We left India almost six weeks ago and I still haven’t written my food post for the country. I’m having a hard time because Indian is my favorite cuisine in the world, but unlike all the other countries we’ve visited, I didn’t get fat in India. I actually got skinny. For those who might be worried about my health, please don’t fret. I have more than made up for my lack of calories on the subcontinent first in Africa and now in Turkey. A post about feta cheese and lamb kabobs will have to wait, however, as I take a moment to reflect on the food of Southern Africa.
During our time in India I started to think about becoming a vegetarian. I know that will shock anyone with whom I have shared a meal, as I am a voracious meat eater. At Brazilian churriscos I have always warned people about not filling up at the salad bar and outpaced everyone by keeping my “bring me more meat” button open the longest. In India I started wondering if I had eaten my fair share. Dax was ready to pick up the carnivore baton. He complained about the lack of steaks in India repeatedly and was very much looking forward to a big sirloin in Africa. With our differing attitudes we landed in Joburg. The first day we went to a pizza place which met everyone’s craving. The second we opted for hamburgers. Everyone was pleased with their first hamburgers in over 2 months and we started to get back in our groove. However, it wasn’t the hamburgers or the pizza that broke my contemplations of vegetarianism. Instead it was a lovely little thing the Southern Africans call biltong.
Biltong is dried meat; apparently any meat will do. I have always been a lover of beef jerky. I would make it with my grandpa when I was young, and during my 2 years in Japan he would send me care packages stuffed with pounds of it. I have travelled all across America and tasted the best jerky our gas stations have to offer, but nothing could prepare me for the Southern Africans’ love of dried meat. “Everyday, we eat it everyday,” one hearty man with a big belly and short safari shorts explained to me in Botswana. I first noticed a store in our local Pretoria mall that only sold biltong. Think of your local mall candy shop but exchange the sweets with things like kudu, springbok, beef, and ostrich all available in jerky or slim jim like sausages. Af first I thought this was a phenomenon specific to Pretoria, but I quickly found similar shops full of meat everywhere. There are even whole sections of supermarkets devoted to dried meat. As you would expect, they have the bite sized sticks of jerky we are familiar with but they also had huge slabs of meat hanging from the ceiling on ropes. The slabs of meat were as big as my arm and at one ingenious store they came with a handy pocket knife attached to each limb-sized slab. I quickly got into the tradition and everyday would stop at one of the little shops to choose my type of meat and get some biltong for the road.
Once again on the meat wagon, I joined Dax and started eating meat where we could. We had a couple highlights, Dax had a great oryx steak in Namibia and I had a sumptuous beef steak in Swakopmund. Just about everywhere we went there were steakhouses and in almost any town of note there was a steakhouse chain called Spur. Dax asked if we could go to Spur the first day we were in Africa. I kept telling him we would but never made it happen. They are everywhere I would point out and again promise him to go in the next town. When we hit Capetown, our last stop in Africa, I made sure we went. Everyone but Anne was pleasantly surprised. I had expected a Sizzler level chain while it ended up similar to an Outback Steakhouse. As Outback has an Australian theme for us, Spur is a USA themed restaurant for South Africans, complete with a native American logo and American food throughout–what a nice remembrance of home. In our travels we get a little too much information on how the world hates America. Some of that hate is warranted, but in other cases it just comes across as spite or jealousy. In either case, it was great to find a place that celebrates our cuisine, if not our country. With one week left in Africa and ahead on the budget from all our nights in tents, we went to Spur the first time. The kids loved it because Spur provides a playroom with Xbox 360′s. Dax loved the ribs and I enjoyed the steak. We hadn’t made it to the car before the kids were begging to go back. I told them we would but that we had to get ready for Oprah, which meant we had to get to another hotel. When we pulled in to our new location, the kids screamed and pointed at the restaurant attached to the lobby–another Spur. There was little doubt where we would be eating that night. After the shoot we returned to our little backpacker haven, Salty Crax. (An interesting story for another day was the round of laughter that erupted in a crowded internet cafe when I yelled into the computer on a Skype call to the Oprah people, “The name of our hotel is Salty Crax.”)
The day we got back from the shoot Anne was a little too tired to go out to eat and wanted to spend a little time working in the common room. I offered to take the kids to a different steakhouse but they all objected and we headed back to Spur– 3 times in 4 days. I told them this would probably be our last as we only had 3 more days left in Africa. However, I broke down on our last day and took them to Spur one last time. Everyone pretty much ordered the same thing, with the exception that I had moved from the Monkey Gland steak (not as bad as it sounds, it’s just a chutney) to their unique “Hot Rock” steak. As someone who never feels a steak is rare enough, this was my dream. When they serve you the steak, it is raw, just staring up at you with all its bloody gore. Accompanying the steak is a hot stone, heated to something like 800 degrees to cook it on. With this I could sizzle the steak for a couple minutes on each side and ensure a lovely rare piece of meat. (I guess all vegetarian desires were gone by this point.)
With our bellies full of Spur we headed off to the airport, which for those who read Anne’s post, Six in an Airport, know was the beginning of a 3-day ordeal. We spent the first night in Capetown, but didn’t get to the hotel until after midnight. After multiple mishaps the next day, we found ourselves in Joburg at a conference hotel the following night. Attached to the hotel was, you guessed it, Spur. This time the food was going to be on KLM and everyone loaded up. The kids were thrilled. I question our sanity to have eaten at the same place 5 times in 7 days, but that last steak sure tasted good. After a quick trip to the local mall to load up on biltong, we finally left Africa with visions of future meatfests in Turkey and Argentina dancing in our heads. Oh, and I hate to mention it, but I also left with a little extra jiggle in my step.