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AT THE TIP OF AFRICA -- RAINBOW CUISINE

Biltong. Melk Tart. Ostrich Carpaccio. Boboti. Boerwars. I tasted all of them when I visited South Africa last month and I have this to say:

No wonder they want to call it "Rainbow Cuisine."

This is a brand new term, though. The country's food people officially announced the birth of Rainbow Cuisine only last month in the United Nations dining rooms in New York City when five chefs presented their specialties.

The derivation of the name comes from Archbishop Desmond Tutu's 1994 description of South Africans after the country's first democratic elections. He called South Africans "the Rainbow People of God."

And the gastronomes picked right up on it.

"I have often been asked what is authentic South Africa cuisine and my response is simply that we have a melting pot of cultures, traditions and peoples that make up an interesting rainbow heritage in terms of traditional dishes," says William Gallagher, president of the South African Chef's Association and president-elect of the World Chef's Association.

Gallagher goes on to talk about "the influences of a myriad of spices, textures, tastes and cooking techniques favored by diverse European traditions like English, Dutch and French as well as Cape Malay and other Asian traditions." And that's not even mentioning the food of the black populations.

No wonder that up to now, the nation has not been identified with a single style of food.

Well, it's an interesting thing to do, all right. To make up a cuisine out of, as it were, whole cloth. It might be looked at as a conscious act of nation building.

And certainly it's a potent tourist marketing ploy -- a symbol that South Africa is ready to pursue peaceful pursuits after its turbulent past.

But whatever it is, it's a challenge. To codify myriad gastronomic customs in any country is difficult. What would you say if someone asked you what comprised typical American cuisine, for example?.

And South Africa is much more diverse than the United States -- for starters its population speaks at least 12 languages.

I don't know that you'll be seeing Rainbow Cuisine at your corner restaurant in the very near future -- even cosmopolitan Manhattan doesn't boast a South African restaurant.

But I do want to report here that eating in that country was a glorious experience. From lavish buffets in fancy hotels to a meal in a cave overlooking the ocean to a quick snack in a former black township, everything was delicious.

And that's not even mentioning the fine -- and finely priced -- wine. If there is one factor that seemed to cut across all the ethnic differences it is the brai -- rhymes with "rye" -- and it is really a barbecue. Cooking and eating outdoors under what the late writer Laurens van der Post called the "crackling stars of the African night sky" seems to cut across all ethnic lines.

We ate Potjiekos under the Southern Cross there -- these stews are cooked in three-legged iron kettles over a campfire. And grilled Kingclip (a firm white fleshed fish). And ostrich -- South African housewives often cook the economically priced neck as a sort of pot roast. And Springbok. And Wart Hog. And other game.

We enjoyed Boboties -- think of a chopped meat casseroles with custard-like toppings -- almost like Moussaka. This is a dish contributed by the Cape Malays.

And there was Biltong (jerky) and Boerwars (sausages) and Umpokgoqo Amazi, a traditional African dish of mealie (corn) meal porridge topped with yogurt. And desserts like Koeksisters (overwhelmingly sweet syrup laden doughnuts) and Melk Tart (a sort of custard pie) contributed by the Dutch.

Probably by the time these dishes get to our shores -- if they ever get here -- they will have changed so much that no South African will recognize them.

As major cuisines spread worldwide, my good friend, trend-watcher Art Siemering has pointed out, they tend to come in the American-style "improved" versions. Just think of pizza.

These ethnic dishes are backed by the same unstoppable power to popularize them that has made our own movies and music so universal, Siemering says. Not necessarily a bad thing.

I will tell you, though, that with ethnic food so big in the United States now -- ethnic restaurants now account for almost one third of all table service dining establishments here, capturing 26 percent of the market -- their presence here is not unlikely.

So get ready. And pass the Biltong, please.

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