Vetkoek (fat cake!), a South African specialty


My first memory of South Africa comes from high school, when a new boy moved to town and happened to be in my 3rd Period art class. He was talkative, despite not knowing a single soul, and he was from South Africa. We were never friends, but both being art lovers, we hung around the art wing quite a bit, and I got to know that quirky accent quite well.

After hight school Invictus came out, and then Blood DiamondSo by the virtues of Rugby and expensive gems, I was introduced to the basics of the country.

And then I moved to Dar es Salaam. In Dar, there is a huge expat population of South Africans, and as a result there is also a lot of Biltong– thin strips of perfectly dried beef jerky. There’s an equally large amount of boereworst- sausages, but again, a South African version which are often sold in one, long, coiled, poop-like link (it’s my blog, I can say what I want).


So I already knew a lot about the funny South African accent and its jewels- both literally and of the meat/rugby variety. It wasn’t until this visit, my first visit to South Africa, that I came to realize how different, special and unique this country is. It’s a place far removed from any other in the world, starting from their language, their mannerisms, their slang, all the way through to their customs, their traditions, their foodways. Being here is like watching Amsterdam on drugs. It’s a somewhat Western culture that some time ago separated and made a sharp, sharp left turn, and never looked back.

Last Saturday I went to the Pretoria Boeremark, the most famous of farmers’ markets here in town, to get an even deeper understanding of South African food and culture. I thought I’d hit the masses when I arrived at 9am, but my South African guide told me I’d already missed the crowds, who tend to arrive at 6am on the dot.


He pointed out various things, from local crafts, to local honeys and jams, to biltong and boereworst and various cuts of game meat- ostrich, kudu, springbok being the main varieties. I was hungry, and told him I wanted to try something very South African for breakfast. He immediately got a big smile on his face. “Vetkoek,” he said, “vetkoek is my favorite thing, I get it everytime I come here”. And of course, if a local says he gets something everytime, I instantly want to get it too.

As we walked into one of the many corners of the sprawling open market, he explained that vetkoek bascially translates into fat cake. Oh great, I though, I’m going to eat something called fat cake.



He led me to the vetkoek stall, which was manned by a man with an odd combination of silver bowl cut and teeny mustache, and who stood amidst a series of folding tables in the shape of an “L”. In one shallow pan along the back wall, remnants of oil existed where bread had been fried in large batches and subsequently piled into a large rectangular styrofoam bin at an adjacent long table. As the bowl-cut, mustachioed, silver-haired man took orders behind the register, two ladies ran around assembling the fat cakes behind him.

I couldn’t read the menu – Afrikaans is a language I haven’t even attempted to grasp – but my friend was helpful. He read the five-item menu aloud, and ticked off a list of ingredients, which included (but didn’t limi) ground meat, curried meats, bananas, “rainbow sauce”, honey, jelly….This was insane. Curried meats, Honey, Jelly? What’s rainbow sauce? What was going on?

So I did what anyone would do when faced with this dilemma. I asked which was the silver-haired man’s favorite, and ordered that one. One order of curried meat fat cake. The man beamed at me, and I thought for a second I thought maybe there was some miscommunication and I just married his son or something.

Nope, he was just happy I was going to eat a curry fat cake. Perfect.

The woman behind the station sliced open a large, round piece of crusty bread. She spooned a small spoonful of hot minced curried meat, and then a dollop of rainbow sauce on top. All fat cakes came with this mysterious “rainbow sauce”, which I came to learn was a house sauce made from caramelized onions and bananas. BANANAS! I took it, trying to hide my disbelief and a bit of disgust for fear of offending…well, everyone.



Don’t knock it til you try it, folks, because this little fat cake was OUT of this WORLD. The bread was crispy on the outside and softer on the inside, with a little bit of that pleasant chew that we all associate with good bread. It had just a hint of sweetness, which complemented the oh-so-thin layer of savory minced meat spread over it. The real surprise, to me, was that rainbow sauce. The onions and bananas, somehow, don’t ask me how, and it melded together to create a beautifully sweet and savory and floral flavor profile that somehow, really don’t ask me because I have no clue, went with the meat PERFECTLY.


Savory curried meat, caramelized bananas and onion sauce, and a fried round of bread. I’m still in awe.


After finishing about a third of the fat cake I had to tuck it away back in its little paper sleeve to save for later. I can’t imagine eating the whole thing, but then again, I guess it’s called fat cake for a reason. South Africa, you’re crazy, but I really like you.

Adventure Tasks: Peking Gourmet Inn

Before I get started on this amazing place called Dar, I want to revisit a few favorite places from back home – whatever that word means these days. As an aspiring writer, as a versed traveller, and I suppose inherently as an American, I often find the US all too familiar and all too bland in its everyday, and consequently will fall off the blogging wagon – or get on, whatever the one that’s not a good thing. But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – there are just as many thrills and just as much to explore during our everyday lives in the US as there are living in an exotic place. Apparently, it takes being away to realize this, because I sure as hell wasn’t this inspired four months ago. Alas…grass….greener….you know.

peking gourmet-teacup

Looking back, I smile when I think about the places I was able to visit and the new friends I acquired, and as a whole about the entire newness that was living in DC for eight months, all of which, in between these amazing new experiences I’m having, I do find a little bit of time to miss.

I’ve been wanting to write about them for some time, so I suppose now – when I have 20G of internet connection slowly ticking down (will explain that reasoning later), a houseful of ugly furniture and even uglier tile (whyyyyyy kitchen tile, whyyyyyy), and a high sun that shines on me like hell hath fury on my straight black hairs and cluster of Asian freckles, I supposed now is as good a time as any to stay inside under my ceiling fan and A/C and write.

In the nine months of living back in the states, excluding a week here and there when I was home visiting my parents, I could count the number of times I ate Chinese Food. That number was two. A pretty lousy, pretty lonely, pretty sad number of a number, no? I suppose after two years of living in China, all the Diploman and I wanted to do was alternate between tacos al pastor and trips to Sweetgreen….sort of joking, but it did happen more than once where we would have lunch at Sweetgreen and dinner at El Chucho, and the next day have lunch at Sweetgreen and then dinner at El Centro, and the day after that, lunch at Chipotle and then dinner at Sweetgreen.

peking gourmet-menu

When I wasn’t eating gourmet salads and slow roasted marinated pork, I tried to venture out of my bubble. Peking Gourmet Inn was one of these adventures.

Adventure Task Number One: Leave DC, via the freeway, which –holy cow I live in a bubble– is definitely a new adventure in itself. And then you take one of the exits, which spits out into stripmallville, which is precisely Adventure Task Number Two: Balk in Awe at Stripmalls. In case you’re wondering, these stripmalls look the same as they do in Southern California as they did in the nether-wheres of Virginia and/or Maryland (because to me, the two are still somewhat a blob). Predictably, stores like Vitamin Shoppe (with an “e” thank you very much) and Best Buy and Target and video-rental-stores-slash-adult-video-stores all laid out in perfect little plots.

Finally, after passing about five strip malls that weren’t the one, we found the one strip mall that was the one! Adventure Task Number Three: Arrive at Peking Gourmet Inn.

Walking into the restaurant recalled a mish-mash of every other Chinese restaurant I had ever been to, whether at home in the States or during my two years in China. Middle-aged waiters dressed like penguins, stern-faced and very quick with movements. Knick Knacks of gold and red adorning the walls. Walls covered with framed photographs, of people who were presumeably owners or investors or perhaps just waitstaff, shaking hands and getting chummy with politicians and movie stars – definitely more the former than the latter, we are in DC after all. A matronly hostess, acknowledging our presence but somehow managing to make us feel ignored, belittled, and having to pay her respect just to get a table, even though we did have reservations. Adventure Task Number Four: Get the hostess’ attention!

Because we have a 6pm reservation, we’re one of the first ones to arrive. We are shown our seats through the maze of a restaurant (though all walls of the maze are filled with decor and picture frames) and then given menus the size of the Declaration of Independence. Adventure Task Number Five: Ordering Food from a Giant Menu. Flipping through, I come to a happy realization that I am now in the Virginia suburbs, which might as well have been a mini China in-itself, and can finally feast on great Chinese Food again. Because Chinese Food has a bad rap, it has many many bad imitations, and good Chinese Food is truly something angels could possibly sing about.

peking gourmet-duck

I happily chirp in with my suggestions (Family Style Tofu!! Sauteed Garlic Sprouts!!!) and we agree on a handful of dishes as well as two orders of Peking Duck for the five of us. That’s almost one duck between me and my friend, but who’s counting? After all, at a place like Peking Duck Gourment Inn, you cannot miss the duck, and ordering one just seemed silly.

The duck was brought out and carved tableside, breasts gleaming and oozing with oil each time the expertly-wielded machete made its way into the meat. Skin and Meat were grouped alongside each other on a porcelain dish, with the fat scraped and patted down between carving.

Each dish that came to our table was served to us in a manner as if we were either children incapable of serving ourselves, or else we were high kings in an ancient court. Either way, we were just shy of being spoonfed our first bites. Waiter rolled our first peking duck pancakes for us. They spooned our veggies onto our plates. They poured our tea. Our head waiter would come up to us in between bites, leaning in very closely to ask, “It’s good, yes?”

We would reply, “Mmmmm, yes!”

And he would say, feigning a very convincing surprised, “Thank you!”

This went on throughout the entire dinner, after every dish was brought out. Adventure Task Number Six: Stuff yourself silly.

peking gourmet-meal


DC Dining Round Up, December 2012

It’s not December anymore. Heck, we’re already a week deep into 2013, but somehow I’ve still got my mind stuck in 2012. For the New Year (which I’m reluctantly shlepping into) I’ve got lots of intentions – to write, to network, to share, to open myself to new opportunities and new experiences. So to mark my fourth full month of living in the District and to follow these intentions with some action, I’ve compiled a second list of places to check out around DC.

DC’s dining scene certainly has a few holes to be filled, and to more adventurous and seasoned big-city (read: snobby) diners, the ‘scene’ here may be a bit disappointing at first. But as I learn more and more about the folks in the industry here and the new ideas that are coming forward, I’m willing to vouch for a good, solid future in DC dining.

The six places I’ve listed below are definitely some favorites I’ve frequented in the past months, and will continue to frequent this coming year. In an effort to curb my tendency for extreme wordiness, I’ve kept recommendations more concise. Hit me up if you want to know exactly what I thought about each, you know I’m happy to spill my guts.

Blind Dog Cafe

Go here, buzz up on some coffee and some stellar baked goods, and pound out some work on your laptop

Blind Dog Croissant If I’m not at Kafe Bohem like I mentioned in October, you can find me at Blind Dog. The food is better and the coffee a bit stronger (although, no free refills, boo), although the lack of good seating and tables wreak havoc on my back. What keeps me returning, in addition to fast free wifi and quiet work time, is the BEST croissant I’ve had yet in DC. Plus they have amazing chocolate chip cookies – this coming from a girl who isn’t a big fan of chocolate chip cookies. Of course, i try not to get both the croissant and the cookie on the same day.

Best Chocolate Chip Cookie
944 Florida Avenue Northwest, Washington DC 20001
(202) 290-2865
Monday-Friday 7:30am-4:00pm, Saturday & Sunday 8:00am-4:00pm 


Go here with friends for a great Friday night dinner. and also if you are obsessed with Top Chef and still watch every episode of every season

“Is he the guy who make the pepperoni sauce?” This question was asked by DiploMan, who impressed me with his sneaky Top Chef dish-recognition skills. Why yes, that would be Mike Isabella, of Top Chef season 7 fame. We arrived for a 10pm reservation and were instructed to wait at the bar a bit longer – which turned into half an hour (and a weird stare-down from the hostess). But that’s fine, my friends and I were perfectly satiated with a round of drinks and a complimentary charcuterie board as soon as we arrived to our table. Frankly, the wait was very soon forgotten with an amazing round of small plates and a pretty damn tasty pizza (blistering hot out of the pizza oven).
6th Street Northwest, Washington DC 20001


Go here to get crunk with a group of folks. Spider bowls and ramen bowls all around!!

Spider BowlIt’s a dark bar, with one wall crammed floor to ceiling with rum and rum-friendly mixers. That’s good. But it gets better. Hogo has also got food – the kind of really good, really creative, un-advertised menu that one might find in dark LES corners and far-flung Brooklyn outposts. The bar is located in a seedy strip between Chinatown and the Convention Center (no man’s land!!) and doesn’t even have a proper marquee, but frankly it all adds to the allure of the bar. Decor is also pretty minimal, aside from the huge pieces of graffiti artwork done by a local artist – rumor is the work was commissioned to compensate for a bar tab from neighboring sister bar, the Passenger.

The kitchen is open as long as the bar is, making it the premier late-night dining option in DC, if you ask me (also, I think the only place in DC right now where you can get Spam Musubi). The menu will change constantly alongside the roster of rotating chefs Hogo has planned.
1017 7th Sreet Northwest, Washington DC 20001

Tuesday-Thursday 5:00pm-1:30am, Saturday & Sunday 5:00pm-2:30am


Pearl Dive Oyster Palace

Go here on a nice date, because you’ll love each other so much more after 6 courses of oysters.

Pearl Dive _Washingtonian The DiploMan doesn’t even like seafood all that much, and we both ate our faces off at this fine establishment. There’s usually an absurd wait for the restaurant, but that fact is assuaged by the fact that you can walk upstairs and enjoy a couple drinks at an equally rowdy and busy bar, BlackJack (complete with a bocce ball room in the back). One of my favorite meals so far in DC.
1612 14th Street Northwest  Washington, DC 20009
(202) 319-1612
Friday-Sunday 11:00am-3:00pm
 (BRUNCH), Monday- Sunday 5:00pm- 10:00pm

Thai X’ing

Go here if you want an authentic taste of Southeast Asian cooking, a rarity in any city in the states. Plus, it’s cheap!

Thai Xing Fish dish For homestyle, straightforward Thai cooking, Thai X’ing lives up to the hype. The underground restaurant, once operating from a tiny, basement-level apartment, has now spread to all three floors of the LeDroit neighborhood row house. There’s a team comprised of forceful Thai ladies, adept Mexican servers, and one funny bumbling, fumbling 50-year old Australian host. The menu is pre-set each day, and is coursed out in appetizers, mains, and desserts. Food is plenty and tasty, and beers – assuming you’ve brought your own – can be as flowing as you’d like. Dinners on Friday and Saturday are $40 per person.

Also, newsflash.
515 Florida Ave, NW, Washington DC 20001
Tuesday-Sunday 5:30pm-10:00pm

Union Market (no-brainer)

Go here with your parents, your in-laws, your friends, your toddlers, or your co-workers. It’s good for anyone because it’s got options for everyone!!

Union Market Exterior+flickr

Soooo I work here, which means I happen to eat here a lot too. But, this mention has nothing to do with a bit of nepotism, and everything to do with the fact that this place is awesome, filling a much-needed whole in DC’s dining and market scene. A few standouts, aside from Righteous Cheese of course, happen to be Border Springs Lamb, Neopol Smokery, and Trickling Springs Creamery. But there’s also a kick-ass home accessories boutique, a spice shop, Rappahanock Oyster bar, and a knife-sharpening joint – where I still have not yet mustered up the courage to overcome the embarrassment of bringing in $20 JR Henkel knives I bought at Target to get sharpened.

Bagel Sandwich

And yes, that’s bacon in my bagel sandwich.
@unionmarketdc, #UMnow
1309 5th Street Northeast, Washington DC 20002


Image Credits: Graffiato pizza: Rey Lopez c/o Eater DC // Pearl Dive restaurant: David Phillipich c/o Washingtonian Magazine // Thai X’ing dish: Thai X’ing web page // Union Market: flickr //

Upcoming to-do list: Maple, WTF, Two Amy’s, Bar Pilar, Komi, El Chucho. Let’s see if I get around to any of those.

Living in the Moment; Being Thankful on Thanksgiving

DC Chinatown

A photo of DC’s Chinatown, the most contrived Chinatown I’ve seen


We’ve been back since June, and it feels like FOREVER ago that we were in China. Oh, how quickly we forget! My bank account, on the other hand, serves as a daily reminder that we’re back home.

It’s been interesting getting back into the swing of things back here in the states. Some expats joke about effects of counter-culture shock. When you’re so used to living abroad that things at home – the simplest things – make you feel like a fish out of water. For some people who have lived abroad for decades, it can be the simplest things: speaking English on a daily basis, not being the important American at the bar, or even street-crossing etiquette (ie; Americans’ adherence to it vs. South Asia’s disregard of it). Though it’s a bit on par with the whole “First World Problem” joke that’s been circling the web lately, there’s certainly some truth to it.

Beautiful Washington Monument

Something’s been on my mind a lot lately, and it’s spurred getting notes from friends abroad about their travels to exotic places. I find myself, suddenly, wishing I still lived in China, wishing I could be on vacation this Thanksgiving, and wishing I lived in a cheaper place so I could save more money to do more things.

This has been the hardest thing about coming back to the states from living abroad, when every second is a new moment and every location is exotic. It’s been hard to blog even, when there’s not a wrinkled street vendor selling steamed buns on every corner, or weird dried goods at the market. It’s been hard to find topics to write about when my days consist of writing at the computer and then working at the cheese shop and then watching a movie with the DiploMan.

But whoa, reality check – I shouldn’t need to be an expat living abroad to feel special or important or go on cool adventures or experience new things. We don’t need to pack up and travel and share photos of exotic beaches in order for our friends and family to think we’re important, or for me to feel accomplished for that matter. We don’t need to have mind-altering experiences in order to be creative, and we don’t have to fight a third culture in order to live in the moment and have new experiences.

Fall in DC

DC on a beautiful Fall day


And thus with a newfound spark, I’m off to New Orleans today to spend a lovely five days exploring lots of new things. First a Thanksgiving Feast tonight with some lovely ladies and gents, all whom love food. We’ve got lots planned for the menu, including a classic New Orleans-style oyster and cornbread stuffing. This weekend, we’ve got some city seein’ to do plus reservations at Root and Cochon.

I’m thankful for these new experiences at home, and thankful that I’ve got friends to share them with. Happy Thanksgiving, wherever you are!!

Jimmy Cantler’s

Cantler's Sign

Okay okay. I did go to Annapolis and enjoy the lovely downtown area. But the real reason for the short trip out to Annapolis? Jimmy Cantler’s Roadside Inn. Basically, crabs.

We arrived around 7pm on a Sunday evening, and were notified of a 90 minute wait. 90 minutes waiting for a small restaurant – any restaurant – in the District would cause outrage. But here at Cantler’s, where it was clear folks came from far and wide to have a crack at the crabs, it was just another normal night. And frankly, better than the two-hour estimated wait that I later overheard.

table of crabs

The inside of the restaurant was pretty much what I though a crab restaurant in Maryland should look: slightly dank, musty from the smell of crabs, long wooden tables covered with butcher paper and piles of clam carcasses. The loud buzz of conversation was only interrupted by the pounding of mallets, and the occasional bouts of laughter from groups of friends. A huge bar on the left half of the restaurant provided a rowdy dine-at-the-bar option, with other patrons hovering behind bar stools calling out for beers while they waited.

Blue Crabs

The weather outside was pleasant, so we managed to get in our orders for several cans of beer at the bar, and then joined the other crowds of people in the parking lot and down along the waterfront, where we watched a Cantler’s employee sorting fresh caught blue crabs (so small compared to their Pacific brethren!) in what I call the ‘crab staging area’.

watching crab picking

Our little group of four found a nice, removed spot on the dock, where we watched boats coming in and out for gas and for crabs. We made it through two cans of Fat Tire, each, and a sunset in the hour+ wait.

Fat Tire on the Dock

When we were finally seated, we were starving. The menu was fairly extensive, with more options I would have guessed. There was quite a varied seafood selection, including crab cakes, mussels, king crab legs, steamers, shrimp, fried fish, and more. There were also non-seafood options for people who were crazy enough to go to a crab joint and not like crab or fish.

Crabs were sold according to size, and depending on the catch that day. Our server informed us of what was available: Large, and Extra Large. By the 1/2 dozen, dozen, and bushel. I’m going to blame our hunger and over-eagerness to eat crabs, but for our party of four we ordered an appetizer of blackened rockfish bites over coleslaw, followed by a dozen (half Large, half Extra Large) Old Bay seasoned steamed crabs, along with hush puppies and four ears of steamed corn. Oh, and a rack of ribs.

seasoned steamed crabs

crabs dumped on our table

When our crabs arrived on a large red cafeteria tray, they were promptly dumped onto our butcher paper-lined table. Free for all! Equipped with a mallet and pick each, what followed was nothing short of ugly. Kind of reminiscent of another one of my recent crustacean-involved gastronomic endeavors….

cracking open crabs

I’m used to eating crabs from the Pacific, which have much harder shells, are larger, and thus have more meat that is slightly tougher. These crabs were small in comparison, but the meat that I managed to extract was tender, and oh-so-flaky! The problem is the shells were doused with what must have been a metric ton of Old Bay seasoning. By the end of my third crab, I could barely feel my lips, as they were numb from an excess of salt.

We did it, though.

the aftermath

the last mallet standing

We finished off the dozen crabs, and only had half a rack of ribs left over. Not bad for a party of four, of which two persons supposedly don’t really like crab. I’ll admit, I did try to over-compensate. Also, my hands, which were covered in crab juice, rib sauce, and seasoning, made it rather difficult to take a decent photo.

Here is where we indulged our bellies:

Jimmy Cantler’s Riverside Inn
458 Forest Beach Road, Annapolis, Maryland 21409
Phone: 410-757-1311