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What's Cooking South Africa

Kim O'Donnel
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2004; 12:00 PM

Calling all foodies! Join us for a South Africa edition of What's Cooking, our live online culinary hour with Kim O'Donnel.

A graduate of Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, Kim spends much of her time in front of the stove or with her nose in a cookbook.

Kim O'Donnel (Craig Cola - washingtonpost.com)

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Kim O'Donnel: Greetings from South Africa! I just made it in nick of time to be with you, from a cybercafe in Pretoria. The weather is luscious -- dry, sunny and warm. African skies at this time of day -- dusk -- are glorious. I've been in Johannesburg and Pretoria since last Tuesday, and will hit the highway tomorrow morning for the coast and other parts. It's been terrific to be back here after a 12-year absence, and I'll echo what everyone here will tell you: so much has changed. Life is pretty developed in the big cities and if you didn't know better, you'd think you were somewhere in the States. I'll do my best to answer as many questions I can about South Africa or African cuisine, so fire away. Eager to hear how everyone's doing and what's on your burners on the other side.


Tysons Corner, Va.: My husband and I spent our honeymoon in South Africa and loved everything about it - especially the food. Have you come across a good Malva pudding recipe in your travels? I'd like to make it for an upcoming dinner.

Kim O'Donnel: I haven't had a Malva pudding as yet, but am happy to track a recipe down for you before I leave next week. Thanks for writing.


Auburn, Ala.: I'm planning to serve a mushroom strudel to some friends and I need a good side dish. Basically the strudel is just chopped sweet onions, browned in EVOO, then chopped mushrooms, dill, tamari sauce, and white wine, cook until the mushrooms are done, then the whole thing gets layered into filo (with EVOO painted between the layers) and baked until brown and toasty. The flavor is pretty savory/tangy. I've been serving brown rice with it, but I was hoping for something with a little more oompf, whose flavor wouldn't clash with the dill. I thought maybe a pilaf, but I don't have any tried and true recipes and I'm hesitant to go with one from a book when I'm going to be serving it to guests.

Kim O'Donnel: Auburn, since strudel is heavy, it would be nice to have something a bit acidic to work against the fat of the filo and the sauce, etc. I also think that rice, pilaf or otherwise, is too heavy and too starchy. What about a watercress salad? Squeeze the juice of an orange on top and throw in some nuts, a little olive oil, even some pear slices. The bitterness of the watercress might complement your savory dish nicely. Anyone with other thoughts?


Fairfax, Va.: What are some favorite South African dishes and what influences the cuisine?

Kim O'Donnel: South Africa, much like the US, is a mishmash of culinary influences. Because of its complicated history, it's many things, including Portuguese, with its peri-peri (hot pepper) sauces and marinades, Dutch/Cape Malay, which inclues things like bobotie, a meatloafy type dish with a custard, Afrikaaner dishes, such as boerwoers (that's sausage to you and me),which you put on the braai (barbecue) biltong, which is dried meat jerky (much better than slim Jim's), koeksisters, which are kind of like a donut...but of course, these dishes are prepared and eaten interchangeably among various communities around the country. There's also pap -- which is a stiff cornmeal porridge, very thick, usually served with a spicy tomatoey sauce...which is a staple for many people.


Boca Raton, La.: Kim, I grew up in ZA, the son of an American mining engineer.
We are desperate, here in the States, to get our hands on some boerewors. We want the REAL stuff! Can you provide a recipe that we can use at home with American meat?
Also, can you bring some biltong for us?
Totsiens, alles van die beste!

Kim O'Donnel: Boca Raton, Louisiana, really? Not Florida? Well, in any case, I am happy to get you a recipe for boerewors. Check in with me via email and I'll get you details or I can post it in my program two weeks from today, once I'm back in the States. Biltong, by the way, is not allowed to be imported!!


New York, NY: I know this isn't a cooking question, but I would love, love to hear about South Africa. I hope to go soon, despite the fact it exceeds any travel budget I have, and am so curious first hand reports.

Kim O'Donnel: New York, I came here first in 1992, and worked as a journalist, during a very contentious time. Mandela had been released, but elections had not yet taken place. This country changed my life in many respects; I have always been impressed by the passion of the people in spite of what they have had to endure. It's an amazing place, full of contradictions, and if you think about it, what other place on earth made this kind of political transition -- peacefully? Something of a miracle, but it's testament to the strength and the resilience of the South African people. That said, there's tons to do here for tourists. Even Johannesburg, which I always found so yucky, has got a lot more going on. Soweto now has the Apartheid museum, the Hector Peterson Memorial, and there are scads of museums now in Jburg. Lots of places to eat in town, outdoor markets. REnt a car, stateside, which is much cheaper, and drive, if you can bear driving on the left side of the road...People here are really engaging and eager to interact, talk about their experiences, understand you and share, just share. Hope this gets the conversation started...


re: South Africa: Is it winter there? What are the temps?

Kim O'Donnel: It's spring here, and the weather kind of reminds of the west coast of the U.S., depending on where you are. It can be really dry, like Arizona, and warm, into the high 70s, and then as soon as the sun goes down, the temp. quickly drops and you immediately need a sweater. The weather has warmed up here with each day, and today I even wore shorts. Great time of year to be here. Sun doesn't stop shining.


Washington, D.C.: I bought a packet of fresh bay leaves to use in a dish I made on Saturday. Now I have all these extra bay leaves. While the packet didn't cost much, it seems a shame to waste them. Do you have any thoughts on what to make?

Kim O'Donnel: Well, you can freeze them without a problem. Just wrap'em up really well. Bay leaves can be used for soup, stew, curry...


Washington, D.C.: Greetings, Kim!! Thanks for having this chat from so far away. How long will mini vegetable and cheese frittatas and scones last in the freezer? Thanks!

Kim O'Donnel: Hey there, they will last up to a few weeks, if you wrap them really well in plastic wrap, then in plastic zippy bags. Cheers.


Washington, D.C.: Have you tried springbok yet? I had the pleasure a few months ago at Addo elephant park, and it was devine. Too bad they're so cute...

Kim O'Donnel: Hey, I did ostrich a number of times, but don't recall having ever done springbok. Most of the the meat I've been eating since arriving has been chicken, actually. Dunno why, just is...


Anonymous: Tomato mystery!;
Kim, congrats on the S. Africa trip.
Last nite I made a tomato cream sauce for pasta, and this is what happened.
I sauteed shallots and garlic in EVOO for about 5 minutes. Added a can of diced tomato.
Simmered for about 10-12 minutes. And then I added 2 cups of half and half. Guess what? The cream curdled. WHY?????

Kim O'Donnel: Often when you've got hot stuff in a pan and you add dairy, and the dairy hasn't been tempered, it's gonna seize up. Next time, pour a lil of the tomato stuff in the 1/2 and 1/2 and THEN pour the whole thing into the pan. Gotta get the temps more evenly distributed. And keep that heat LOW.


You think I'm kidding: My boyfriend lives in Pretoria and works at the US embassy there. We had a fight last night because he's been there for a long time and I have yet to receive a letter from him (petty, I know). He says he still hasn't been able to find a post office, since there are no drop boxes and he doesn't have yahoo! search to help him. Have you seen a post office so I can tell him where one is?

Kim O'Donnel: There's actually one in the mall where I am, in Menlyn Park, right by Pretoria. And there's a HUGE post office in downtown Pretoria, since it's the capital city...


Atlanta, Ga. Loafer: Hey KOD -- Calvin Trillin wrote a great piece about indigenous South African foods in last week's New Yorker Food Issue. He talks a lot about snoek, an apparently mean, eel-like fish that's loved among South Africans? Ever tried it there?

Kim O'Donnel: Saw that! Thanks for bringing up that piece. I have not had snoek...but have been thinking to give it a whirl...other fish I saw of interest is butterfish...


Rockville, Md.: To read a South African newspaper is like reading our own newspapers. The Cape Argus is a newspaper that you can read online through www.ecola.com. By the way, where did you eat the bobotie? Your description of a meatloafy dish with a custard is not like any bobotie I've ever had! If you go to Cape Town, try to have lunch a McGinty's at the City Marketplace. They have to best, most tenderest steak sandwich! And if you go the the Alfred and Vitoria Waterfront, go the Berties and watch the seals while you drick a cold Castle (beer)!

Kim O'Donnel: Hey Rockville...there are something like 12 papers to choose from on a daily basis here in SA. People are still very much getting their information that way, rather than via the Web. There's a new paper here called This Day, which is interesting, owned by Nigerians, and a few more that I didn't see when I was last here. Thanks for the bobotie tip...and when I said meatloaf, I meant ground meat...and I when I said custard, I meant eggy...


Munich, Germany: I recently bought some olive oil from South Africa, and I thought it to be on par with even some of the best Italian stuff.

Have you tried anything exotic during your stay in South Africa - an ostrich steak or some exotic seafood like parrotfish?

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks for reminding me to talk about the olive oil...it is indeed on the same level as that coming from Europe...the climate is well suited for olive trees, and there's a lot of interest in producing olive oil. As for exotic, no, nothing in particular this time...did a lot of that kind of thing when I was last here, but I am suere while on the road will be trying some news...will keep you posted. Thanks for chiming in via Munich!


Washington, D.C.: Hi Kim, I plan to spend 10 days in South Africa, and know I want to spend a lot of time in Cape Town. What other places can and must I see?

Kim O'Donnel: Are you flying to Cape Town? If not, and you've got only 10 days, I recommend flying to Cape Town, since it's a long drive, something like 18 hours. From Cape Town, you could rent a car and drive throughout Stellenbosch and other wine valleys, plus there's the Garden Route, an area I'm keen to explore, along the Indian Ocean coast with lots of cool little towns. Some of them are less developed, little more rugged, which appeals to me. Durban could be interesting as well, with its heavy Indian influence, and if you wanna do some beach time. Always warmer there than in other parts of the country. Keep me posted of your plans, and I'll try to give you hand in making up your itinerary.


Springfield VA: Is most produce locally raised or imported? I have a friend who is from Zimbabwe that told me that in recent years the government has seized and redistributed a lot of farms (including his father's) and that many of things that were locally produced before, now have to be imported.

Kim O'Donnel: I don't know the answer to that, Springfield. The produce I've been buying in the stores often is labeled as a product of South Africa, but you know, the situation in Zim is much different than in SA. Agriculture, from what I understand, is a big business in SA, and the product is very good. Forgot how amazing the oranges (naartges)...probably spelling it wrong...are here...actually fruit here is of amazing quality, and much cheaper than what we are used to paying in the States.


Northern Virginia: I undestand that not all cheese are freezeable. We love cheese and I buy them in stock as they go very quickly! I've found through trial and error that some certain cheese can't be frozen like muenster cheese slices (pieces broke off when I tried to peel off the wax paper and were stuck together). Parmesen cheese does not freeze very well either---can't get it grated finely w/out breaking off clumps of it in the process. It still melts well but just does not hold up to the grating. Don't know if I'm buying the wrong brand/form of cheese (sliced vs block).How do you suggest I store them to prolong their lives? So far I've been freezing only pre-shredded cheese.

Kim O'Donnel: I really don't like to freeze cheese at all -- unless it's the pre-shredded stuff. I find that the freeze dramatically changes the consistency of the cheese and it's just not worth the effort. We can ask the others what they think...


Bay Leaves: My boyfriend has a potato cookbook, and it has a great recipe to use up those fresh bay leaves. You take baby white potatoes (although any color would probably do) and slice them very thin - but NOT all the way through. (So if potatoes were more flexible, you could open it kind of like a fan.) Then put 2-3 fresh bay leaves in each potato. Drizzle with EVOO, S&P, and bake at probably around 400. The extra slices/slits make the potato kind of crispy, kind of soft. Hmm - I just can't remember if you take out the bay leaves or not...

Kim O'Donnel: Thanks for chiming in on the bay leaves, dear.


Ohio: Kim,
I have some leftover sweet potato, sage and ricotta ravioli filling that I would like to use to stuff mushrooms. Do you think these flavors would work with a sherry vinaigrette marinated mushroom (I just found a recipe for that on epicurious...)?

Clashing flavors?

Kim O'Donnel: Ohio,
Sounds like a lot going on to me. I might just do an olive-oil basting on the shrooms so that you can really appreciate the fab-sounding filling...let me know what you end up doing.


Silver Spring, Md.: Ostrich exotic? I eat one every week from Whole Foods. Rarely eat beef anymore.

Kim O'Donnel: Well, to lots of folks, it is exotic.


Washington, D.C.: Kim, I would really love to treat myself and buy a cookbook by Madhur Jaffrey... do you have a favorite, or can you recommend one in particular? I'm looking for Indian recipes, not necessarily easy ones. Also, any chatters have a favorite baingan bartha (sp?) recipe? Happy travels!!

Kim O'Donnel: I really like her new one, "From Curries to Kebabs," but it's not exclusively Indian. It covers several cuisines around the world, with some great bits on culinary history, how dishes found themselves in certain places...all the good stuff that a wonk like me loves. But..if you're looking for Indian veggie...consider Yamuna Devi's "Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking." What a resource. We can talk more about this when I get back....


Gaithersburg, Md.: What's the exchange rate right now? What kind of neat souviners are you buying?

Kim O'Donnel: It's about 6.5 rands to the dollar, so I'm doing pretty well here with the exchange. Picked up some fun Zulu beaded stuff at a market on Sunday, plus a batiked African print apron...and hope to find more goodies. It's fun.


Boca Raton, Fla.: Hi Kim, we really are in Florida, Rat's mouth (Boca del Ratones), as they say locally.
Rockville is right. Cape Town has many cultural influences, especially that of the Malay settlers. If you go to Cape Town and can bring back a good curried recipe, that would be fantastic!

Kim O'Donnel: Will do my best to get you some details...


Kim O'Donnel: Hey, it's time for dinner, and the sun is going down. Thanks for joining me. I'm sure I'll have plenty of tales to share when I get back. Take good care and don't forget to eat your vegetables. All best..kod


Takoma park, MD: Snoek is full of bones, but tasty. Lots of local pride involved.

It's usually the cheapest thing at a fried-fish joint, so I ate a lot of it while I was there on a budget.

Kim O'Donnel: A couple of notes for the road...


South Africa road trip: Re the itinerary - Really really stupid question, but is English spoken in the less developed areas?

Kim O'Donnel: Depends on where you want to go, but someone always speaks English. More on that in a bit.


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