Chowing bunnies in New York
The United States homeland security department frowns on biltong. Smuggling in a stick to settle the longings of one’s expat friends is illegal and unwise. No meat products, even canned, are permitted. Neither are cowhide drums unless they go through a special sterilisation process. To some this seems an excessive overreaction. Aren’t humans, in a sense, meat products themselves? And presumably South African farmers are not selling anthrax-ridden dried beef to their customers.
Fortunately, those craving a biltong fix can find it easily in New York. Although not a hub for expats in the way Toronto, Perth, Auckland, San Diego and London are, the Big Apple has acquired several South African restaurants, most recently Jack’s Wife Freda. South African-Israeli owned, it is not particularly Seffrican — nothing closer than peri-peri chicken and prego rolls.
For a while, expats gathered at the perplexingly named (for Americans) Xai Xai wine bar, which opened in 2007 near Times Square. Formerly a laundromat called Ding-Dong, it was converted into a cosy African-themed space with impressive wooden pillars supporting a high ceiling. Biltong is a staple here and “South African tapas”, such as “boerewors in a blanket” (sausage wrapped in dough), accompanies Western Cape wines.
The same team — Tanya Hira, Brett Curtin and Reshma Hira — also opened Braai, a restaurant 100m away.
When I popped in there in August, it was looking rather sad and uninviting. New Yorkers told me it had taken a turn for the worse, and South Africans living in the city said the food was nowadays a far cry from home.
There was much more enthusiasm for the well-established Madiba, across the river in Brooklyn. Many tourists never leave Manhattan, which is a great pity. Situated in a brown brick building, opposite Fort Greene, in a charming historical neighbourhood, Mark Henegan’s restaurant does a brisk but relaxed trade.
There are sidewalk tables and inside are two rooms: a bar-cum-café and the main dining room. The decor, with funky township accents, plenty of images of Nelson Mandela, oxblood floor, Coke-bottle chandelier, cowhide drums in the window, and Mrs Balls chutney on the shelf, must surely be a refuge for those feeling the occasional pang of homesickness — the loo is wallpapered with ballot papers from the 1994 election.
African music plays in the background, not only isicathamiya and jazz redolent of eGoli, but also groups like King Sunny Adé.
The waiter who served me was black South African.
Water is bottled on site and served in jars, township-style. Wine prices are reasonable as far as New York City goes; from $30 for a bottle of Indaba Chenin to $90 for a Meerlust Rubicon.
Under the heading “Improve your personality” is a cocktail list with lively names: Sowetan sangria, Black Diamond, Tsotsitini and Jou Ma Se Mojito.
The menu has a host of the nation’s favourite foods: boerewors for breakfast, samies, slap chips, chakalaka, Durban samoosas and bunny chows (yes, served in a loaf of white bread) and kerrievis for lunch. You can also have oxtail potjie with uputhu and umngqushu stambu.
I suddenly had a craving for samp and beans, something I hardly ever eat now — not since my student days digging in at the Iyethu Coffee Pot workers’ café in Grahamstown. This turned out to be a satisfying choice.
Not so good, actually uneatable and disastrous, was the amagwinya or vetkoek, which resembled nothing we have at home. This rock-hard article of mysterious origin was like a deep-fried stale burger roll someone had sat on. It was removed and deleted from the bill.
More sophisticated options include ostrich carpaccio.
There are a few puzzles too. The Bushmans’ vegetable platter had not only corn on the cob and gourds (American for squashes, I presume) but also shiitake mushrooms and asparagus far removed from the Kalahari.
The “Cape Town-style seafood soup” was pleasant — creamy, with hints of orange and ginger.
The menu has a special note to explain monkey gland sauce to alarmed diners: “a coloqiually [sic] named sauce made from apricots, red wine, tomato and raisins”.
However, having tried “South African” restaurants in London and other parts of the world, my conclusion is that South African food doesn’t travel well.
That is not to say Madiba isn’t worth the visit. It is a fun place. But home-cooking is best done at home.
Where to eat South African in New York: Braai, 329 W51 St, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. Tel: 212 315 3315: Madiba, 195 Dekalb Avenue, Brooklyn. Tel: 718 855 9190; Xai Xai, 365 W51 St, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. Tel: 212 541 9241