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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

You call this food?

We’ve spent the last two days in Upington, a smallish boarder town which, luckily for us, just happens to cater to 4X4 overlanders preparing for their journeys north. Despite all of our preparation thus far, we still have a few loose ends to wrap up before leaving South Africa. We are: having a second solar panel mounted on the roof to help offset the drain on the batteries from the refrigerator/freezer, installing a new set of speakers, having hammocks sewn, stocking up on spare Toyota parts, mailing off all of our bulky kite surfing gear and doing laundry; basically things that make living out of a car more comfortable. We did briefly discuss the possibility of a satellite internet connection, but that was quickly nixed by el Hefe, who claims to have been a slave to the internet for far too long. Can’t say I disagree.

Glenn and I are looking forward to crossing the border. We’ve heard such wonderful accounts of Namibia from other travelers. For starters, it has one of the oldest and driest deserts in the world, comprised of apricot –colored dunes (some say the tallest in the world) interspersed with expanses of hard dry pan. There are places where the dunes actually roar when you drive or walk on them. Air trapped beneath the surface amplifies the sound of the shifting sand. To the north lies the Etosha pan, the most famous wild-life park in the country, hemmed in by the Namib, one of the most barren, inhospitable landscaped in Africa. The Kalahari covers the southern portion of the country, a huge expanse of semi-arid desert stretching from Namibia, through South Africa, Botswana, Angola, parts of The Congo and into Zimbabwe.

Thanks to Germany’s foray into colonialism, Namibia has a significant German population in addition to the native Nama and Herero people. Not to mention a nomadic tribe of “Tree Sleepers” that we’ve been told we must go find. The town of Swakopmund is even said to be more German than Germany. And since I am one of the few people who happen to love German food, I am stoked.

After eating out regularily for nearly 3 months, I can honestly say that South Africa has its fair share of bad food, and then some. I mean really, beef flavored MSG? It is sold here right near the section of corn chips sweetened with aspartame…yes, here the Beef Steak flavored Doritos are overly sweetened with toxic sweeteners that most American consumers have rejected (no, plain corn flavor isn’t an option, but peach chutney, tomato and onion are!). Aspartame in your Doritoes makes high-fructose corn syrup seem like a healthy alternative. Is this what the world gets? Americas most undesirable cast-offs. All of the experimental items that no longer have a market back home. I am sure I could find something made with Olestra if I checked the lables. Not that Doritos are a benchmark of any kind, but hey, with fresh avocados being sold window-side at the traffic stops - and the Americas far, far away - you take what you can. Scooping up a big swath of guacamole with a potato chip just isn’t quite right.

Just to drive home my point I’ll give you today’s lunch scenario. I’ll preface this by saying Happy Freedom Day! Today is the holiday that celebrates Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Africans have a lot of holidays; so many that most people don’t even know what they all represent. Because of the holiday, the two notable restaurants in town were closed, so we ‘lucked out’ when the third was open.

Being vegetarian I ordered a chicken salad without the chicken, and explained to the waitress that I don’t eat meat, so if she could just ask the chef to leave it off that would be great. What I received was a giant bowl of the most awful salad imaginable, probably worse than you can imagine, because before encountering the South African salad (think soggy iceburg, bad mayo and canned items such as mushrooms, asparagus and baby corn), I didn’t know you could commit such atrocities against raw veggies. This whole mess was topped off with a pile of onion rings that, on my best guess, were originally cooked a day or so ago then ‘refried’ in cold, rancid oil to sufficiently saturate them through. The soggy mound of onion rings was then drenched in a fluorescent orange sauce that might have been a sweetened, spiced ‘mayonnaise’ of some sort, but the kind that doesn’t need refrigerated; you know the stuff, artificial flavors and preservatives in an industrial sized jug, purchased in a store that sells packing materials, POS tape and long-life ‘sauces’ to restranteurs who can’t be bothered to actually serve real food (probably the same stuff we serve to our kids in schools across America). And all of that deliciousness was just the top of the salad! Once I dug down a bit I found a sweet and tangy white version of the same mayo and I don’t even know what was below that. I stopped digging. So I decided to cut my losses and order an omelet.

“May I have a small omelet without meat, please?”

Out comes a large bacon and ham omelet drowning in mayo sauce. So I explain to the waitress, again, that I don’t eat meat.

“This omelet has bacon and ham in it, I ordered one without meat. Could you please ask the cook to make me an omelet with just tomatoes, onion and cheese? Oh, and no mayo, please.”

The third lunch arrives. It is an omelet with tomatoes, onions and HAM! To top it off, the ‘cook’ had sprinkled the entire omelet with a seasoning mixture which was sweet, probably aspartame and beef flavored MSG. The entire omelet was disgustingly sweet and tasted nothing like eggs. However, there was no mayo sauce on this round, but at this point I just couldn’t hang. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and go for a bag of sesame pretzels and a few tangerines. However, the restaurant itself was very nice looking…which in South Africa seems to take precedence over edible food. Here, the fancier the restaurant, the worse the food, generally speaking.

One of my favorite chefs (and people) is South African, so I may have arrived with unusually high hopes, thinking that he hails from the land of delicious food. Then again, some substances were never meant to be classified as food: like aspartame, no refrigeration require ‘mayonnaise’ and beef flavored MSG. Yet, these items (from American companies no less) have found their way onto the shelves of the South African supermarket, go figure. Foreign countries have long been the dumping ground for all our chemical waste. If The States are ahead of the curve when it comes to food (I would disagree. Our labeling laws are horrible) - and we are just now on the cusp of a food revolution – then, South African’s have a few more toxic years ahead of them. Sorry for offloading our entire lot of disgusting cast-offs on you guys and good luck over the next 10 years; you might want to eat in.

PS: We have had some absolutely fabulous meals at a few Restaurants; notably Manna Epicurious, Bird’s Café, La Jardine, Bizerca and The Eastern Bazaar in Cape Town, Isle de pan in Knysna and the Outdoor Restaurant in Lambert’s Bay (not really a restaurant, but a wall of thorn bushes with a dirt floor and possibly the best seafood in all of South Africa. So they aren’t all bad, but if you find yourself hungry in the RSA, the odds are stacked against you. Ok. I am done, enough food ranting for a while. Namibia, dust off the fondue forks… here we come.

* This post is a week old. Apparently RSA experienced a country wide, week long internet outage. Can you imagine if this happened in the US?

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