If you are visiting New York City and you want to try South African food, you have to head to one place: Madiba Restaurant. It’s located at 195 DeKalb Avenue in the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn.
Durban-born chef Mark Henegan opened the restaurant in 1999. The eatery’s name refers to former South African President Nelson Mandela, credited with uniting post-apartheid South Africa. He was lovingly referred to as “Tata Madiba.” Mandela was born into the Madiba tribe that spoke the Xhosa language. In Mandela’s native tongue, “Tata” means “father”; Madiba refers to Mandela’s clan.
The restaurant’s décor evokes South African’s shabeens, unlicensed establishments that serve alcohol.The actual restaurant now occupies a space formerly occupied by a garage with high ceilings. African-masks, portraits of Mandela and President Obama grace the walls. The bathrooms actually appear to be made of a corrugated metal, which one might imagine seeing in a South African outpost.
The country’s cuisine is a multicultural influenced by a variety of peoples who have spent time in what is now known as South Africa: the Khoisan, Bantu, Dutch, Angolan, Mozambican, Malay and Indo-Asian peoples, among others.
To start, you can choose from four salads– including the Shabeen Salad, composed of tomato, radish, fennel and avocado. You could also try the Traditional Salad with tomato, boiled egg and onions with chive dressing and fresh herbs. I opted for the beetroot salad ($10), made of pickled beets with goat cheese, mint and vinegar. The combination of flavors are a great way to kick-off a meal.
Appetizers range from Amagwinya, a deep fried sourdough ($5) to the farm-raised Ostrich Carpaccio with farm cheese and olive oil and 7-grain toast. We opted for the Chicken Wings Peri-Peri ($11), fried chicken wings with onions, garlic and dried pepper oil. Peri-Peri sauce made of hot peppers, chili, lemon juice, vinegar and paprika is said to have been brought to South Africa from the Portuguese-influenced countries of Mozambique and Angola. The chicken wings were crisp on the outside but tender on the inside without being oily.
If you like the peri peri sauce –or any of the other sauces on the menu, you can buy them right at Madiba. Various imported South African spices and teas are sold on site. You could buy an 8-ounce bottle of monkey gland sauce for $8. Monkey gland sauce is made of apricots, red wine, tomato, chutney and raisins. It is often used in South Africa to provide red meat with flavor.
If you want meat for your entrée, you can pick something from the Braai, that means Barbecue in South Africa. One friend tried rack of lamb served with Pap (or white cornmeal) and chakalaka (backed beans, carrots, red and green peppers, tomato, onion and cabbage ($26). The rack of lamb was grilled to perfection with the perfect medium-well temperature, maintaining moisture on the inside.
You can also try seafood. I opted for the Kalky’s Fish Parcel ($19). It’s deep fried hake fish and Calamari with slap chips (fried potatoes in salt and vinegar). The Fish Parcel comes wrapped in paper, again giving it an authenticity of something you might see on a plate in a back alley, unlicensed establishment in Johannesburg. It comes served sides of ketchup and tartar sauce.
Another friend opted for the grilled Mozambican Prawns ($25) accompanied by yellow rice with raisins and a side salad. They are served with both the head and the shell on split vertically down the middle. So, if seeing the head and eyes on plated prawns makes you sheepish, you may want to avoid that dish.
For dessert, I recommend the Chocolate Indulgence Cake($10). The flourless dessert with a fudge-like consistency served with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and topped with strawberries melts in your mouth. We also sampled Jenny’s Malva pudding ($9), a sweet, spongy caramelized pudding made with apricot jam of Dutch origin. Next time I go back, I’ll try the sweet pumpkin fritters for $9. (pumpkin balls deep fried and dusted w brown sugar and cinnamon).
If you want something gastronomically off the beaten path, you should head to Madiba. My recommendation: Go with friends and share plates. You’ll be assured of an excellent, filling meal without emptying your billfold.
That’s the Lowdown!