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This time for (South) Africa

Indians are very particular about what they eat,” observes South African chef Mohammed Mustafa as he walks us through the buffet counters at Lotus Café, JW Marriott, Juhu. The chef, who has temporarily taken over the restaurant’s kitchen, explains that South African cuisine uses the same spices and flavours as Indian cuisine. But the spices — nutmeg, cumin, turmeric, chilli and coriander — “are used in a very different way.”

Chef Mohammed Mustafa at the live grill counter at Lotus Cafe, JW Marriott Hotel in Juhu. PICs/SAMEER MARKANDE 

Often termed as “rainbow cuisine”, South African food is a fusion of Dutch, British, indigenous African and Asian (primarily Indian) styles of cooking. Pointing at the dish of Babotie at the buffet counter, the chef explains, “This is a minced meat pie, just like a British Shepherd’s Pie. But we use a lot more spices, raisins and almonds. It is traditionally eaten with a sweet and sour apricot sauce.” Extremely popular in Cape Town, Babotie would usually be made with beef, but the chef decided to use chicken to cater to Indian preferences.

It is obvious that the chef has had to work hard at keeping Indian sensibilities in mind while designing the menu for the dinner buffet. Apart from replacing beef and game meat with the more popularly eaten chicken, the chef has tried his best to cater to vegetarians too.

The meal begins with a tomato-based mutton soup for meat-eaters and a banana and coconut soup for the veggies. The latter is a deliciously sweet, creamy soup. “I have used a combination of raw and ripe bananas to give the soup a sweeter flavour,” reveals the chef. Indian raw bananas are too hard and flavourless, explains the chef, who has attempted to use as many locally produced ingredients as possible.

Two things veggies can’t enjoy are the traditional Braai (barbequed meats) and the baked fish (extremely popular in Durban). There are no veggie substitutes for these. The beef and chicken, marinated in thyme, oregano, chilli and Worcestershire sauce, are grilled at the live barbeque counter. The fish, baked with its skin left intact, is served with a tangy sauce and roasted veggies. Not only is it one of the most vibrant looking dishes at the buffet, it is also the most flavourful.

“Curries and stews are extremely popular all over South Africa,” the chef tells us. A slow-cooked potato stew (Bredie) and Gesmoorde Hoender (a stewed chicken dish) is served with saffron and turmeric-flavoured Yellow Aromatic Rice. The delicious spicy banana bread and the Potjee bread (“named so because of the pan it is cooked in”) are great companions to the curries, or fish and even the salads. Unfortunately, the Biltong (dried beef) salad, deemed the most popular South African dish, was over by the time we hit the buffet.

None of the flavours — a lot of sweet, a little sour and tiny bit spicy — seem alien to us. That is until we visit the dessert counter. Banana fritters (deep fried in a batter at the live counter) are served with mango and cranberry sauce and coconut shavings on top.

The South African food festival is on till March 24  

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