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…
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.