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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Karoo flavour burns in P-town

Cape Cod is clam chowder and fried clam territory, but a *boeremeisie from the Karoo has introduced a new menu to the experimental village of Provincetown. She offers everything from Bobotie and bunny chow to ostrich burgers and boerewors rolls.

Karoo Kafe is situated next to the boldly displayed MG Leather Shop for gay men along the crammed tourist strip in Commercial St. To people alien to South Africa, Karoo Kafe means nothing. But when I saw the friendly yellow and black sign and the South African flag from the street, it felt like home.

You are unlikely to be greeted by the owner, Sanette Groenewald. She will be in the tiny kitchen at the back preparing the food. But she has made it easy
for her patrons by offering explanations for the foreign-sounding dishes on her menu. Karoo Bunny Chow is a “curried ground beef covering a bed of French fries in a quarter loaf of white bread.” A “Boeri Roll” is a "traditional South African farmer sausage on a bun with Karoo chutney". Etcetera.

Eager to chat to a South African, Sanette (pictured right) emerged from the kitchen after I had eaten my lunch, a Peri-Peri chicken Pita, and after I had introduced my curious non-South African buddies Sonali and Anita (pictured above) to a range of tasty culinary experiences, from Durban bunny chow to ostrich satay and curried slaw.

So how did a farm girl from the Karoo land up running an authentic South African restaurant on the tip of Cape Cod?

“I never would have imagined that one day I would end up here,” she confessed with a hearty chuckle.

Sanette grew up on a farm in Wolseley. She studied food service management at the Cape Technikon. While working as a chef at the Burgundy in Hermanus in 1995, she was headhunted by a restaurant in New York City. “I thought, okay, this sounds like a good thing. I am ready for a change.”

But New York was a huge culture shock, and she knew immediately that she couldn’t live there. “I wanted peace and quiet.”

Sanette visited Provincetown for the Easter weekend and fell in love with the simple lifestyle and friendly people…. Just like the Karoo. “Nobody locked their doors, and Christmas lights were on display. I thought, okay, I can do this.”

She shifted gear and moved to the gay seaside holiday resort town, where some shop owners cheekily display “straight-friendly” on their doors. She worked as a chef in various restaurants, but dreamed of opening up a restaurant to introduce locals and tourists to tastes from home in the Karoo semi-desert.

In 2002, she took a deep breath and opened up Karoo Kafe, offering South African dishes that are heavily influenced by Indian, Malay and Portuguese flavours. Being realistic, she adapted her menu to suit American tastes and has tempted patrons’ taste buds by constantly reviving her menu.

“I have adapted traditional dishes and added twists to others. Five years ago, people here had no idea about South African food. Ostrich meat was foreign, but, thanks to the Internet the world has got smaller and I have found that people are keen to experiment.”

To a point, that is. For instance, Mieliepap (maize meal porridge), Vetkoek (fatcake), Offal (variety of meat offcuts) and chakalaka (vegetarian mix) are absent from her menu for now. Sanette also had to tone down her peri-peri chicken to not freak out delicate taste buds. It's no point being too in your face, too risque for P-town patrons.‘It’s a process,” she said. “It takes a while to get people into the tastes.”

Favourites include the Malva pudding, boerewors burgers and somosas. She also has a steady supply of South African products for sale on her shelf – from Ouma rusks, biltong, Mrs Balls Chutney, Rooibos tea, Flake chocolates and, much to the delight of my eight-year-old daughter, Chappies bubble-gum.

Sanette returns to her family home in the Karoo most years to stock up, but she relies on a wholesaler in Atlanta and Britain for the bulk of supplies. Complying with the US Food and Drug Administration has proved frustrating at times. For instance, she cannot import Peppermint Crisp because the green food dye doesn’t comply. At the moment, the only African ale in her fridge is Tuskers, from Kenya, because she is struggling to get South African-brewed beer through the net due to labelling issues.

Does she get homesick? “Of course. I miss seeing my nephews and nieces, I miss having a real *braai, with lamb and boerewors. I miss *tannie’s tert and groot, *geel perskes off the farm.”

braai = BBQ

Boeremeise= farm girl

geel perskes = yellow peaches

Tannie’s tert = aunty’s tart