An American dining in South Africa might not realize at first that he or she is away from home. Most of the food is that familiar. But just a little digging turns up some exotic differences.
South African culinary pioneer C. Louis Leipoldt, a physician and Afrikaans-language poet who wrote many books on the subject, credited his knowledge to the old "colored" woman who brought the spices of her ancestral Malaya to the Cape Town kitchen of his parents. He remembers especially the "free, almost heroic use of spices and aromatic flavorings" -- chilies, ginger, cumin, coriander, garlic, tamarind, tumeric, black pepper, mace, nutmeg, saffron, cinnamon, dried coconut.
That flavorful history is strongly evoked in a modern South African dish in which the Malay spices are sweet instead of hot, called bobotie. Curry powder, tumeric, cumin, fennel and coriander flavor minced white fish and shrimp, with an egg custard on top.
In today's Johannesburg, a restaurant called Leipoldt's, named for the pioneer, serves up an astonishing array of his favorite recipes in an incredible, 65-item buffet line. A meal there is a literal culinary safari. Consider:
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Curried hake pate, lentils in butter and onion, fava beans with white-hot curry, sugared pumpkin croquettes, lentils with sweet onion and curry. Then venison croquettes, deep, dark, redolent of cumin. Chewy crocodile tail in butter and curry. Springbok in gooseberry sauce, tender, mild, finely textured. Boervoers, the firm South African pork sausage in rich tomato sauce. Ostrich in lychee sauce, chewy, leafy, deep, firm. Cape buffalo: dark, rich, big-grained, tooth-resistant, like tearing a haunch off a dinosaur as it crashes by. Tripe that is buttery, fat, fork-tender.
From Leipoldt's book, Cape Cookery (W.J. Flesch & Co., $12), you learn that even this is city slicker fare. In his early-1900s youth, Leipoldt went with hunters into the veldt and learned to cook game on the spot. Game that, even in 1947 when his book was written, could no longer legally be shot:
* Breast of flamingo: Simmered in red wine, cloves, onions and scented verbena, "it is, of all bird flesh, perhaps the most tender, tasty and delicate."
* Hippopotamus: Pot roasted with spices and herbs, but only the breast and back muscles -- even then too greasy for most.
* Fried locusts: Shallow-fried in salt and pepper after the wings, heads and legs have been nipped off leaving only the thorax and abdomen, "they taste not unlike white fish that, somehow, has been stuffed with buttered toast."
* Lion steaks: Fried, after marinating in wine and vinegar.
* Python: Roasted after its fat is first parboiled away, it is "tender, savory and like that of a well-fed pig."
Giraffe is coarse and stringy except for its succulent tongue; wildebeest is tough and tasteless throughout; zebra is so fine it wants only frying in its own, deep-yellow fat; elephant foot roasted under ashes is bland but filling.
Camp soup? It takes days, cooked in a truly mammoth pot. It is meant for when your hunting party has run out of tastier fare and is threatened with starvation.
Ingredients? You don't want to know.