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Out of Africa

Zebra earns its stripes by hosting memorable evening



America and South Africa may be another pair of countries separated, as Shaw observed about England and America, by a common language. Attuning to the unfamiliar cadence of South African speech may take five minutes or so; however, the senses of taste and smell will immediately adjust to the brilliant enormity of South African cuisine's free falling flavors.

Last week, one of the extraordinary events during the culinary portion of Charlotte Shout was a memorable South African dinner at Chef Jim Alexander's Zebra Restaurant in SouthPark. Visiting Charlotte for Shout were two award-winning South African chefs, Neil Olverman and Chiran Singh. Olverman and Singh not only participated in this dinner but also manned the South African Pavilion during the Culinary Arts weekend; they served bredie, a lamb stew; frikkadels, meatballs; Cape Malay curry; snopek (a fish) pate; and pap, a corn meal dish.

This practiced team (Singh was once a sous for Olverman) also demonstrated South African cooking to the culinary students at Johnson & Wales University. Olverman, the executive chef at Fedics Alexander Forbes in Johannesburg, has competed in six South African Ready, Steady, Cook television programs. Singh is the executive chef for UBS, an international bank in Johannesburg. Both Olverman and Singh mastered their culinary skills under the spell of master chefs through apprenticeships. They were selected for this trip by the South African Chef's Association.

The Zebra dinner was not an "authentic" South African dinner as it was creatively tweaked by Alexander. However, many of the ingredients, such as the peppadews, small piquant red peppers, and tastic rice, the "Uncle Ben's of South Africa," were imported. The six-course dinner began with a heady fragrant hit of a creamy roasted butternut squash soup rich with cinnamon, cloves and star anise. Next up were prawns with the ubiquitous fiery tingling South African peri-peri chili sauce, turmeric and saffron. The trick with the irresistible ostrich was to marinate and tenderize the fillet in brandy per South African technique. The wines, presented by Charlotte-based Vinnovative Imports, included a selection from the Cape of Good Hope region at the southernmost tip of Africa: 2002 Jardin (Jordon in South Africa) chardonnay; 2003 Fairvalley Pinotage, the South African varital; 2001 Veenwouden Classic; and a sweet Paul Cluver Noble Late Harvest Riesling dessert wine.

Attending the Zebra dinner were many South Africa expats. One native suggested that the South African community in Charlotte is about 2,000.

One of the happy coincidences for the South African chefs was to arrive in Charlotte in time to visit tailgaters before the Panthers game. Olverman said South Africans don't tailgate before their major sporting events (soccer, rugby and cricket) since they go to the pubs before the event -- and then again after the event. However, South Africans are as serious and proud of their braai (grill) as we are. One of the popular items for their grill is a boerewors, a spicy farmer sausage -- which was also served at the Zebra dinner.

Is wild game on the typical South African menu? No, but Olverman noted that farm-raised ostrich is now commonly served about once a week in South African homes. "It's quite lean and healthy." Warthog is popular, too. What about street food? Roast ears of corn and "bunny chow," which, as it turns out, is not Thumper at all, but a small bread bowl filled with curry.

Curry hounds will be pleased to learn that the Indian influence is strongly present in South African food. Surilman said that since the Indian immigrants came from so many regions of India, their cuisine coalesced into a distinct South African Indian cuisine and was then absorbed into the South African national cuisine. As in India, many of the South African chefs cook by smell as opposed to taste.

Olverman noted, "South African cuisine has one foot in the Old World and the other in the new. We have old world flavor with new world finesse." Of the cities, Olverman said Johannesburg is like any large metropolitan area with current international food trends. But Cape Town is more like San Francisco in food creativity. He mentioned that one restaurant in Cape Town served ice cream in a test tube on a base of smoky dry ice. But for the overall cuisine of South Africa, "Anything goes." This "rainbow" nation has incorporated the foods of many lands -- English, Dutch, Malaysian, Portuguese, Indian, as well as the indigenous population. Sharing meals with unannounced drop-in neighbors is part of their food tradition.

The chefs and the South African Pavilion were funded in part by the South African Department of Arts and Culture. This event is a prelude to the larger South by South Africa -- Crafting Cultural Understanding, a six-month exhibit opening at various venues throughout Charlotte in January 2006. Charlotte is the first of six American cities to host this exhibit. For more information, call Dianne Stewart at 704-844-1064.

To buy South African foods such as biltong, boerewors and Mrs. Balls Chutney, visit The South Africa Food Shop in the Fullwood Shopping Center, 11229 East Independence Boulevard, Matthews, 704-849-2660.

Eaters' Digest

Much to the chagrin of many Charlotteans, the Peaceful Dragon has ended its restaurant service. This restaurant was known throughout the area for serving well-crafted vegetarian dishes by the talented hands of Chef Geoff Bragg. The Peaceful Dragon will use the space for additional studios. Bragg is planning to open a vegetarian restaurant in Charlotte.

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