Sunday, February 8, 2015

South Africa: I'd rather have peaches

Apartheid came to an end while I was in high school. I can't find anything to back up this story, but I remember being told that in years past, students had discovered that the cafeteria sold canned peaches from South Africa. This alternative school was governed by a town meeting and the town meeting voted to put an end to the South African peaches. This must have been before the US embargo? In any case, when Apartheid ended in 1994, a letter was drafted informing South Africa that we were once again willing to buy their peaches. I was never much for school cafeteria food and by high school was solidly in the bring-your-lunch camp, so I don't know if there were peaches post-1994 or if they were South African, let alone what kind of peaches, if any are available today. I can report, that, at least off-campus there is very little South African food to be found in this area. By chance, I discovered that Let's Meat on the Avenue in Del Ray sells Boerewors, the traditional South African sausage. I hurried over to get some for dinner.

I wish I hadn't. In the shop, they told me that they had just perfected the recipe. Sigh. We really, really didn't like them. Boerewors are typically grilled in South Africa as I understand it. It's February here, so we cooked ours in the fireplace. But still, they were just not great. I mean, nobody died, but...they were awfully livery (and I like liver) and the spices seemed off. I also have to take a few points for forming them in a standard sausage shape (like a bratwurst or Italian sausage link) rather than the coil that I have read is typical. Moreover, the casings weren't sufficiently stuffed, making them unappetizingly floppy. I would have let this go if they'd been delicious, but sitting here with this greasy, livery situation in my stomach ... they could have at least made them look right. Let's Meat on the Avenue (which is one of my least favorite shop names around) also sells Biltong or South African jerky and I wish I'd gotten that instead (LMOTA sells it, but don't make it themselves). I want to like this shop. Del Ray is adorable and they are all about humanely raised meat....but the couple of times I've been in there, I haven't been all that impressed (take that meat out of the plastic wrap for starters!).

Let's Meat on the Avenue
2403 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria

Sierra Leone: All you ever wanted to learn about the measles, colonoscopies, and how to catch a serial killer

The television in the hole-in-the-wall that is Sumah's West African Restaurant and Carryout was blaring CNN. I was going to ask the waiter (who turned out to be Sumah himself) if he wouldn't mind turning it down a wee bit, but his friendly welcome made me bite my tongue. Samah asked if we'd eaten in his restaurant before and as we had not, brought us a plate with a spoonful of each dish from the menu. Everything was delicious, but after much deliberation (to the noisy tune of CNN's report on the killing of a Japanese hostage by ISIS, the ongoing measles outbreak and the death of Whitney Houston's daughter), we settled on eguisi (a stew made from leafy greens and ground pumpkin or melon seeds), peanut stew, and okra stew. I have to mention that the service at Sumah's is maybe the slowest I've ever had. As it happened, my friends and I were in no hurry and happy to have the chance to catch up, but we might have had tickets to the Howard Theater around the corner or plans later in the evening and I did not really get the feeling that it is possible to hurry things along at Sumah's. We waited a very long time for Sumah to take our order and a very, very, very long time for the food to come (this seemed particularly odd because we had already tasted the stews we ordered, so they must have been ready in the kitchen. Is there only one pot? one microwave?) and then a good long while to pay. All the while, CNN's measles story turned to Morgan Spurlock (who I once saw on the street in New York) getting a colonoscopy in Thailand, and then after we had finished eating and were trying very hard to pay, we got to watch almost all of How to Catch a Serial Killer. All at a pretty high decibel level.

In any case, after a long CNN-fueled wait, we were brought  a giant ball of fufu (this gluey cassava-based starch is a staple in Sierra Leone and other West African countries - I like it, but a little goes a long way). Our fufu sat there looking cold and lonely for several minutes and then we got a dish of rice. I'm don't personally need a lot of finery, but it did strike me as odd that all the food came in a tupperware or to-go containers. No matter, we finally got two of the three stews we'd ordered and were definitely ready to eat (our third stew came a while later). Under other circumstances, the loud tv, slow service, and lack of actual plates might have put me off this place, but the food is not only interesting, but very, very good and Sumah is a charmer (I'm sure he would have been happy to turn down the TV volume if I had asked). Somehow, West African food seems more different from the various cuisines that have been incorporated into mainstream American food. I can't quite say why Ethiopian or Thai food feels more "western" to me, but it does. I might not bring a picky friend to Sumah's, but it's a treat to remember how a single meal can offer you a window into another place.

1727 7th St., NW, DC