs. “South African cuisine isn’t only about food,” writes Kobus Botha in an email from Paris, where he’s been running his restaurant, My Food, for eight years. “The French like our whole concept – the generosity, conviviality and exchanges – as much as they like our boerewors, chakalaka (which is a spicy South African version of their ratatouille) and the sour and salty-sweet taste of our bobotie.”
Across the Atlantic in Brooklyn, New York, the USA’s first South African restaurant was opened in 1999 by an expat who wanted to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela’s New South Africa. He called it Madiba*. Seventeen years later, Mark Henegan’s patriotic eatery feeds both Africans and Americans and still has a strong connection with the homeland.
The second South African to open a restaurant in the USA was Sanette Groenewald. She called it Karoo, after the semi-arid expanse of land where she grew up, even though it was on a cooler stretch of turf: touristy Cape Cod, north of New York. She warmed her restaurant with the earth colours of her homeland, put in seating for 200 and, in the kitchen, a grinder to make boerewors. “We grind it and mix it – 150 pounds every two weeks,” she says. Her menu’s equally authentic and she points out that bunny chow and monkey gland sauce involve killing neither bunnies nor monkeys.
Peli Peli restaurant, named after the red-hot African bird’s-eye chilli, opened shortly afterwards in America’s fourth-biggest city, Houston. Chef-owner Paul Friedman had worked with Mike Illion in the launch of the highly successful South African restaurant chain, Mike’s Kitchen. In the USA, his unique blend of exotic food and bold, African-style decor so captivated diners that he went on to create a second Peli Peli, larger than the first and more flamboyant.
Sports bars are naturally where South African expats feel most at home, which is why Peter Walker, Robin McLean and Graham Taylor – from Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg respectively – opened the Springbok Bar & Grill in Los Angeles. When a South African rugby team’s playing, the place is jam-packed, the partisan flavour of the crowd as electrifying as the peri-peri on the meat.
Meanwhile, in the UK, Annemarie Groenewald (no relation to Sanette) found a red-brick building on the banks of the Manchester Shipping Canal with super-tankers passing by its windows, and opened Jabula restaurant. She bravely brought in African drummers for entertainment and African wildlife in both her decor and her dishes, along with South African farm food like frikkadelle, potjiekos, vetkoek and malva pudding. The pickier Brits took time to get used to it all, but 12 years down the line, the restaurant buzzes. Its friendly staff will sing to you on your birthday in either English or Afrikaans.
HONG KONG AND KUALA LUMPUR
On the other side of the world, in Hong Kong, there’s an irresistible al fresco South African restaurant aptly named The Stoep on the edge of Lantua Island’s longest beach, Cheung Sha. It’s been there forever, frequented by families who are as fond of its rotisseried lamb and braaied meat platters as they are of its South African owner, whom everyone knows simply as Dolla.
In Kuala Lumpur, the Out of Africa Restaurant & Kudu Bar is also a local institution, a family restaurant with the feel of a bush camp. It’s a favourite among the expat community, as well as the locals.
“Malaysians love their food and are very adventurous when eating out, so our cuisine’s a big hit,” says South African Dave Solomon, who opened the restaurant 20 years ago with his wife Debby, a chef trained at Cape Town’s renowned Silwood Kitchen. “Our No 1 seller is our famous pepper zebu steak pie. We make our own biltong and boerewors, a lamb and beef mixture which is a Karoo recipe, and we keep it halaal.
Of all the South African restaurants abroad, though, probably the most daringly innovative is Lucky Tsotsi’s Shebeen in Sydney, Australia. With a playful Mzansi shack vibe, and Lucky Star and Lion Matches decor, it’s the brainchild of Capetonians Jamie Borruso and Oscar Lenden, whose former Borruso Pizza & Pasta outlets back home are still going strong. Nostalgic migrants can tuck into old favourites like samp and beans or pap and wors, as well as Peppermint Crisp tart, Sparletta Creme Soda and ice cream with Bar One sauce.
Nothing can beat the great taste of home.
[*There has been talk of New York’s Madiba restaurant shutting down for financial reasons, which would be a great pity after 17 years in the running – but Madiba restaurant fans are determine to keep it up and running despite challenges].
This is an edited version of the story by Hilary Prendini Toffoli titled SA’s Migrant Cuisine that first appeared in the January issue of Sawubona magazine, download here for free.