South Africa


This post originally appeared in the Bloomington Herald Times on November 2, 2005

Africa is huge. Of course, I knew that before we left, but there is nothing like flying over it from top to bottom to make real what a map can only suggest.

It took us more than 10 hours from the time we left Europe, flying out over the blue Mediterraneanin the late morning sunshine. Then there were long hours when we saw nothing but buff-colored desert, then more hours of dense vegetation as dusk fell.

When we finally started our descent into the sparkling lights of Cape  Town,  it was no stretch at all to believe that we really were on the other side of the world. 

Naturally, we arrived hungry. But it was midnight in a city everyone warned us not to explore alone at night, so we played it safe with room service – not a great introduction to an exotic new cuisine we were eager to try.

We’d been well primed for South African food before we even left Bloomington, with with a mouth-watering introduction to the cuisine at the home of Trevor and Charlene Brown. Trevor, a native of Cape Town who has lived in the U.S. for many years, made bobotie for us, a curried ground meat casserole with a custardy topping that some people call the national dish of South Africa. Served with yellow rice and condiments galore – coconut, chopped vegetables, chutneys and nuts – we couldn’t wait for more.

And Cape Town was the place to find it. The city is the proverbial melting pot – a dynamic hodgepodge of people from all over Africa, Asia and Europe – and the food reflects that diversity. The cuisine that is most closely associated with Cape Town (and of which bobotie is an example) comes from the Cape Malays, also known as the Cape Muslims –  people who were brought from Indonesia and Malaysia as slaves by the Dutch to work in their African colonies.

Cape Malay curries are fantastic – strikingly spicy but not terribly hot. They are sweeter than Indian curry, more fragrant and fruity in some ways, but use many of the same spices, including cumin, turmeric, cardamom, ginger, fennel, aniseed, tamarind and chili peppers.

The day after our arrival, with curry on our minds, we took a long leisurely tour of the Cape Penninsula, heading briefly into wine country and circling out again to explore the Cape of Good Hope.

Standing in the wind and sea spray, looking at the roiling ocean, brought to life an almost-forgotten schoolbook lesson: Vasco da Gama, combating the elements to find a new route for the spice trade. For lunch that day we reveled in the very spices he sought – a Cape Malay prawn  curry for me, and a curried stew chock full of fish for my husband.


We had to leave Cape Town all too soon, to spend the rest of our trip in the confines of a conference center outside Pretoria. The conference center’s chief attraction was the fact that it doubled as a game preserve, which meant that we went to sleep listening to the roaring and grumbling of insomniac lions. Alas, it also meant conference center food – steam-tabled and bland. No more curries for us.

At least, not then. As soon as we got home I cracked the cookbooks I’d bought on the trip and set to cooking. I tried vegetable curry, and curried yellow split peas, and something mysteriously called smoored brinjals and carrots (which turns out to be a lovely sweet curried eggplant dish). With yellow rice and various salads and condiments, all of it was wonderful – exotic but homey, a perfect memory of the beautiful and exhilarating city we met so briefly.

Vegetable Curry

Recipe adapted from Faldela Williamns, The Cape Malay Cookboook  (Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 1993.) 

1/2 cup vegetable oil
6 small potatoes, peeled
2 tablespoons butter
2 large onions, sliced thin
2 tomatoes, chopped or pureed
2 teaspoons crushed ginger
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
2 whole green chilies
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
3-4 pounds mixed vegetables, including cabbage, carrots, peas, and cauliflower
Salt to taste

Heat oil in a deep saucepan and fry whole potatoes over high heat until golden – about 5 minutes. Drain potatoes and set aside.

Add butter to oil in saucepan and braise onions until golden, 5-10 minutes.

Add tomatoes, ginger, garlic and chilies and simmer, covered, over medium heat for 15 minutes.

Add spices and simmer, covered, until well blended, about 10 minutes.

Cut carrots into thin strips, shred cabbage and break cauliflower into florets. Add to curry with peas and potatoes. Simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt. Serve hot with rice.

Serves 8

Recipe adapted from Faldela Williamns, The Cape Malay Cookbook (Cape Town: Struik Publishers, 1993.)

Almond Yellow Rice

2 1/2 cups water
1 cup uncooked long grain rice
2 pieces cinnamon stick
4 cardamom seeds
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup blanched almonds
1/2 cup raisins
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons butter

Bring water to boil. Add rice, cinnamon, cardamom pods, turmeric and salt and cook, uncovered, until quite soft, about 20 minutes. Drain in a colander and rinse with cold water.

Return rice to saucepan with almonds, raisins, and sugar and dot with butter. Steam, covered, over medium heat for about 10 minutes, turning lightly every now and then.

Serves 6

Tomato and Onion Salad

1 large onion, very thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups hot water
2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
1 teaspoon crushed dried red chilies
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons white vinegar

Sprinkle onion with salt, and rub it in well. Cover onions with hot water and leave to drain in a colander. Squeeze out excess moisture. Combine onion with remaining ingredients.

Serves 4-6.

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