The South African melting pot.
American diners are more familiar with the wines of South Africa than the region’s cuisine. Top restaurant wine lists feature the well-regarded white Sauvignon Blancs and unique Pinotage reds produced from native grapes. But the country’s foods and flavors are slowly making their mark on the American dining scene. That’s no surprise to Rochelle Schätzl, head of the global product development team for Nando’s International, a fast-casual concept originating in South Africa and poised to launch in the United States. The cuisine’s cross-cultural mix, bold flavors and healthy profile are in step with Americans’ culinary cravings.
The legacy of the Dutch Boers and their Malay slaves, coupled with the Portuguese influence from Angola on the west coast and Mozambique on the east and the indigenous Africans, has resulted in an extremely varied cuisine, says Schätzl. This is perhaps most evident in Nando’s signature menu item—flame-grilled Peri-Peri Chicken. The marinade is based on the African bird’s eye chili—a fiery local pepper—combined with lemon juice, oil and garlic. Legend has it that the Portuguese couldn’t pronounce “pili pili,” the pepper’s original African name, and ended up with peri peri, a.k.a. piri piri.
Peri-Peri Shrimp is one of the most popular items on the menu at Jiko, an African-themed restaurant in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. But chef de cuisine Brian Piasecki also favors the peppadew—a tiny pickled pepper that’s sweetly mellow with a spicy finish. This unique chili is “an up-andcoming ingredient,” Piasecki believes; he’s using it in an Artichoke and Peppadew Flatbread with goat cheese and arugula and in a vinaigrette for a tomato-red onion salad served with Arctic char.
Spices are also integral to South African cooking. “Durban, a city in South Africa near Swaziland, was one of the first stops on the spice route from India,” Piasecki notes. “Spices such as cumin, cinnamon, coriander and sumac became key components of the cuisine.” At Jiko, he toasts his spices and layers them with fresh ingredients to achieve authenticity. He also incorporates several native vegetables—pumpkin, sweet potatoes, okra and chickpeas—into the menu, as well as grains like maize and black barley. An appetizer of Maize and Sweet Potato “Tamales” combine herbed maize pudding, truffled sweet potato mash and goat cheese in a corn husk.
“South Africa has the largest population of goat farms in the world,” Piasecki claims, “so I use goat cheeses and goat butter in many applications. We’re only a few years away from seeing goat meat on the menu.” The cheeses come from both American and African sources. “Several of the South African wineries are starting goat farms and I’m working on a program to incorporate their cheeses.”
Most of the restaurant’s ingredients, including the characteristic spices and even peppadew peppers, can be sourced from broadliners like Sysco and U.S. Foodservice; meats, seafood and produce come from fresh suppliers. But some of the more unusual ingredients have to be procured from specialty purveyors or imported directly. Disney’s purchasing department works with both South African exporters and Sid Wainer, a specialty supplier out of Boston, to source items like black barley, garbanzo peas and amarula (also known as elephant fruit).
While Jiko’s wine pairing dinners (the restaurant’s wine list is completely South African) and fine-dining flourishes offer an upscale approach to South African cuisine, other restaurants are going the casual route. Madiba in Brooklyn, New York, and Miami, Florida, is steeped in the tradition of “Shebeen,” the informal dining halls of South African townships. The menu features Bobotie, Durban Bunny Chow (curry served in a bread bowl with assorted sambals) and Isopha (Cape Black Mussel Soup). Springbok Bar & Grill in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, is a sports bar with great “braais” (South African barbecued meats), lamb on the spit and pub fare. Along with American standards like potato skins and wings, Springbok serves Peri-Peri Chicken Livers, Biltong Bowls, Samosas and a Boerewors Roll. Patrons can watch rugby, cricket, football or baseball matched with food and drink appropriate to the sport.
South African dining glossary
Biltong. Long pieces of salted, dried meat, similar to jerky
Bobotie. Cape specialty of minced beef baked in curry sauce with an egg custard topping; raisins and almonds are usually added
Boerewors. Spiced beef sausage (pictured)
Bredie. Long-simmering meat stew, typically served in a three-legged cast-iron pot
Breyani. Rice and lentil stew made with vegetables, chicken, mutton or seafood and served with boiled egg and sambals
Chakalaka. A spicy vegetable relish usually served with bread, curries, pap or samp
Chippolata. Tangerine and coconut custard
Pap. A thick porridge made from maize
Sambals. Condiments served with curries for a cooling contrast; can include chutneys, sauces, pickles, etc.
Sosalies. Grilled skewers of chicken, lamb or other meat either soaked in a spicy apricot or tamarind marinade and/or threaded with apricots