Cape Town – a culinary snapshot

by Jeanne on January 10, 2010

in South Africa, Travel - South Africa

V&AWeb

This post was originally written for a wonderful series on my dear friend Johanna's blog The Passionate Cook where each post put the culiary spotlight on a different world city.  Johanna sent a list of questions; I provided the answers below. 

I am republishing it here as part of a new series starting today called Sundays in South Africa.  As the entire football-conscious world knows by now, the FIFA World Cup 2010 will be taking place for the first time ever on African soil – in my home country of South Africa!  I can't tell you how proud this makes me, or how good it is to see that all the stadiums that the naysayers said would never be built on time standing tall and proud and beautiful.  The country is, of course, anticipating a huge surge in visitors and I know that many people will see the cup as a reason to visit a country they have long been meaning to visit, and use the tournament as a jumping-off point for visiting other, non-football South African destinations. With this in mind, as well as my backlog of posts about my South African trips, I will be trying to post a review of somewhere South African, or a South African recipe, every Sunday in the run-up to the tournament.  I can't pretend it is going to be a comprehensive guide to South Africa – but it will be enough to give you some ideas!

What's your country's cuisine in a nutshell?

We have a real Rainbow cuisine because of our eventful history! Obviously, there is the indigenous African cuisine which tends to be rib-sticking wholesome food using local ingredients like wild spinach (marogo) and maize meal. Then there is the influence of the Dutch settlers who brought their cuisine with them in the 1600s. The other thing that the Dutch brought were Indonesian slaves and they had a huge impact on the early cuisine at the Cape. Gently spiced Indonesian dishes can easily be seen as the roots of favourites such as and . There is definitely also a frontiersman food tradition created when Afrikaner settlers started travelling into the country’s interior in ox wagons – this is where we get our love for cooking things over open fires like , and preserving fruit and meat by drying. The English settlers also left their mark with traditional roasts and desserts like blancmange; the French Huguenots who settled outside Cape Town kept Gallic culinary traditions alive there; and the Indians who were brought by the English to work on the sugar cane fields in KwaZulu Natal have left an spicy mark with their fabulous curries. So we really are a foodie melting pot! But in a nutshell I’d say that our cuisine is driven by our unique local ingredients.

What's the current food trend?

Locally sourced ingredients have hit SA in a big way – it’s no longer seen as cool to serve imported berries in the dead of winter, but rather something local and seasonal. Artisanal products are also on the rise, with a welcome surge in the number of artisanal bakeries and cheese makers, even in smaller towns. Sushi still reigns supreme as the acid test for any Cape Town seafood restaurant. Grazing menus consisting of multiple small dishes have recently made their appearance.

What local food is not to be missed?

Fresh seafood is a must in Cape Town – crayfish (Cape rock lobster), snoek, local oysters – you name it. If you are a carnivore, biltong (air-dried spiced beef) is another one, as is ostrich steak and our wonderful game meats like sprinkbok and kudu. The unique Cape Malay cuisine of the Bo-Kaap is a gently-spiced treat – make sure you try bobotie, pickled fish and denningvleis. And nobody should leave South Africa without trying a koeksuster (a plaited, deep-fried pastry dipped in syrup).

Which local food might I want to steer clear of no matter how much locals insist?

If somebody offers you a “smiley” and you are of a sensitive disposition, just say no. It’s a whole sheep’s head boiled and then barbecued till the lips pull back and reveal the teeth – hence the name. Also, the harvesting of abalone (known locally as perlemoen) has been completely banned as a result of rampant poaching – so if somebody offers you some, it's illegal. Just say no!

What are the food oddities in your country?

Well, that depends on your definition of odd! Some people might find it odd to cut beef fillets into long strips, brine them, salt them and then hang them in a hot dry place for a while before gnawing on them! We, on the other hand, call it biltong. I would personally class the eating of mopane worms as being a little odd. Oh, and we add apricot jam or a packet of brown onion soup powder to almost every conceivable recipe!

What to bring home from my trip?

If there weren’t so many damn restrictions on carrying meat across borders, I would definitely say biltong (spiced, air-dried beef) or droewors (dry, spiced sausage) as they will last the longest so you can make your memories go far. But they can also lead to a hefty fine if customs officials find them in your luggage (the sniffer dogs of the US Customs are particularly fond of them, I hear!). Products that are unique to South Africa and less likely to excite Customs include our excellent fruit leathers, tins of granadilla (passionfruit) pulp, some spicy atchar and Mrs Ball’s chutney, cape Malay curry spice mixes, melon & ginger preserve, green figs in syrup, tinned waterblommetjies, Peppermint Crisp chocolates (for their crazy, Kryptonite-coloured filling and super-minty taste) or rooibos chai tea. For your inner gourmet, you could also get some of our excellent local olive oil (like Morgenster), wine vinegar, verjuice (South Africa is one of the few countries that make it), or the Cape Herb & Spice Company’s excellent range of flavoured fleur de sel (wasabi is my favourite).

BokaapWeb

Which cuisine features most strongly in your city?

Cape Town’s most unique cuisine is definitely Cape Malay cuisine. This sweetly spiced style of cooking originated from the predominantly Malaysian and Indonesian slaves brought to the country by the Dutch East India Company in the 1600s. The cuisine features complex spiced dishes like bobotie, denningvleis and sosaties and often includes fruit in meat dishes. The place to go for this is definitely the Bokaap, where you can eat like a local at Biesmiellah. Another emerging cuisine is a sort of Afro-fusion, using unique local ingredients to give a twist to classic European dishes

Which are your favourite gourmet addresses?

Neighbourhoods Market (Cape town’s original gourmet market, featuring over 100 specialty traders, fine-food purveyors, organic merchants, artisan goods, gourmet products, local farmers, seasonal items, plants & herbs, fresh produce, boutique wine estates, micro-breweries)

Giovanni’s Deliworld (a proper Italian deli in the heart of Green Point selling everything from oils, spice blends and Parma ham to ready-made dinners including fresh pasta, trays of seared carpaccio with olive oil and Parmesan shavings, or melanzane romeo (fried aubergine slices with pecorino and parsley).

Atlas Trading Company  (Bokaap spice traders that have been in business for half a century and will sell you anything from fresh turmeric to specially mixed masalas. Plus the spices will fragrance your clothes for hours after you’ve left the store!)

Melissa’s (various shops throughout Cape Town selling beautifully packaged hand-made foods and prepared meals free from preservatives and artificial colourings)

What's your city's attitude to food in general?

Capetonians see eating out as their birthright, and it shows in the number and variety of excellent restaurants available. Sitting at a pavement table in summer with a plate and a glass of something, watching the world go by is a favourite pastime. With the influx of tourists into the city, the standard of food is generally very high and many of the country’s top fine dining restaurants (like Aubergine and La Colombe) are in Cape Town.

Which area is best for food – where to browse for restaurants while on the go?

The easy option would be the V&A Waterfront – it’s a huge development in the middle of Cape Town’s working harbour where you can stroll and check out the menus of dozens of restaurants before making your choice. These could range from cheap & cheerful fish and chip joints like Quay Four, to the German beerhall at Paulaner, to excellent seafood at Baia, to Afro-fusion at Emily’s, to fine dining at oneWaterfront. Other areas that features a quirky mix of restaurants are Oranjezicht, or the CBD, particularly around Church/Kerk, Long and Keerom streets.

What's the biggest flop and best avoided?

Generally, I’d say to steer clear of downmarket chains like McDonalds or generic hotel restaurants which will largely serve modern European cuisine. Live a little! Try and search out independent restaurants serving local cuisine (like the excellent Biesmillah), or doing interesting things with local ingredients, like ostrich in green Thai curry sauce, springbok carpaccio or fynbos bavarois.

WinelandsWeb

What are the big names in the restaurant scene?

Outside Cape Town itself in the winelands, Le Quartier Francais, La Colombe and Reuben’s are all consistently in the top 10 restaurants in the country. In the city, Aubergine, Jardine, 5 Flies, Ginja, 95 Keerom and the Savoy Cabbage all have an excellent name. The latest hot openings (as of April 2009) include Carne, Nobu and Gordon’ Ramsay’s Maze. For a sumptuous high tea, there is only one place: the iconic Mount Nelson Hotel.

What are the most reliable restaurant guides for your area?

The Eat Out restaurant guide is bulky but provides an excellent and comprehensive review of the country’s restaurants (they also have a website). Many restaurants in the winelands are comprehensively reviewed in John Platter’s South African Wine Guide. There are also plenty of reliable online resources like restaurants and dining out.

What to be aware of when dining out?

There are very few places where anything more than smart casual would be required – a collared shirt is probably as formal as you’d need. Reservations are advised, particularly over weekends or high season (late November to Easter). Tipping is expected, and 10% is a good starting point. Although pickpocketing or bag snatching in restaurants is not rife, when dining out at night be sure to park in well-lit areas or get a taxi to drop you off and pick you up at the door, particularly if you are a tourist and unfamiliar with the area.  As with any destination, don't flash your cash unnecessarily.

Contact details of places mentioned: 

Neighbourhoods Market
The Old Biscuit Mill
373-375 Albert Road
Woodstock, Cape Town
Tel. 084 414 4554

Melissa’s
Various stores – see website for addresses

Giovanni’s Deliworld
103 Main Road
Green Point, Cape Town
Tel: 021 434 6893

Atlas Trading Company
94 Wale Street
Cape Town
Tel: 021 423 4361

Aubergine
39 Barnet Street
Gardens, Cape Town
Tel. 021 465 4909

Jardine
185 Bree Street (cnr of Bloem)
Cape Town
Tel. 021 424 5640

La Colombe
Constantia Uitsig Wine Estate
Constantia, Cape Town
Tel. 021 794 2390

Quay Four
V&A Waterfront
Cape Town
Tel. 021 419 2008

Paulaner Braeuhaus & Restaurant
Shop 18/19, Clock Tower Precinct
V&A Waterfront
Cape Town
Tel. 021 418 9999

Baia
6262 Victoria Wharf
V&A Waterfront
Cape Town
Tel. 021 421 0935 / 36 / 37

Emily’s
Suite 202, The Clock Tower
V&A Waterfront
Cape Town
Tel. 021 421 1133

Biesmiellah
Icon House
Lower Loop Street, Foreshore
Cape Town
Tel. 021 423 0850

The Tasting Room @ Le Quartier Francais
16 Huguenot Road
Franschhoek
Tel. 021 876 2151

Reuben’s
19 Huguenot Road
Franschoek
Tel. 021 876 3772

5 Flies
14-16 Keerom Street
Cape Town
Tel. 021 424 4442

Ginja
70 New Church Street
(entry via Buitengracht Str)
Cape Town
Tel. 083 578 7502

95 Keerom
95 Keerom Street
Gardens
Cape Town
Tel.  021 422 0765

The Savoy Cabbage
101 Hout Street
Cape Town
Tel. 021 424 2626

Carne
70 Keerom Street
Cape Town
Tel. 021 424 3460

Maze
One&Only Resort, Dock Road
V&A Waterfront
Cape Town
Tel. 021 431 5222

Nobu
One&Only Resort, Dock Road
V&A Waterfront
Cape Town
Tel. 021 431 5111

Mount Nelson
76 Orange Street
Cape Town
Tel. 021 483 1948

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

bellini valli January 11, 2010 at 9:53 am

If ever I make it to SA one day you are a wealth of knowledge Jeanne. It makes me want to pack my bags.

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Marisa January 11, 2010 at 10:31 am

Great post! Looking forward to the rest of the Sundays!

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meeta January 11, 2010 at 10:34 am

Glad when I do visit SA you will be my tour guide and take me to all the great places. This post has gotten me excited and craving for sun, sand, sea and warmth!!

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Barbara January 11, 2010 at 10:01 pm

I found your blog several months ago while searching for South African recipes. Our daughter was adopted from SA (she’s Zulu), and once a year we have a special feast that includes foods from the birth countries of our children. Anyway, I’ve been following your blog with interest, not just for the recipes and lovely pictures, but for the greater insight into South Africa. Such a fascinating place! I love when you post recipes for “traditional” SA dishes, and if you ever post anything that’s particularly Zulu I will love you forever!:) Thanks for all the hard work you put into making this blog so enjoyable.

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nina January 12, 2010 at 6:15 am

Very informative post Jeanne!!! You are making me want to hit the streets today and visit a few of these places!!!

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Firefly January 12, 2010 at 6:41 am

Absolutely awesome post. Now I’m hungry. Bobotie, biltong, koeksisters, etc. We have some amazing foods in this beautiful country of ours. Oh yes, you forgot West Coast bokkoms (dried fish).

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Wendy T January 12, 2010 at 7:33 pm

What an excellent post Jeanne! LOL at the peppermint crisp, someone gave me one the other day after returning from SA and it certainly brings back memories of home! Fortunately sniffer dogs are not used here (yet) so biltong is always on the wishlist!!! Enjoy the rest of the week. Hope it is getting a bit warmer!!

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Faith Kramer January 12, 2010 at 11:07 pm

Great series. My husband and sons are going to South Africa for the World Cup so I’ll be looking for ideas for them.
There really hasn’t been a lot in the travel and food media about this, so appreciate the info.

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Jeanne @ Cooksister January 13, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Val – if you go to SA I will personally put together a foodie itinerary for you!!
Marisa – thanks! I have loads of places I want to write about…
Meeta – noooooo, you said the S-word!! SUN! Can’t even remember what that is :( And oh yes – the 2 Mrs Harkets will definitely have to tour SA together :)
Barbara – thanks so much for your lovely comment, and I love the idea of the feast for your children. I will post a Zulu recipe for you with pleasure – keep watching my Sundays in South Africa column :)
Nina – that’s high praise, coming from you – a Cape Town resident! There are some true gems in there & I hope to visit some in March!
Firefly – thanks! We *do* have some amazing foods, and I think we often overlook them. Sometimes you have to look through a foreigner’s eyes to see what is unique about us! I did consider bokkems (dried, salted fish), but they tend to provoke very strong reactions in people – rather like smileys! But yes, they are a true South African product…
Wendy – lucky you! They are so paranoid here in the UK, they think any meat that we bring in from Africa is OBVIOUSLY some sort of weird bushmeat… Also, I discovered that I’m not really suppoed to bring Anchovette in either. Bugger! Peppermint Crisps are something else, aren’t they :) Re. warming up – hahaha, was sknoing again this morning.
Faith – glad to be of service and do keep an eye on the rest of the series! If you have any secific questions about South Africa, please feel free to leave a comment or drop me an e-mail and I’ll be glad to answer them :)

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elra January 15, 2010 at 5:16 am

Biltong!!! I miss Biltong! I am in love at the first bite when my husband introduce me when we were in CT. Great post Jeanne.

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