As a South African expat in New York, I find myself missing the foods, wines, and goods of my home country from time to time. Luckily, New York is a diverse, large city with plenty of variety and choice; because the United States (and New York in particular) is home to such a large concentration of immigrants, it’s all too easy to find authentic tastes and experiences from back home.
Homesick South Africans then, should rejoice. Let’s take a look at three South African-owned businesses that offer comfort foods straight from South Africa’s streets, rolling plains, and velds.
Named after Nelson Mandela’s clan name, Madiba is a mainstay on the New York restaurant scene, and one of only a rare handful of restaurants that both serve South African cuisine, and more importantly, are South African owned. Founder Mark Henegan emigrated from South Africa almost five decades ago. Since that time, Madiba has been associated with South Africa; the establishment has received rave reviews and been involved in a number of important initiatives that benefit South Africans. In 2015, Henegan even invited students to protest outside, a gesture of solidarity with their South African counterparts (who faced a dramatic tuition hike at the time).
In terms of food, Madiba’s palates are diverse and wide-ranging. The restaurant offers braai, both a delicious style of cooking barbecued meat as well as a relaxed, social gathering akin to American summer barbecues; crushed corn stew from the Xhosa people (and allegedly Mandela’s favorite); and basmati rice with raisins and roti, a reflection of the nation’s south Asian heritage.
Kaia Wine Bar
Upscale, cozy, and celebrated, Kaia is the brainchild of Suzann Haupfleisch, who came to New York with dreams of starring on the silver screen. Though her acting aspirations didn’t pan out, Suzann did work her way up in a number of hospitality and dining establishments, eventually establishing Kaia as a tribute to the myriad wines and tastes of her home country.
Though the vast majority of Kaia’s wine menu comes from South Africa, there are a number of Australian and New Zealand vintages rounding out the mix. For three years running, the restaurant has made the Michelin Guide for its homestyle take on Suzann’s family recipes. Of particular interest, to both the Michelin inspectors and the general public, is the vark ribbetjies en vark pensie, or pork ribs glazed with honey and rooibos tea, accompanied by belly braised in Indian pale ale and dressed with candied kumquats.
Whatever you choose, however, Kaia is a great way to experience the authentic tastes of South Africa.
Among the more interesting South African establishments in New York, Jonty Jacobs was founded by Monique St. Luce, a South African-born banker, and her American husband, Camran. The shop specializes in biltong, the quintessential South African snack, a dried, preserved meat often made from beef (generally sirloin or top round) coated in vinegar and natural spices, and cured without chemicals. Softer and juicier than jerky, its American cousin, biltong is the perfect snack for those seeking a local taste of South Africa.
Braai (now closed)
Though it’s since been transformed into a new restaurant, Braai deserves an honorable mention simply because, like Madiba, it was one of the pioneers of New York’s South African food scene. As its name suggests, braai was its specialty, featuring barbecued meats of all types and varieties. Unfortunately, the restaurant closed down, rebranded as Laboratorio, an Italian eatery.
Whatever you choose, just know that New York has its own, small thriving South African food and wine scene. Great news, for adventurous eaters and homesick expats alike.