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.

Layover >> my 24 Hours in Amsterdam

The other day, I ventured to give some advice on how to travel.

Maybe I should stick to giving advice about cheese


Because with my endorsement to travel ‘with no expectations’, there are, of course, downfalls to what I’m calling the path of least expectations. In the instance of going to Amsterdam, the downfall manifested itself on our flight across the Atlantic, when somewhere over London, I realized I probably should have at least researched directions, maybe transportation options, to our hotel. The Type-A spreadsheet maker inside me was horrified. A case of the iPhone generation, truly.  I’d like to think I kept my panic covered under some sort of Poker face, but I don’t think the DiploMan was convinced. Luckily on the walk to customs I discovered Schipol Airport welcomes weary travellers with free wifi, which was the first indication that yes, this Amsterdam trip was a good choice. Thus I was able to do a quick search of our hotel name (yes, I’m telling you I wasn’t very prepared this time) while waiting in the Customs line. Crisis averted.

So, there we were, with our 6 pieces of luggage in a Mercedes Benz taxi (reason #bajillion why Amsterdam was awesome), driving into Amsterdam in the early hours of the misty morning. Amsterdam, you are cold in June!!


Not much happens at 8am in Amsterdam. Lots of people riding bikes to work and to school, but otherwise it’s a sleepy little town. We grabbed breakfast at one of the only open joints in the middle of town, and after formulating a game plan, we headed back to our hotel to check in early and take a nap (totally part of the game plan).


Fast forward to 3pm. Yes, that’s right, that’s not a typo. We ended up sleeping until 3pm. We are bad tourists, you say? On the contrary, mon amie. Why would we struggle to keep our tired eyes and even more jet lagged bodies awake, hitting up the sights of Amsterdam like Zombies. I know myself, I doubt I would remember what I saw. And whereas our jet lag was not COMPLETELY worn off when we awoke (admittedly, to an alarm I had set), it had served to adjust us off the Pacific Standard Time we had originally arrived on.


 Oh Amsterdam, Why do you do it ALL so good?!

With maps in tow – paper for me and digital for the Diploman (our personal preferences) – we hit the city. We decided to explore en fooot rather than on wheels. One, because that would allow us to poke our heads into the dozens of shops that lined the street as we fancied. Two, because frankly the bike traffic in Amsterdam is a bit intimidating to one who just wants to wander. I imagined a collision or two or a couple of flying Dutchmen (huh?) in my future, had we opted for bikes.

We walked around the spiral streets of the city, curling and weaving through neighborhoods.


During our almost exactly 24 hours in Amsterdam, we indeed experienced flowers, art, architecture, design, food, smoke shops, coffee shops, and “coffee shops”. While we may not have immersed ourselves in any one or another (except for food, but you know us), I’m glad we were able to get an overview of beautiful Amsterdam.


I’m already looking forward to our next layover in town.

**So, The other day, I shared some photos from my camera. These here little diddies are from my iPhone.The flower market was a dud – skip it if you’re visiting in town – but the shops and bars that littered the city were all great to pop in and out of. The red light district was COMPLETELY fascinating, and the houses, architecture, and layout of the city was just so cool.
Where we ate, that you should go too!: 
L’invite Le Restaurant
Bloemgracht 47
1016 KD Amsterdam
+31 20 570 20 10
Open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday from 18:00, Lunch Tuesday to Sunday from 12:00.
We arrived on foot, which aside from bicycles, seems to be a fine way to get there.

Breakfast Time in Zhangjiajie

On our way to an early morning hike in Zhangjiajie National Park, we passed by a string of local restaurants, open to their clientele for a hearty breakfast.

The local breakfast seemed to be based around noodles, boiled fresh to order and paired with your selection from a variety of spicy broths. Other options included steamed dumplings (饺子;jiaozi) or simple rice porridge with toppings such as salted peanuts, marinated cucumbers, and preserved vegetables.

Not a bad way to start the day, if you ask me. (Although, those spicy broths could be potentially dangerous)

Hangin’ with Mr. Local

A long day ends perfectly with sitting outside a local restaurant and enjoying a good local beer.

The minority group of the region call themselves tu jia (土家), which roughly translates into earth familiy. Looking at the menu, the locals prefer meat-based foods with lots of preserved and wild mountain vegetables. Also lots of spice, and as our (mediocre) dinner proved that night, very salty.

My favorite part of any trip is the chance to get chummy with the locals. Which is why it’s nice to travel with the DiploMan, who is just so good at making friends with them. I suppose it’s his “Arab” good looks or perhaps his “exceptional business skills” or his “amazing Chinese”, all of which were presumed that evening.

Don’t think we were getting wasted over the cluster of beers on the table, either- each of those light and tasty local beers were 2.5% ABV (alcohol by volume) per bottle.

What we’ve all been waiting for

Visit the original version of this article over at Honest Cooking

I wish I could say we explored all of Mexico City by foot in the one week we were there. I wish I could say I ate at hotspots like Pujol or Izote and visited amazing markets like this one, or went into the home of an abuela and learned to make mole. sigh.

I wish I could have attended an amazing wedding.

Oh, wait, I did. (I guess I can only wish for so much, right?)

Despite staying in a posh, hotel-ridden neighborhood, the DiploMan and I were, of course, most drawn to the least decorated strip of Polanco’s center which housed a fruit market and neighboring hole-in-the-wall taquerias. Rather “underdeveloped” in comparison to its fellow restaurants and bars in the area. And lest I forget to mention yet again, that Coffee Bean down the street.

After recovering from a flu that left me, so frustratingly, without an appetite for the first three days I was in town, I was finally feeling well enough to stomach my pre-ordained craving for tacos. Under a glowing azure overhang, as we approached the rotisserie on the sidewalk that skewered a chunk of al pastor meat, looked past the open griddle and taco counter, I knew we were in the right place when I spotted a small cluster of formica fold-out tables and flimsy plastic school chairs.

I don’t know if it’s living in China that’s changed this perception, but those formica tabletops really did set off some nerve  in my brain, alerting my food memory banks for the potential of a great meal to be had. Though Polanco’s posh hotels, well-dressed women in heels and beautiful architectural gems had quite the appeal, THIS is what had enticed me about Mexico, this is what I had been waiting for since we landed.

When I spotted the takeout tacos in trays waiting to go out to hungry customers and caught a whiff of the spicy meat and fragrant onions, I knew for certain we were in the right place.

Kitchen in the front and seating in the back is a layout often seen in small hole-in-the-wall eateries abroad, where Health Inspection does not reign supreme. It’s a change of pace that is quite welcome in my book, for the displayed kitchen serves as a demo booth for the heart and soul of the menu.

Clearly, the heart and soul of this ‘restaurant’ was tacos. Tacos with chicken, tacos with al pastor, tacos with steak, with cheese, without cheese, so many options for tacos!!! Equipped with a griddle, two chopping stations and an antiquated cash register, the presumed brother and sister duo took orders (her) and cooked tacos (him) with automated frenzy. Many of their customers ate their orders perched on the narrow wooden “bar” across from the griddle, others took their tacos to go, with many a taco quickly disappearing as soon as they stepped onto the street.

A few clientele, mostly off-shift workers from neighboring restaurants and old Mexican men who seemed to be reminiscing of their youth over several bottles of beer each (and us), chose to sit in the rear of the restaurant, at the aforementioned cluster of formica tables.

Posted on the wall were large, bright cardstock that acted as menus, in addition to flimsy laminated and bound menus that were informally distributed to the table. Foregoing what was put in front of us, the DiploMan and I, along with the rest of my family, were mostly drawn to the bright orange display featuring the Orden de Tacos, five tacos of our choosing for $33 pesos (about $2.50USD). With cheese, a modest $53 ($4USD).

A revelation was had when I asked about the Campechanos, a mix of chorizo and steak. Consider my mind blown.

In total, the five of us splurged on five Orden de Tacos along with an order of Birria– all supplemented by the homemade green and red salsas, a bottomless supply of limes, and a large bowl of chopped onion and cilantro.

The tacos arrived at the table, double corn tortillas generously piled with seasoned meat and cheese, one piled atop the other barely accommodated on a regular-sized plate. Our orders of tacos con queso were topped with a griddle-melted pile of Mexican cheese, which was not unlike a less-salty version of Mozzarella. The issue of cheese on tacos, commonly referred to as Gringo style, is an area that is often left wanting in my dining experiences. These tacos certainly did not disappoint nor were they wanting, and if anything there was- dare I say it- too much cheese (!!). Then the Birria arrived, an oily, fragrant stew of mystery meat (lamb? veal?) waiting to be stuffed into their own little tortilla pockets, a lovely milder, warm, and soupy counterpart to the tacos.

What ensued was what often happens when simple, good food is placed in front of individuals- a chorus of munching and grunts of approval, the swapping of plates and exchanging of tacos (one chorizo/steak for one pollo? Deal.), some swooning and even rolling of eyes from delight, and definitely minimal conversation. If they hadn’t known it before, as I surely had, this was definitely a meal that we had all been waiting for.


Homestyle Chili Paste

Along with the best plate of rice I’ve ever been served, was an amazing dollop of chili paste on the side. Talking to the young woman who ran the restaurant (she couldn’t have been more than 25, and was at least 6 inches shorter than I was), she proudly boasted that it was her father’s famous recipe, known throughout town.

She proceeded to educate me that this type of chili paste- clearly speckled with the fermented black beans that the DiploMan and I love so much- is special to this area. Two small jars and a few large ones were all that remained from the Fall harvest. Fall Harvest? All that is left? I asked what she meant. She went on to describe that her family only makes the chili paste once a year, in the fall, when peppers are at their best. In the fall, peppers are their driest, which makes them most suitable for crushing into a thick chili paste. Like canning and preserving, this old-school method of making chili paste once a year proves that homemade is always better than store-bought.

We took the small jar home with us- and even among our 8 or so bottles of various chili pastes and sauces that are accruing in our fridge, I am starting to regret not having bought the large one.