Eli Rallo: On South African food

Monday, March 18, 2019 - 5:37pm

In South Africa, french fries are called hot chips.

Of all the incredible lessons I learned in my 12 days on a theatre culture exchange in Johannesburg, South Africa, one of the most interesting and lasting is rooted in a common South African culinary staple –– hot chips. When I look back on the past two weeks, when the world took my life as its own and completely spun it around and around, shaking my perspective, I reflect on the people I met who took part in sharing their stories with me. On the way home during my final moments in the continent, I had a lasting connection with a stranger about hot chips that really widened my perception of South African culture even further. Maybe the lesson I learned about the name we give fried potatoes was about more than just potatoes. Maybe it was about subliminal differences embedded in our striking similarities. Maybe it was about the universality of humanity that I’d found and recognized in so many people, in so many moments, in so many cracks in the surface of such an incredible country. 

The first time I came in contact with hot chips was when I ordered dinner on our very first night in Johannesburg, jetlagged and under the warm African sun. The waiter asked me if I wanted a side of hot chips or mieliepap, which is commonly known as “pap.” Mieliepap, I learned, is a type of cornmeal porridge typically served as a side dish to meats and curries, and, to my excitement, is gluten free. However, on our first night, before I got to know the culture a bit more, I took the safe route and opted for hot chips, picturing a plate piled high with warmed up Lay’s potato chips. As you can probably assume, my expectation for warm Lay’s chips was not met when my meal was served. Let’s blame my misconception on exhaustion.

It hit me when my meal was set in front of me that a mix of ignorance and my American identity fueled the image I created of hot chips in my mind. Hot chips in South Africa are essentially the equivalent of American french fries. However, many differences are hidden below the surface. Not only was this my first meal in Africa, it was also my first realization that I was across the world, in a country where culture, colloquialisms and social cues would be completely different from those of America. 

The name “chips” makes sense historically because South Africa was colonized by British rule in the 1800s, and the British refer to french fries as “chips” and potato chips as “crisps.” The food in South Africa is an amalgamation of flavors that emerged from waves of colonization and immigration from folks of Dutch, Italian, Greek and British origin in the 1800s. Much of the food additionally has Indonesian, Portuguese and Mozambican influence, and the culinary scene has developed into a melting pot of different cultures and traditions. Some popular ingredients and dishes include chicken wings and fried chicken, seasoned with piri piri sauce, malva pudding (a sweet spongy apricot pudding), ostrich pate (which I was not adventurous enough to try), pumpkin fritters and fish and chips. Fish and chips is a widely popular dish in South Africa and all over the United Kingdom. Nomenclature aside, chips and french fries are the same thing, right? If you’d told me before ordering, I would’ve thought that the gloriously golden, unhealthy slices of fried potato can’t vary too much from place to place. This is not unlike how I never realized that much of our American culture would be vastly incongruent with South African culture, despite the fact that we have commonalities through the English language. It took traveling all the way across the world to come face to face with a realization that, while I think I may understand another country, I can never truly know a reality until I meet it face to face.

In South Africa, hot chips can be compared to American steak fries — a thicker cut potato with a lighter fry and a center that tastes more like a baked potato than a french fry. Still, they can’t fully be compared to American steak fries, due to unique seasoning, how they're served and how often you can find them. First and foremost, hot or “slap” chips (the Afrikaans name for french fries) are normally covered in salt and vinegar, or a dusting of cajun seasoning. Rarely are they found without some sort of added flavor. They’re much larger and softer than the french fries we’re used to in the United States, fried lightly with a fresher taste. Hot chips can accompany nearly every entree and are found on every menu I encountered throughout my time in South Africa.

A scenario that sticks out prominently when thinking about hot chips is a fiasco I experienced in McDonald’s. In South Africa, McDonald’s includes not only a Vegan menu, veggie burgers and lime chocolate milkshakes, but also hot chips. I began to realize no menu in South Africa was quite complete without the staple “hot chips” listed under side dishes. On the menu, our favorite American fried delicacy is still labeled “french fries,” but to my shock, they actually taste like potatoes. I can’t put a finger on what American McDonald’s fries taste like, but in South Africa, something about them tastes … better. McDonald’s is generally known for its salty, thin, crispy french fries, hidden in the bottom of a white paper bag. However, in South Africa, this beloved side dish is thicker and slightly softer, and its flavor replicates the starchy vegetable from which it originates.

I spent many of my meals eating piri piri chicken wings and hot chips because, as a tourist who’d never been to Johannesburg, I was told to steer clear from any fresh vegetables and fruits that had been washed in water that could potentially not agree with my stomach. For a foodie who’d been ultimately thrilled at the prospect of trying new cuisine in South Africa, I was discouraged by the many internet articles and other tourists who advised me to be careful about what I was eating to avoid spending my week depressed and alone on the hotel toilet.

That being said, I was lucky enough to try traditional South African food a few times on our journey, and it is different than any culinary experience I’ve ever had in my life. The food is spicy, starchy, dense and centered on spiced meat dishes like sausage made from beef, pork and lamb and chakalaka –– a warm, spicy vegetable relish served with pap or curry. Something I noticed immediately upon diving into these new culinary delicacies is that my stomach handles food in an extremely American way. The spices used in South African dishes weren’t flavors I was used to digesting, and despite being ravenous to try any new dishes, I found myself perplexed by the uneasiness that followed unfamiliar spices and flavors. After a few days I fell into a vicious cycle of hot chips at every meal, being afraid to try many culinary delicacies. Fear and confusion often accompany our new experiences in foreign places. Throughout my time in Johannesburg I pushed myself to be open and vulnerable to all new experiences, keeping my mind fresh and clear and attempting to read everything I could about this sparkling new city. However, when it came to culinary culture, this was a more difficult feat. Unfortunately, by giving up experiencing food culture to its fullest potential in order to avoid unexpected illness, I was unable to dive into South African food in a way I would’ve hoped.   

When I was in the airport on the way home, I met a British woman from South Africa, who moved to Johannesburg from the U.K. after visiting the country and falling in love with the city and her now-husband when she was my age. We spoke a bit about the beautiful country and my life-changing experience — she was extremely intrigued about my visit and how I thought of the city and the country. Somehow, we happened on the topic of hot chips, and I told her I may never be able to lay eyes on a french fry again after spending days tasting hot chips from every restaurant we went to. She immediately wondered why I ate so many french fries during my trip to South Africa, seeming almost offended, and I explained the fear that my American stomach would be bothered by the water or spices. Without raw vegetables, salads and fruits to get my nutrition fix in, I turned to hot chips because, in addition to their omnipresence, they seemed like the ultimate diet staple of South Africa, and they were strangely, despite the mushy texture and uncommon flavoring, addicting.

“So you didn’t eat any fruits or vegetables while you were here?” she asked me as we began boarding the plane.

“No,” I responded, truthfully. “We were told not to eat them, so I didn’t for fear of getting sick.”

I felt suddenly sheepish and embarrassed, as though I did a disservice to the entire country of South Africa by turning away from their vegetables and toward hot chips.

“Well that’s silly. Our vegetables here are beautiful. They are fresh and amazing. I’ve been to America — you just make your vegetables look extra shiny so that they look fresh and special, but they aren’t. Just because our vegetables aren’t perfect on the outside does not mean they are worse,” she responded kindly. I know she didn’t intend on making a dig at me or American culture at all. Rather, she hoped to teach me one final lesson before boarding the plane back home. In America, we make our vegetables look shiny, more special, more expensive and illusive, and in South Africa, they’re simply from the ground. They’re just real.

Over the course of the trip, so many moments seemed to manifest themselves in this way. In the theatre we created, we targeted something in our hearts, instead of creating something artificial and forced, meant to simply entertain. In the art we saw we noticed the effort to embed creative endeavors in startling truth. In the museums and historical sites we visited, we saw a country reflecting on their heartbreaking and troubling past in order to build a kinder, forward-thinking and still reflective future. This was the reality of their vegetables, too — maybe they weren’t as shiny as American vegetables, but they did not try to hide themselves behind a shiny exterior. There is a vulnerability and a reality to every single element of Johannesburg. 

On our very first night in Johannesburg, when I had my first hot chip experience, a man who lives in the city approached our table, hearing our uncommon accents and asking where we were from. This was our first interaction with a stranger from Johannesburg, and set the rest of our experience up to be equally friendly, open and kind-hearted. He told us about how he wished to visit America, and loved American accents, to which we all laughed. After a bit of back and forth, sharing with him why we’d traveled to Johannesburg and where we were from (a very cold state in the United States near Canada), we bid our goodbyes. Before he turned back to his friends, he looked down at our plates, all scattered with piles of half eaten hot chips.

“Enjoy your hot chips –– er, wait what do you call them … french fries,” he said with a laugh. Maybe they’re hot chips, and maybe they’re french fries, but to me, it isn’t about the potato or its name. It’s about perception, how our own experience and identity shapes the world around us and how a hunger for a new place like Johannesburg can truly change our point of view.