When I travel, I tend to eat too much. On the road, it seems that I don't have to be hungry to eat -- I'll eat a meal between meals. Eating, I rationalize, is my quickest route to authenticity.
During a trip I took to South Africa last month, the vast majority of the people I interacted with handle tourists for a living, and while they were very nice, our relationship was strictly professional. I didn't expect anyone would invite me over for a home-cooked meal, and no one did.
But whenever I walked by a restaurant filled with seemingly happy locals, I felt that I owed it to myself to sample whatever they were eating, in the name of cultural outreach. And so I ate Gatsbys and bunny chow with chakalaka sauce and pap 'n' sweet corn and samp and beans until I thought I would burst.
Bunny chow was my favorite. It's a quarter- or half-loaf of bread standing up on its end with a large hole scooped out of the middle. A curry of some kind is ladled into the hole, and the part that was removed -- "the virgin" -- is placed back on top. One eats it by tearing off a piece of bread near the top and dipping it into the curry, until you've worked your way down to the bottom.
I found a "gourmet" bunny chow restaurant called the Quarter, on Long Street in Cape Town. It featured bunny chows with game animals in the curry, including the cleverly named "croc monsieur," loaded with crocodile meat.
Bunny chow originated in Durban, but another fast food, the Gatsby, is native to Cape Town. And like bunny chow, its name seems to have no relationship whatsoever to what it is. (It is "Great," but only in size. It's one of those foods, like Vegemite, that you have to start eating when young in order to truly enjoy it as an adult.) In its basic form, a Gatsby contains a sausage (or two) in a hero-style bun, crammed in alongside fried eggs, cheese and french fries. There are variations in the fillings, but regardless of what's inside, it is very, very filling.
At the other end of the South African food chain was a meal at Le Quartier Francais. Before I had even landed in Cape Town, I was anticipating dining at this hotel in Franschhoek, a village along the wine route, not too far outside of Cape Town.
Le Quartier Francais' restaurant, the Tasting Room, is world-renowned. It made San Pellegrino's list of the 50 best restaurants in the world. (It was No. 37, the highest ranking of any African restaurant.)
And it was sensational; better, in my opinion, than some of the restaurants that rank above it. Everything was locally sourced, though I'm not sure lemon marshmallow with squid ink and champagne foam served with crawfish qualifies as authentic regional South African cuisine. Odd as it may sound, that combination was exquisite, as were the other seven courses, the service, the wine and the hotel itself.
Among the souvenirs I brought back from my two-week trip to South Africa were about five extra pounds, and I'm now getting up painfully early each morning, heading to the gym to erode this excess baggage. It was worth it, I tell myself as I jog on the treadmill.
But then I remember the Gatsby, which perhaps was not.
It's not so much the excessive calories of the Gatsby that I regret; rather, it's the thought that I could have spent that time and money on one more gourmet bunny chow. If squid ink goes with marshmallow, lemon and champagne, perhaps I should have taken a chance on the gemsbok bunny topped with the intriguingly named Mrs. Balls! chutney.
But missed opportunities in travel aren't truly missed; they are simply deferred and added to the long list of reasons to return.
Contact Arnie Weissmann at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter.