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.
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.