Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Port Elizabeth’s Unexpected Thai Treasures

Port Elizabeth is known for its sandy beaches, flip-flop vibe, and most widely for its place on the map as the Garden Route’s gateway – but it’s also the unlikely home to two Thai food gems that make a visit a veritable treasure hunt. Theresa Lozier uncovers some of its hidden bounty.

In Thailand, food is an intrinsic part of culture – so much so that the traditional Thai greeting is not “hello” or “how are you?” – it is, “Have you eaten yet?” The preparation and presentation of food, and even the way it is shared and enjoyed, is linked to social norms and fundamental beliefs that help form Thailand’s social fabric. Thai people believe that dishes are meant to be shared, that it’s bad luck to eat alone, that wasting food angers the God of Rice and can even result in famine, and that beautiful presentation pleases the traditional monarch, the King of Siam, to no end. Even the Royal Thai Embassy’s web site has an official listing of authentic Thai restaurants, endorsing them as “a way to experience Thailand while in South Africa”. Not surprisingly, the list of these establishments runs long in foodie capitals like Cape Town and Johannesburg, but includes only two in the whole Eastern Cape – both of them in Port Elizabeth.

When it comes to food, it’s hard to imagine humble Port Elizabeth competing with the likes of Cape Town and Johannesburg, each with hoards of resident celebrity chefs competing on an international level. Be that as it may, this laid-back beach town has something its big sister and brother strive to recreate – a no frills authenticity and an honest, soulful nature that can’t help but make everyone feel at home. So perhaps it is fitting then that Port Elizabeth should host two of South Africa’s most authentic Thai restaurants, both intent on making their guests feel welcome by sharing the community spirit of their culture in their own unique ways.

Natti’s Thai Kitchen – An evening with friends

It’s a balmy summer’s evening and a slight breeze in the air brings welcome relief to the day. We’re arriving at a restored Victorian house in Port Elizabeth’s historic quarter, now home to Natti’s Thai Kitchen, an institution among locals. We approach the door under the twinkling fairy lights – step by step our noses are tickled by the aromas of our dinner to come. Mark, the owner, greets us at the door barefoot, his hair wavy and his smile as warm as the kitchen. It’s our first time meeting but we chat like we’re friends already.

The walls of the restaurant are painted in hues of yellow and the fiery red drapes glow in the soft candlelight. As my eyes adjust Mark leads us past a giant chalkboard menu, a painting of Buddha, and an antique fireplace. We walk over the creaking wooden floors and out onto the patio where we have a view of the flowers and herbs in his private garden. The scene is complete with a fishpond and an inviting swinging lounger – I imagine myself relaxing there sometime after our meal.

While we are being seated we chat about the Thai flavours we love – spicy and savoury, coriander, seafood and green curry, creamy coconut. It feels like more of a conversation than an order and with that, Mark disappears into the kitchen promising to return with something we will enjoy. A short while later he presents us with a mixed platter of spicy satay, fresh spring rolls and calamari served with Thai dips like Nam Prik Kapi (chili) and Nam Jim Kai (sweet), everything homemade by Natti herself, Mark’s wife, a Thai national. For our main course we enjoy the fish curry, full of satisfying seafood and flavours that dance in my mouth. I savour and cheer with each bite. We finish with the tempura banana and ice cream – crunchy and creamy, warm and cold, sweet and salty – the perfect finish to a lovely evening. Time to find that swinging lounger.

  • TEL: 041 373 2763

Narai Siam Thai Kitchen – A celebration of colour

Entering the doors of Narai Siam Thai Kitchen, on a quiet out of the way street in an unassuming converted house, is like being simultaneously smacked by an array of bright colours and carried away to an Asian version of Carnival. Every table, wall and even the ceiling is adorned in authentic Thai tapestries in hot pink, yellow, green and blue. Shimmering mirrors reflect the light like little disco balls, making this tiny space feel larger than life. The feeling is festive yet casual, perfect for groups in a celebratory mood while window nook seating offers a semi-private space for smaller parties.

My friend and I are looking forward to a lunch out, a celebration of nothing and everything in particular. We make jovial small talk with our host who brings us our order-by-number menus. We start with a classic, an order of crispy spring rolls, and dipping sauce, and order a bottle of Noble Hill Sauvignon Blanc –perfect with just about any food with its lemony, crisp finish.

Our host returns promptly with the starter and wine and takes the rest of our order. I go for my favourite, #30 Penang Curry with Chicken, and my friend has #57, the Pad Thai. Just a few bites in and we are loving the food, the vibe and our funny host. The restaurant starts to fill with the voices of other patrons and all of them seem just a jovial as the surroundings – it feels like we’ve happened upon a mid-day’s party. When the coast is clear we take turns sneaking away to have a peek at the infamous men’s loo – where the d├ęcor is guaranteed to bring a laugh, if not a blush as red as the sweet chili sauce! We cool down over Thai iced teas – brewed to perfection, they are satisfyingly sweet, authentically Thai and beautiful to look at – like the entire restaurant experience distilled into one glass.

  • TEL: 041 363 8126

Monday, October 18, 2010

Glitzy, Girly Glamour at the House of J.C. Le Roux

I love champagne, cap classique, cava, prosecco, spumante, sekt and sparkling – we have different names for it in regions all over the world, but however you say it, I love bubbly. I love the ritual of opening the bottle – of peeling away the foil seal, like golden wrapping paper, of gently turning the wire safety, finally revealing the cork. I love that quiet moment of anticipation before turning the cork until it explodes into my hand, and the vapour that whispers out of the bottle before a delicate pour into an elegant champagne flute, and that special “cling”. I especially love the guilty pleasure of opening a bottle just for me – champagne-savers, those ingenious little bottle sealer contraptions that let you enjoy your bubbles on more days than one, are a wonderful invention.

Perhaps the champagne-saver is a symbol of the growing popularity of bubblies everywhere. No longer reserved for uber-special occasions like anniversaries or proposals, these days I find myself enjoying it with friends more often – perhaps because it’s Friday, or because we feel like a bit of girly exuberance. And why not? There are many wineries producing quality options at a price point that makes celebrating for no particular reason completely accessible. In a way, these producers are democratizing the idea of bubbly – bringing the attributes that we associate with this drink, like luxury, exclusivity and sophistication – to ladies of today at a price they can palette while lunching on sushi and looking at the world through rose-coloured designer sunglasses.

The House of J. C. le Roux, part of a historic farm established by French Huguenot Jean le Roux in the 18th century, is one of the wineries changing the marketplace in South Africa today. Exclusively dedicated to the production of bubbly, including the award-winning Pongracz label, J.C. le Roux offers a sparkling and Cap Classique range that is priced to suit just about any occasion. Placed on one of Devon Valley’s rolling hills, you’ll find it at the end of an ambling road that takes you through the countryside past dams, vines, and under the shade of sprawling trees. It feels a world away and is certainly worth a special trip. Most importantly, don’t forget your gaggle of girlfriends. While men certainly can (and should) enjoy the experience, this is a wine tasting that has been especially designed with ladies in mind.

As testament to this, as my friends and I were arriving for a recent tasting we were greeted by the sight of a group of giggling ladies, dressed in pink and floral dresses, who had stopped their car on the side of the road to pose for pictures with the J.C. le Roux entrance sign. As we approached the tasting room we noticed yet more ladies, lounging in the sun next to the water feature, beautifully packaged bottles of MCC decorating their feet. Upon entering we were swept away by streaming chandeliers, made to look like strings of bubbles floating up to the ceiling, a decadent looking pink and grey vintage-print lounger, and individual tables set for relaxed and semi-private tastings, complete with pink tablecloths and rows of gleaming champagne flutes. It was like we had arrived at the VIP section of a secret ladies’ society.

We had our choice of the MCC tasting or a mix of MCC and sparkling wines, plus the added pairing options of sorbet or the “Sweet Delights” selection. We unanimously chose a tasting of MCC range paired with sweet delights – decadent cubes of dark chocolate nougat, rosewater Turkish Delight, vanilla fudge, and more. It was utterly indulgent and worth every bite.

Halfway through we were invited outside to witness a sevrage bottle opening – a traditional technique that employs a sabre to swipe the lip of the bottle, making a clean break in the glass that separates the bottleneck from the lip, a sort of “beheading” that leaves the cork still intact in the bottle top that falls to the ground. History tells us that Napoleon’s cavalry used this method just after the French Revolution to kick-off the celebrations of many victories across Europe. I can’t think of any other tipple with an opening method as show stopping as this, yet another display of the absolute decadence bubbly brings to the table. It’s not just a drink, it’s a glass of joy. Perhaps this is why we love it so much – it takes us back to the days of pomp and circumstance, the feeling of royalty and the pleasure of very special celebrations. Did I mention I love bubbly?

  • Where: The House of J.C. Le Roux
  • Ambiance: Glitzy, girly glamour
  • Hours: Mon-Fri 08H30 – 16H30; Sat (Nov-April) 10H00 – 16H00, (May-Oct) 10H00 – 15H00l; Sun (Nov-April and Public Holidays) 10H00 – 15H00
  • Address: At the end of Devon Valley Road, Stellenbosch
  • Tel: 021 865 8200
  • Various tasting options priced from R30 per person

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Life in South Africa

A while ago I received an email from an American woman living in Asia, who is married to a South African and contemplating relocating to Cape Town. She asked for my thoughts on life here, in the long and the short term. She wondered about the things you hear in the news – the negative explanation points that seem to encompass a place, deservedly or not. Her email really got me thinking about my own experience here. I took my time to craft my reply to her and wanted to share it with you as well – I hope you’ll enjoy my candid response:

Dear friend-

Thanks very much for your mail. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to come back to you. The truth is, your question kind of intrigued me and at first I wasn’t really sure what I would say. In a way I feel that it’s a privilege to share my perspective with you as you make this very important decision, and at the same time it is a huge responsibility to respond to you with honesty. Ultimately only you know whether moving to South Africa is a good decision for you. You might already know the answer you are seeking, somewhere deep inside.

My story in South Africa began a long time ago, in 1998, when I came here as a study-abroad student in university. At the time I didn’t know much about SA. I had heard about Nelson Mandela and apartheid and was fascinated with the idea of “Africa” – but otherwise I came with a mostly blank page, innocence, excitement and pure joy. I had always dreamt I would travel – and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to finally board that plane and awake to sunrise over the Kalahari.

While I was here studying I fell in love. We met amidst the Southern Hemisphere’s largest sand dunes, in Alexandria. It’s a place not too far from Port Elizabeth where the dunes pile up like mountains. The view from the top makes friends at the bottom look like ants, far away, and then the blonde giants tumble down dramatically to the edges of the sea. I grew up in land-locked Pennsylvania and had never seen such harsh and abrupt beauty.

I went back to the States to finish my studies and six years went by. I had a new life but something was always missing for me. Eventually I had the chance to come to South Africa for a three-week holiday and then everything changed. I reunited with the friend I had fallen for before and we travelled together to the Transkeii on the East coast and had one of the most amazing times of my life. Those 21 days were full of turning points for me and memories that still make me smile – New Year’s Eve fireworks on a wild coast, feeling the humid tropical weather, driving through pouring rain and waving to locals who walked slowly, the same as they would on any other day, camping on a hillside next to a village where people live in huts, don’t have electricity and cows roam the beach. It was a world away, even now, and it helped me make my decision to move here, to be with this wonderful person and to carry that feeling of absolute freedom every day.

A year and three months later I moved here. It was difficult to leave my “old home” for my new one. I sold off most of my things, packed what I could, and arrived full of anticipation. I never looked back, even though this hasn’t been an easy journey. It took me a long while to make new friends and really feel like this is my home. My professional life was also full of adjustment and at first, cultural misunderstandings that proved frustrating. Soon after I arrived I personally experienced crime – something which served as the biggest stumbling block for me in adjusting here since it destroyed my sense of confidence and for a while, my free spirit. But time heals all things and now I can say I am living the life I dreamt I would live.

In the long run South Africa will present you with financial challenges – the rand does not go very far which makes international travel and every day shopping a budgeting exercise. There is talk of a national policy to weaken the rand further, making exported goods cheaper and more competitive but meaning that imports are that much more expensive. Crime is a reality that affects many people. The nation is awash in “transformation” and Black Economic Empowerment and while this is good for many it creates special challenges for white South Africans. The price of electricity is rising at a rate of 30+% each year. Quality education comes at a high price and with a good dose of competition for the limited classroom seats. The public healthcare system is troubled – there are stories in the news of hospitals having to close due to copper wire theft, babies dying due to unsanitary conditions. The president is a polygamist with five wives but still there are stories of his fathering children with other women out of wedlock – making his position as a role model in a nation awash in rising HIV / AIDS rates difficult to believe. Life in South Africa can be first world in some places, in some experiences, in some lifestyles – yet there are stripes of third world realities, struggles and corruption and the two sides cannot help but intersect at some points.

In the short term South Africa will offer you a beautiful life with wild and wondrous scenery, awe inspiring weather, joyous discoveries and memories for a life time. We’ve been to Mozambique where I slept next to the beach, snorkelled in clear warm water, ate prawns and discovered that at night there are hundreds, maybe thousands of crabs that come out and scamper along the sand. I’ve seen the greatest sand dunes of Namibia, in Sossusvlei, where the grains at the peak form a snake-like dragon highlighted by the first light of dawn. We camped in Etosha National Park and clung to our pillows while Honey Badgers snorted outside, in search of food and by day watched elephants and zebra drink at the watering hole. We walked in the zone of leopards and heard hyena at night in the distance. I’ve climbed to the peak of Monk’s Cowl in the mighty Drakensberg Mountains, 18 hours of steady walking, exhausted and exalted at the end. I’ve spent time learning to surf in the frigid Atlantic and the warm Indian Oceans. I’ve been surprised by a giant purple-domed jellyfish and later laughed at my own freak out. I am learning bits of Afrikaans and surprise locals by throwing in a word or two while talking. People are generally quite curious about me as an American and are inquisitive about life in the States and how I came to be here. I now live in Cape Town, one of the world’s most beautiful cities. We laugh that on weekends spent at home we still feel like we’re on holiday with all of the amazing things to discover. I’ve grown into a better person and learn new things every day. I miss my friends and family – and reunions are that much sweeter. I think about the things that are important to me and thank the universe for allowing me to be so lucky.

What happens to one person will never happen exactly to another we each have our own path and for that reason I think we must each make our own decisions. I hope you will make your decision carefully but believe that a dose of light heartedness goes a long way, and that sometimes the decisions made with our hearts are the most powerful ones of all. Thank you for the opportunity to share my story with you.

Wishing you all the best from the fairest cape in the whole circumference of the globe,