Monkey gland sauce and Durban samoosas. Boerwors, babotie and koeksisters.
Catherine Marshall finds her childhood has been written into the menu at Madiba’s in Brooklyn.
It’s not easy, compressing the taste of an entire country into just one meal. But I’m in New York fleetingly and I’ve just one evening in which to reacquaint myself with the cuisine of my South African homeland here at Madiba Restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.
There is more to this story than meets the eye: the man who founded this restaurant went to school with me in Benoni, on Johannesburg’s East Rand, in the 1970s and 80s. He’s come a long way from the mine dumps and innocence of his youth, with a funky establishment on DeKalb Avenue and a cocktail menu that promises to improve one’s personality. There are delightful in-jokes embedded in the drinks’ names: the Jo’burg Joller, a party animal from Johannesburg, Jou Ma Se Mojito, a clever play on a very rude Afrikaans phrase, the Kwaito, African township music, and Shebeen Queen, which denotes traditional township bars. But the Sofia Town – whose name alludes to the suburb from which black families were banished in the 1950s – calls to me, for mixed in with the Absolut Citron and fresh lime is guava juice, a grainy pink nectar with which my childhood was infused.
My American friend and dining companion, Mary, is patient as I exchange complicit banter with our waiter. His name is Jemaine Diedricks and he is fresh from Cape Town; I’m relishing both his accent and the news he brings from home. His nationality also qualifies him to make definitive pronouncements on this menu: how can we possibly choose from among its nostalgia-laced dishes, I ask him? Is the monkey gland sauce – made with apricots, red wine, tomato and raisins – really as good as they make it back home? Could the boerewors (farmer’s sausage) possibly be as robust, the koeksisters as crispy and syrup-drenched as the originals? We must have the Durban samoosas, Jemaine says, and the malva pudding, for it is far superior to the koeksisters.
I pore over the menu, and find that my childhood has been written into its text: there is bobotie here, a Cape Malay dish made with spicy meat and egg custard; there is potjie kos – “pot food” – slow-cooked in an African pot over a wood fire; there are slap chips, the vinegar-doused, floppy French fries which were always best bought in a packet from the grimy corner store; there is bunny chow, loaves of hollowed-out bread filled with stew (or slap chips, or crisps) which my brother and his friends would eat when they were young and growing and ravenously hungry.
It’s a fraught choice, but finally I settle on pap and vleis – quite literally, porridge and meat. The pap is a stiff concoction made from white maize meal, but this traditional South African staple can also be eaten with milk and sugar for breakfast. The vleis, in this instance, comprises buttery-soft lamb chops, and the dish is finished with spicy tomato and onion-based chakalaka sauce.
Mary, of course, is at a loss with this menu, but she’s a good sport, sharing a starter plate of Durban samoosas with me and ordering peri-peri flavoured chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy made from a South African pantry staple, bisto.
We drink Indaba chardonnay from the Western Cape with its hints of honey, citrus and vanilla, and water poured into little glass Mason jars; the meal is served in the type of enamel dish that servants were made to eat from in the days of apartheid. Other poignant touches transport one back to a time and a place far removed from this leafy neighbourhood of brownstones and New York sensibilities: the concrete floors are polished red just like the stoeps (patios) of old houses and the floors of servants’ quarters back home; the walls are papered with newsprint and record covers depicting Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela and Mzikayifani Buthelezi; the windowsills and ceilings are strung out with enamelware and artworks made from scrap in South African townships; Africa is represented in a ceiling-high painting on a wall, with a youthful Nelson Mandela – affectionately known as Madiba – smiling down upon the diners. Even the restrooms resemble township lean-tos with their low-slung corrugated iron ceilings and Ndebele murals. I might have just stepped off a dusty Soweto street and into a shebeen.
It turns out that Jemaine is right, for the samoosas are almost as good as those made in the homes of Indian South Africans and sold in shopping centre parking lots, and the Cape Dutch-inspired malva pudding outshines the koeksisters; it is soft and caramelised and comforting with its infusion of apricot jam and its sprig of bright mint. And it tastes so much like home. TTW
Catherine Marshall travelled and dined at her own expense. More at madibarestaurant.com. Photos © Catherine Marshall.