Eating in Cape Town

cape townDEAR GABRIELLE,

This morning I woke to yet another glorious, sunny, 80-degree day. After two years in South Africa I still have to pinch myself every time I run alongside the ocean (conveniently located at the end of my block) or gaze up at Table Mountain, which presides over the city and is home to more botanical species than are found in all of the UK. I know it’s a half a world away from Brooklyn, but you’ve got to come visit. If not for my company–at least for the food.

You’ll love sundowners—that’s the local version of happy hour, with a glass of local sauvignon blanc enjoyed outdoors around sunset, overlooking the ocean. Here we end the day with a quick picnic of watermelon, sandy goat cheese sandwiches, some bubbly and a quick dip on Clifton Second Beach, followed by tender ostrich steak. So much for my vegetarianism—I gave up at the smell of my first braai. Braai is the Afrikaans term for barbecue, but don’t think hot dogs and hamburgers. This ingrained part of the culture is a day-long event that begins early with cold beer, followed by hours waiting for the charcoal to burn down. Each guest brings meat, usually lamb chops, boerwors (thick sausage), sirloin, pork, fish, or ostrich.

Unusual game meat is common here: kudu, wildebeest, springbok, zebra, even crocodile. A few months ago I went on a safari in Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape, home to more than 400 African elephants. We didn’t see any elephants until the very end of our drive.Though there was no shortage of endearing warthogs, scampering around the bush with the little tufts of white fur on their chops. Back in Cape Town we dashed to a birthday braai. As we dug in my friend explained we were eating… warthog. Hard to swallow, but I have to admit, the little bugger tasted good.

I’ve had a few occasions to participate in traditional slaughter ceremonies.In November my friend Lebo had a different kind of Thanksgiving, a ritual to welcome her ancestors to her new house.She’d lived there a few years but had never held the ceremony and believed this was the source of much of her bad luck. The idea is that your ancestors can’t find you when you move, so you have to let them know where you go, and tell the previous resident’s family to leave. The family slaughtered a sheep at the house before sunrise and spilled some of its blood in the doorway to each room. The umqombothi (traditional beer) had been brewing for several days; anyone who drinks it will share in the good luck. I kneeled to drink the smokey umqombothi out of a big tin can, but nearly gagged, and soon settled on some familiar Smirnoff and soda. The party was quite serious at first, with the men outside and the women indoors, and everyone shy to talk to the white woman. Bit by bit I nuzzled in with some of the women and before you knew it they were explaining everything as we filled up on sheep stew and got drunk on the homebrew. Soon we were all dancing.

I still desperately miss the Park Slope Food Co-op, but I’ve found the next best thing. Each week my flatmate Eva and I place an order on the Ethical Co-op Website for a box of local organic fruit and veg. Now, as our summer winds down (I’m still not used to the reversed seasons) the harvest includes excellent melons, tomatoes, spinach, turnips, beetroot, basil and butternut squash. Sometimes the biodynamic yogurt turns sour really quickly or the figs arrive a bit mashed, but all in all I’m thrilled.

The fruit here is abundant and like nothing I experienced back home—succulent mangoes, hanepoot grapes, persimmons that taste like brown sugar, and the juiciest lemons and oranges. But I’m baffled by the lack of limes. I’ve canvassed the city only to find small overpriced Swazi limes. But the thirty-cent avocados more than make up for it. Last spring I lived almost solely on avo on toast.

When I make the mistake of thinking in dollars instead of rand, it’s hard not to overindulge. One of my favorite treats is the lunch special at Tank, a hip, outdoor restaurant, six huge oysters and a glass of chardonnay cost $8. When I first made this discovery, I went for lunch five days straight.

And when you come we’ll visit KwaZulu-Natal. Durban boasts the largest Indian population outside Bombay, so the curries are mighty fine. (Or you can just head to Madiba‘s in Fort Greene without traveling across three continents.) Afterward we’ll head up the dolphin coast to the Amatikulu Prawn Shack where we can swim in the warm Indian ocean between the seven-course lunch of prawns, curries, and capinirhas on the deck.

When your pack your bags, and when you do, I beg you—stop by the Co-op for me—there are so many things I miss from Brooklyn! I’d do anything for Annie’s Green Goddess dressing, Ghirardelli chocolate chips, pure maple syrup, Very Very Teriyaki sauce and a tube of Tom’s of Maine toothpaste. If only there were a magical suitcase that could transport a slice of Sicilian from that pizza place on Driggs, a sip of Naidre’s houseblend with Edensoy, all of Sahadi’s, and the karaoke drag queen at Hope & Anchor. In the meantime, I’ll keep pining away for Latinos and their food, for platanos, morir sonandos and Spanish chicken. And my two-year search for a decent margarita in this country, will sadly continue for a third year.

Come visit!

Miss you loads,
XX LAURA

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