The food from South Africa, like the food from many countries on trade routes, tells the history of the country through the flavors. Outside influences in the country began with Portugeese explorers in the late 1400's. The Dutch soon formed Cape Colony at Table Bay. The country was seized by the British in the late 1700's only to be returned to the Dutch eight years later, who returned it again to the British a short three years later. South Africa made a convenient "break of bulk" point for trade routes for the British Empire, bringing spices back from India and other colonies. With eleven official languages, three capital cities, a mega-diverse ecological environment, and cross-cultural interactions with more than a dozen nations from without and within, South African food presents a unique culinary experience.
South African Cuisine
Peli Peli offers a number of good looking dishes that we wanted to try but this was not a vacation, we had work to do and that work was focused on traditional South African flavors.
Bobotie (pronounced ba-bootie) is a dish that tells the story of South African food in one bite. Bobotie is a fusion shepherd's pie. I grew up in Scotland as a kid and ate more than my fair share of shepherd's pie (and mince-n-tatties, and every other derivation of the dish). To say the least, it is a relatively boring dish--but that is just the Scottish version. Take that dish and infuse it with flavors from the British trade routes and you wind up with no ordinary shepherd's pie. Bobotie is a mix of curried beef as the meat base, has a perfectly crispy crust, and is topped with mango chutney. It is sweet and spicy and when eaten correctly (it is layered, so take the spoon and stab it vertically to get one of each layer) you can distinctly taste each flavor.
The South African Sampler has a collection of traditional foods. Chicken Sosaties are Kebabs which are Dutch in origin. These are dressed with a number of sauces. We tried all of them and the best one was the Hugenot.
This platter also has stuffed Peppadews. Peppadews are a kind of pepper which taste somewhat like a cross between a sweet pepper and a tomato. These were recently discovered (1993) in the Limpopo province of South Africa.
If you grew up as a picky kid (believe it or not, I did....) then brussel sprouts were probably a problem for you. Peli Peli's take on this vegetable will change your mind.
Biltong is a cured meat originally introduced by the first Portuguese explorers. They brought the cured beef with them because its jerky-like qualities helped it keep on the long voyages. It was soon adopted by locals, and you can get yours made fresh at Peli Peli. The Texan in me was a little bit giddy about this dish. As a cured meat it still has a bit of softness to it, unlike hard jerky. They should sell this by the pound!
The food at Peli Peli, from a purely culinary standpoint, is among the best that we have had in our tour of Houston's international foods so far. With every dish, there is a diversity of flavors, but unlike other dishes, each flavor is distinct and is in concert with the other flavors.
The Restaurant: Peli Peli
The Peli Peli chain is the brainchild of the three-way partnership of Master Chef Paul Friedman and the entrepreneurial Aiki Cong Tran and Thomas Nguyen. They have created a truly unique culinary experience and the creative ambiance compliments the food. The concept of the restaurant pulls in themes, colors, and materials from South Africa. The original location (north Houston) has a three story tall Acacia tree in the middle. The location we went to (Galleria) did not have the height of the original location but has incorporated the canopy of the tree which shimmers with colors. The lighting of the restaurant itself is not something that most people notice when they dine. At Peli Peli, however, it has the appearance of being dimly lit while at the same time being creatively adorned with accent lighting which gives the effect of everything being lit.
One of my favorite things about a great restaurant experience is the people, the conversations, and the hospitality. When you think about restaurant hospitality do not confuse service with hospitality. Hospitality is the act of creating space and welcome. We often call in advance in order to make sure that the restaurants are aware that we are bringing in a small photo studio. Within ten minutes of the email, we had a phone cal from the restaurant to make a reservation. Yes, I saw reservations on the website, but I assumed that since we were making a lunch in the middle of the week that the phone call was just good measure on the part of the restaurant. Much to my surprise--and gratitude that I had a reservation--there was not a single empty seat in the restaurant. Word to fellow travelers: make the reservation. We were able to talk with the Head of Training Michelle Cimafranca and Kirsten Lieber (also Head of Training) about the food. I think of both of them as more than their titles and job descriptions, they were are cultural and culinary sherpas guiding us through our choices and teaching us about the food.
The owner is unapologetic about his spiritual life. The fruit of this is evident in the atmosphere of the restaurant, the excellence with which the food design, prep, and service are conducted, and in the focus on charity. It is refreshing to see a business focused on using the profits for the good of our city, and we wish Chef Friedman and his partners Tran and Nguyen all success.