It is still difficult to pinpoint what exactly South African cuisine is after 20 years of democracy.
Many food writers seem to tackle this question in bite size pieces by focussing on specific regions, and while we’ve seen much focus on the Karoo, Boerekos, Cape Malay and Wine Lands cuisine, Erica Platter and Clinton Friedman (as PawPaw publishers) are some of the first to really highlight the often underestimated culinary abundance of KwaZulu-Natal.
First they gave us East Coast Tables then a sequel East Coast Tables: The Inland Edition and now, to celebrate the region’s most famous dish, they teamed up with Devi Sankaree Govender to produce Durban Curry: So Much of Flavour.
The question that Platter and Friedman aim to answer in their food ‘documentary’ is: What are Durban curries? Plural. Because there are many curries in Durban writes Platter.
In search of the answer they go on a colourful journey exploring not only the local community’s curry recipes, but also tell the stories behind it. Platter and Friedman’s travels take readers from the kitchens of professional chefs to spice blenders, the renowned Women’s Cultural Group and small farmers. They share their recipes (or most of it as you will often find that the secret is in the “top secret curry powder” or masala recipes that are “protected just like Kentucky”) and the stories of the generations that shaped and passed on some of the country’s favourite dishes.
Each story, as the recipe, is unique, but contributors unanimously support Linkey Moodley, proprietor of the historic Britannia Hotel’s opinion that Durban curry is a proudly South African dish. “Durban curry is not a clone. It originated here.”
Perhaps the best description of Durban curry that explains its intricate relationship with terroir and community is found just before Managay’s Ricotta and Methi Chutney: “Durban curries have always been works in progress: open to change, using local ingredients, adapting to local conditions and challenges.”
The “DNA” of Durban curry as Platter describes it is difficult to define and the writers conclude that it is easier to identify what a Durban curry is ‘NOT’. Unlike traditional recipes in the Motherland, a Durban curry does not usually include cream, milk, yoghurt or nuts, and very little butter or ghee is used. In Durban oil is used, with a lot of chilli, cumin and coriander and the vibrant colour comes from a lot of tomatoes. The local enthusiastic addition of potatoes is apparently another unique attribute as is the treatment of the spices – adding it early in the cooking process. Although there are many opinions all agree that it has to be “Red and hot.” Platter explains that “it is the bold, assured use of spices which distinguishes KwaZulu-Natal cooking, the bright flavours, the sizzling colours.”
The curry recipes and stories are conveniently divided according to main ingredients: Beans, Bunny Chow, Chicken, Duck, Lamb Mutton Trotters and Beef, Seafood and Vegetarian. The foundational recipes and key to some of the “secret masalas” are under Spices and Masalas and Pickles and Chutneys, Sides and Drinks with Curry complete the meal.
The Drinks with Curry section contributed by Platter’s husband and South African wine guru John Platter is a marvellous addition explaining that although challenging, it is indeed possible to find a match between wine and fiery bold curries. And wine snobs who frown upon Catemba’s will be surprised at Platter’s conclusion: “Catemba, a blend of red wine and Coke, chilled, is an old Angolan and Mozambican favourite with per-peri dishes: it takes on curry fearlessly”.
Another highlight in this study of Durban curry is the focus on bunny chow. Not only is the struggle history of this proudly South African curry sandwich explained but you are also educated on how to order, eat and what to drink with this humble worker’s lunch. Most importantly, the names and addresses of where to find the best bunnies are also supplied. “Bunny joints have fanatical supporters, rather like football clubs.” Although bunny fillings vary today, it was originally a bean curry served in either half or a quarter of government loaf and the beverage of choice was cream soda.
Unlike many of the regional nostalgic food memoires that are filled with sepia photographs and perfect studio styled food photos, Platter and Friedman take a documentary approach to their subject and tell intriguing food stories in pages that are as vibrant as the spices in the curry. They showcase the ingredients and environment as much as the people, dishes and their history.
Any chef serious about representing South African cuisine on their menus, should have this book on their kitchen office. Recipes are easy to follow and packed with flavour. Finding authentic ingredients like red turmeric might require some effort, but it is well worth the effort to capture the authentic taste of Durban.
This curry documentary is a fascinating read that will not only send you straight to the kitchen, but also have you planning a trip to Durban as food destination. Drive, don’t fly and pack East Coast Tables: The Inland Edition as there are many food stops worth making on the way to the curry capital.
Durban Curries: So Much of Flavour is published by PawPaw publishers.
Article author: Adele Stiehler-van der Westhuizen