Thursday, August 27, 2009

South African Cuisine? Oh, Yes!

When I think about South Africa, what comes to mind, of course, are Nelson Mandela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Johnny Clegg, and, the large South African Jewish expat community in San Diego. I can't say I've ever given any thought to the food.

What a fool! It turns out that I've been missing out on some wonderful meals, influenced by the British and Dutch, but also the Portuguese, French, and, Indian--South Africa has the largest Indian population outside of India. And, of course, the African tribes.

So, you get Portuguese peri-peri sauce, British sausage rolls and pasties, Dutch bobotie (curried chopped meat) and melkterts, and Indian curries and biryani.

I discovered all this recently at a tiny shop tucked away in an industrial park in Kearny Mesa. Deli-SA, owned by South African Graham Perkett, is nominally a store and more an experience. Yes, there are shelves stocked with packaged goods a homesick South African would crave, but the real delight of Deli-SA is in the homemade dishes Perkett, his wife and staff make. And, the fact that every Saturday afternoon, South Africans longing for a touch of home gather family style around large tables at his barbecues.


Perkett, who had originally had a career in automotive engineering, opened the shop in the spring of 2008. Before that, he had been selling his food and doing catering from his home. It was a return to what he'd wanted to do all along as a young man--cook. The shop is a reflection of his love of his homeland. The walls are painted blue, red, green, and black in the colors of the South African flag, and on the dark blue wall is a large acrylic portrait of Mandela painted by a friend of Perkett, along with framed pieces of tribal art for sale. Against another wall are shelves filled with all sorts of intriguing foodstuff. You'll find cereals, sauces, jams, marmite, pickles, cookies, soda, and candy. And that's just for starters.


I bought a couple of jars of the peri-peri sauce. Peri-peri is a hot pepper used in Portuguese and African cooking. According to Perkett, it makes for a great marinade and barbecue sauce for chicken. I found he was spot on. But I also enjoyed it on a broiled lamb shoulder chop.


Perkett pointed to other South African cooking and snacking essentials--authentic oxtail soup mix, Tennis biscuits--cookies that are used for tarts, Bisto gravy granules, and Milo, a malted milk powder made by Nestle that is just like Ovaltine.


What had me salivating, though, was the case filled with savory pies made by his wife. That day, Perkett had steak and mushroom, chicken mushroom, pepper steak, cornish pasties, and chicken curry. I took the last home. It reheated beautifully at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. The flaky crust yielded small cubes of chicken mixed with carrots, onions, and peas, all enveloped in a smooth curry sauce.


I also enjoyed the beautiful samoosas. You can buy packages of these--chicken, beef, or potato--frozen and ready to reheat in a little oil on the stove.


Perkett makes his own beef jerky, or biltang, and it's nothing like what is packaged in the U.S. Thicker, moister, and powerfully flavored with clove, nutmeg, and coriander, it's a delicious snack. He also makes the hugely popular boerewors, a fresh beef and pork sausage that is grilled, stuffed in a bun and smothered in a tomato sauce.


And, that's what you'll find on the grill behind the shop on Saturdays, along with fish and chips, and bunny chow--a marvelous name for one of the hugest meals I've ever seen on a plate. Perkett makes a curried lamb stew using lamb shoulder pieces. Once it's ready, half loaves of white bread are hollowed out and the stew is ladled inside. The scooped out bread is dunked in the stew juices. It's a hefty and delicious dish.


I tried some of these dishes at one of the Saturday barbecues. Not only was the food very good, but I enjoyed the friendliness of the South Africans who had gathered 10 around a table. Some parties all knew one another. Others met during the meal and compared notes about their lives. All had heard about Deli-SA through word of mouth, including a couple with two young daughters who had driven there from Phoenix. It was their first stop for a weekend getaway in San Diego.

Now you can't end a meal without dessert. You'll find some unusual and all-too tempting options at Deli-SA. These are made on site as well. First Perkett pulled out a melktert, or milk tart. The best way I can think of to describe this lovely custard sweet is rice pudding without the rice, dusted with cinnamon on top and sitting on a light vanilla cake. That, at least, is how the Perketts make it. I've found in doing some research that it's also made with a sweet pastry tart and filled with custard. Either way, it's comfort food.

The koeksisters, with origins from Cape Malay, is not comfort food. It's sheer decadence. It looks like a braided donut, and it is. Kind of. But, it's harder that what you'd expect and drenched in a rich sugar syrup. This is napkin food and only for those with a real sweet tooth.


The lamington squares are a whole other type of sweet. These are Australian, actually, and basically a butter cake dipped first in chocolate and then in coconut. Very nice.

My favorite may have been the tipsy tart, a dense cake with dates and walnuts in this case, but sometimes pecans, baked, then infused with a butter and brandy syrup. This is simply luscious. In fact, it looks very easy to make and come fall, I'll probably try this recipe from Group Recipes.

Perkett also does catering. He has a large contingent of customers from around Southern California and into Arizona. He bragged that one of his clients is playwright Athol Fugard, who lives in Del Mar. While there are people who make some of the sausages and jerky, apparently, Perkett's the only one in the region with a shop and full assortment of South African dishes.

Deli-SA is located at 8360 Clairemont-Mesa Blvd., Suite 112 in Kearny Mesa, just west of Hwy. 163. The phone number is 858-694-0212.


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