Out of Africa, escaping India

You may not find fat, crunchy Mopane worms everywhere, but there are other rewards for evading mother India’s global influence


Bangalore-style Jollof Rice. Photo: Samar Halarnkar
Bangalore-style Jollof Rice. Photo: Samar Halarnkar

It was somewhere over the Horn of Africa, cruising at 35,000ft in the great, blue yonder, that I realized how inexperienced I was with business-class travel. Global-roaming readers of Mint Lounge may smirk, but hacks do not ordinarily fly in the front of the aircraft.

I had just finished a nice glass of wine and the main course of salmon tossed with something. It was all very nice, served on a white tablecloth with real cutlery and many smiles from Emirates Airlines’ famously multinational staff. A fresh, warm bread ended the meal—when the real meal arrived, a big chunk of salmon. I was embarrassed but happily so. Yes, I did think the starter was the main course.

I was winging my way to Johannesburg, South Africa, for a conference whose organizers had thoughtfully sent me the said business-class ticket. After experiencing only my second business-class trip ever, I thoughtfully pondered the drive from the airport to the city. South Africans are friendly, jolly folk, and their country’s infrastructure is world class, but the newspapers acquaint you with developing-country corruption, driven, as it happens, by a pair of Indian brothers (the Guptas), who appear to have the president and many ministers in their pockets. Still, the rainbow nation flourishes. In a quiet Johannesburg suburb—I actually felt uneasy the first night because of the dead silence—where my old friend lives, I heard about the wonderful mix of races and cultures that make up his children’s school: black, Indian, white, coloured and Chinese.

As in other parts of Anglophone Africa, the Indian influence is apparent in South Africa. When I first met my friend—who grew up in the township of Soweto during the apartheid era—he loomed over me on a spring day in 1993, as I lay under an oak tree in the American Midwest, suggesting I had taken his spot. His questions, as I recall them, in no particular order:

“Are you from the third world?” Umm, yes.

“Are you from India?” Yes

“Can you make biryani?” Well, I could try.

And so began a friendship that has lasted over 23 years, marriage and children. We are only infrequently in touch, but when we do connect, the years don’t seem to matter. To return to the subject of biryani, I made it for the first time at his urging. He wanted a taste of home, so I turned out a reasonable biryani with fine American beef—an exception to my long-standing rule of not eating home food away from home. Most other Indians, of course, have no such qualms. On the return flight, a South African subcontractor of one of India’s great IT firms explained how he always made sure there was dal, grilled vegetable and roti on his braai (barbeque) for visiting Indian partners.

Last week, I was clear I would not eat Indian food in South Africa. I liked the food at the four-star hotel where I stayed, but it was what I would call “global business food”; myriad influences, healthy cooking styles and as largely similar in Johannesburg as in similar hotels in Oslo or even Mumbai.

What was unusual were the worms that I ate at a so-called village restaurant in Johannesburg—boiled, deep-fried and tossed with what seemed a very Indian masala. The caterpillars of the emperor moth, mopane worms, are consumed across southern Africa. Indians aren’t the only squeamish eaters. Only two Kenyans joined me, the lone Indian, in enjoying the crunchy morsels.

There wasn’t much opportunity to taste more local food, although the menu that day included some excellent oxtail. Inspired by my little trip, I came home and evolved my own version of a reasonably pan-African dish: jollof rice, a one-pot meal that can incorporate anything, from yam to pork. Every country and family has its own version. Here is mine.

Bangalore-style jollof rice

Serves 4

Ingredients

Stage 1

1 coffee mug long-grained rice

2 small red peppers, deseeded and diced

2 large tomatoes, roughly chopped

K onion, roughly chopped

2 dried chillies (I used byadgi)

Wash the rice and set aside. Grind peppers, onion, tomatoes and dried chillies into a paste.

Stage 2

1 tsp fresh ginger, finely chopped

2-3 tsp fresh garlic, finely chopped

2 bay leaves

2 heaped tsp garam masala (I used my home-made version)

2 tsp Kashmiri chilli powder

3 tsp dried oregano (or use fresh thyme)

2 tsp vegetable oil

Salt, to taste

Method

In a large, flat-bottomed pan, heat oil gently on a large burner. Add the bay leaves. After 30 seconds, stir-fry the garlic and ginger for a minute or so. Add garam masala and chilli powder. Stir for 15 seconds and add the pepper-onion-tomato-dried-chilli paste and 2 tsp of oregano. Mix well and wait till it starts to boil. Add rice and mix well. Add one and half mugs of water, salt, cover and cook on medium heat for 10 minutes, with a weight on top of the lid. Add more water if needed. Reduce to low and cook until done. Open and check. If the rice is not cooked, add dribbles of water. Turn over the rice if needed, especially the slightly burnt scrapings at the bottom—they add kick to the rice. When ready, sprinkle with the remaining oregano, adjust salt (if necessary), and serve hot.

This is a column on easy, inventive cooking from a male perspective. Samar Halarnkar writes the fortnightly column Frontier Mail for Mint and is the author of The Married Man’s Guide To Creative Cooking—And Other Dubious Adventures. He tweets at @samar11.

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