MANILA, Philippines – Being a mixed bag of cuisines – from Malaysian and Indian to French, Dutch and German – South African food is quite hard to define; it also doesn’t help that there aren’t many places in the Philippines that serve South African fare.
While the ingredients used to prepare South African dishes are quite familiar, the resulting tastes are very much different. Here’s an example: a small grilled cake made from biltong (or cured meat similar to beef jerky) and pap (porridge of maize meal), topped with peppered goat’s cheese and served with a citrus salad and fig compote.
Served as an appetizer during the launch of Makati Shangri-La’s first South African food festival, the simple dish was bursting with different flavors. Its taste changes with every bite – there’s the sweetness from the citrus and the compote, the funkyness of the goat’s cheese, and the crumbly, tasty cake.
Grilled pap and biltong cake with peppered goat's cheese, petit citrus salad and fig compote. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com
“That’s why it’s called rainbow cuisine,” said Golden Whitehead, Makati Shangri-La’s executive assistant manager for food and beverage, as he noted the diversity of South African cuisine.
Whitehead, who came from the Eastern Cape, helped bring three top chefs from South Africa for Makati Shangri-La’s newest food festival, which aims to get Filipinos acquainted with the cuisine of the multi-ethnic nation.
In an interview with food writers early this week, Whitehead shared that the Northern Cape is known for its curries, since it’s occupied mostly by Indonesians and Malaysians; while the Western Cape prides itself for its seafood, particularly lobsters.
“Where I’m from, the Eastern Cape, is a dish like lasagna but it gets a white sauce on top with bay leaf,” he said.
Similarities with Filipino food
While he admitted that some Filipinos may find South African food a bit exotic at first, Whitehead said there are some similarities between the two cuisines, such as the heavy use of offal and corn.
“We have a dish composed of sheep’s head, tongue, stomach and all that,” he said. “You cook it in a cauldron for about eight hours so you get all the curry and the spices, then you layer it. It smells very bad, but it’s fantastic.”
“And the pap, that’s our staple. For 16 years, that was my morning meal. I’d cook it in different ways,” he added, referring to the porridge made of corn.
Another South African corn dish called ssam, he said, is similar to the Philippines’ binatog.
And like Filipinos, South Africans are meat lovers, according to Whitehead. “We have a restaurant that sells 50 types of meat. Elephant, giraffe, hippopotamus, everything… Lamb is very popular. Beef, very popular. Chicken, yes. But pork, not so much.”
“We can’t call it healthy because we eat meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, six days a week. We’re very heavy on meat,” he added.
Tweaked for Filipino palate
Realizing that some of their dishes may not be readily embraced by Filipinos, South African Ambassador Agnes Nyamande-Pitso said the guest chefs at the week-long food festival are open to tweaking some items to suit the local palate.
For instance, the chefs added more sugar to the pickled vegetables on top of the beef medallions, which were part of the main course, to make them “more enjoyable to Filipinos.”
Chicken with apricot mousse and grilled beef fillet medallion. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com
“It’s really very sour off the bat, but I don’t think you would enjoy it . So we just put some sugar,” one of the chefs explained.
There was also the toned-down version of an African prawn bisque, which had more cream to lessen the sting of harissa, a popular pepper paste in the “rainbow” country.
North African prawn bisque with harissa whipped cream. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com
“We try to remember the Filipino taste,” said Nyamande-Pitso, who has sampled a handful of Filipino dishes such as adobo and kare-kare. “Your taste buds like something sweet, I know that.”
Nyamande-Pitso added that rather than being purists, they would like to use food to connect with different nations and cultures.
“We accustomed it to your taste buds,” she said. “The food, whatever it’s there, [we want it] to be modified according to your taste buds so it can be appreciated more.”
Of sweets and ‘drunk’ elephants
For dessert, the South African chefs served what they called a “Trio from the Cape,” which included Cape Malay Koeksisters (a type of doughnut with ginger, anise, cardamom, cinnamon and coconut flakes), Cape Brandy Pudding with a raisin relish, and Amarula-flavored Cheesecake with berry compote and crushed almonds.
Trio from the Cape. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com
Amarula is a cream liqueur from South Africa made with the fruit of the marula tree. According to Whitehead, it is normal for elephants in their country to get “drunk” because the animals enjoy eating the marula fruit.
“The amarula tree, the fruit is very high. But then when it gets ripe, it falls down. When it lies in the sun, it ferments. And the elephants love eating it. Then, they stagger,” he said.
“It’s very close to Baileys,” added Whitehead, referring to Baileys Irish Cream, a popular Irish whiskey and cream-based liqueur. “So instead of that, we use amarula. We put amarula on cheesecake, everything.”
All in all, the meal was a very enjoyable experience, with all of us learning something new after trying each dish, like we got a crash course of sorts. And speaking of courses, the South African guest chefs will hold an exclusive cooking class at the Makati Shangri-La on Thursday, April 24, and will personally guide each student on how to prepare dishes from their country.
Throughout the week, a variety of South African dishes will be offered in Makati Shangri-La’s dining establishments, from the Lobby Lounge to Red and Circles Event Café.
“We just want Filipinos to learn to appreciate what we have in South Africa. Food is a universal thing,” Nyamande-Pitso said.
“You can Filipinize our cuisine… Add a Filipino twist. Just eat [our cuisine] and be merry,” she ended.