Let­ter from Wind­hoek

It’s nice to eat some­thing dif­fer­ent from time to time, writes Lloyd Zand­berg, but don’t bite off more than you can chew…

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Ilike my food. (Hey, I didn’t get this physique from run­ning marathons!) Chops, potato salad and braaibrood­jies are my sta­ples, but from time to time I yearn for some­thing more ex­otic. Even water­melon and feta salad has reached a peak. Bobotie and yel­low rice is nice, but rather sur­prise me with some­thing out of the or­di­nary. I’m not talk­ing about weird flavour com­bi­na­tions like mince and naartjie salad, or ba­nana and pea tart – that’s for when you’re try­ing to im­press your neigh­bour or your mother-in-law. No, I’m talk­ing about real ex­per­i­men­ta­tion, get­ting off our con­ti­nent and ex­plor­ing flavours from fur­ther afield. I love it when my taste buds go bal­lis­tic, as if an en­tire Kaapse Klopse troupe is jolling on my tongue. Once, in a side street in Bangkok, I watched as a Thai woman con­jured magic in a pot with rice, gin­ger, two pieces of chicken, chill­ies and some or other se­cret spice. Us­ing these sim­ple in­gre­di­ents, she bowled over a group of tourists. That’s my kind of meal: easy, orig­i­nal and al­most in­stant.

Tra­di­tional Asian food is hard to find in Wind­hoek and when you do, the spice is usu­ally di­alled down to align with the milder tastes of Namib­ian din­ers. Real Asian food of­ten con­tains pieces of mam­mal that you’d oth­er­wise only en­counter in a lab. You’ve got to hand it to peo­ple from China, Viet­nam and the like – they don’t waste any­thing. From the tip of the nose to the… ex­haust. Food is food. The other day I vis­ited a Chi­nese restau­rant in Wind­hoek with friends. I had starved my­self for two days prior to the out­ing, eating only Granny Smith ap­ples and drink­ing sparkling wa­ter. (It’s a fact that the bub­bles make you feel full.) I was hun­gry. As hun­gry as you get when you drive be­tween Mari­en­tal and Keet­man­shoop. We walked in and a friendly young waiter asked if we wanted a ta­ble for three. No sir, we’re just here to say hello! (I didn’t ac­tu­ally say that.) Yes, ta­ble for three, please. I was just grumpy be­cause my stom­ach was rum­bling like an idling V8. The waiter gave us each a menu and ap­peared a lit­tle while later with our drinks. In the mean­time, I had gone through the menu from be­gin­ning to end. I was fed up with rou­tine and keen for some ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. At the very back of the menu was a sec­tion mostly writ­ten in Chi­nese, with only the odd English word for guid­ance. This was where I wanted to be. I waved my fin­ger over the menu, closed my eyes and pointed. I opened my eyes. My fin­ger had landed on some­thing called “three type beef”. Our waiter seemed to get a bit of a fright when I showed him what I wanted. I don’t think any Wind­hoeker had ever or­dered from that part of the menu be­fore. Even­tu­ally our food ar­rived. Cold sweat broke out on my fore­head when I saw what was put in front of me. The “three type beef” was served in an or­nate bowl – the kind you’d usu­ally see at a church bap­tism. Lots of things floated on the sur­face: mush­rooms (on steroids), bits of meaty mat­ter, beans, sea­weed and what seemed like cut­tings from some­one’s lawn. All of this swam in a pool of liq­uid that had the con­sis­tency of skim milk three days past its sell-by date. There you go, I thought. You want to try and be dif­fer­ent? This is dif­fer­ent. The waiter hov­ered for a sec­ond. He knew I had no idea what my dish con­sisted of. He even­tu­ally walked to the kitchen and turned around a few times to see if I’d taken a bite yet. When I scooped the first spoon­ful into my mouth, I re­alised what it was. I re­mem­bered the taste all too well – a haunt­ing flavour flashback from nearly 20 years be­fore, when I’d eaten the same thing on a farm in the Karas dis­trict. It took years to get the taste out of my mouth again… It was the stom­ach of some poor cow – the retic­u­lum, one of four. Oh, to rather be chew­ing on a lamb chop next to a camp­fire! Well, I learnt my les­son.

At the very back of the menu there was a sec­tion mostly writ­ten in Chi­nese, with only the odd English word for guid­ance. This was where I wanted to be.

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