Jacaranda trees, in my humble opinion, are the most majestic of all the trees, lending their grace and beauty to an assortment of lands the world around. Their vivid color and grand stature command your attention, sometimes enough to lure you, like a curious child, to stand beneath them and stare up in awe at their branches festooned with dazzling purple blooms. The height of their reign in Los Angeles comes in late spring and early summer, when their bare branches erupt into a radiant purple haze. They light up the city and blanket the streets with their regal blossoms, beautifying the gutters and sidewalks, dusting the tops of cars with their fallen flowers, swaying their amethyst-colored boughs in the skyline and casting the most delicate shadows that seem to dance with the wind.
These magnificent trees hold a special place in my heart, as they transport me back to the glorious landscapes of South Africa, where the capital city of Pretoria is known as “The Jacaranda City.” Come springtime, Pretoria becomes a sea of purple, awash with endless rows of flowering Jacaranda trees. It is a rather august sight to see, this florid assembly of nature ruling over the urban landscape. It’s no wonder the university students in Pretoria have a sweet little legend that when passing underneath a Jacaranda tree, if a petal falls on your head, you will surely pass your exams.
I only know all of this because as a young teenager, my family and I packed up our lives on the Pennsylvania shores of Lake Erie and moved all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to Pretoria. It was my father’s first embassy post as a Foreign Service officer for the State Department. The year was 1994, a dynamic one for South Africa. Apartheid had just come to an end and Nelson Mandela was newly elected as president. An air of hope and pride was palpable, even to a young naïve girl like me, and it was a momentous era in history that I feel particularly privileged to have witnessed.
We moved into a lovely home on a street called Stokkiesdraai in the Erasmusrand neighborhood of Pretoria. The adjustment to the expat life can, at first, be a rough one. You feel like a fish out of water, flailing about, and your sense of routine and comfort is completely turned upside down. Sometimes, there’s a tendency to cling to your old ways, to your old culture. Eventually, though, you embrace the change and settle into a new rhythm of life. For us, the seasons were completely reversed (we spent our first Christmas at the pool!), we tried to learn a bit of Afrikaans, though English was widely spoken, and we had to learn the currency and lay of the land, including how to drive on the opposite side of the road.
Food is one area of life that can give a great sense of home and familiarity. Funny how it can do that. Exploring new restaurants and adopting favorite new dishes was important to feeling settled. Within our first few weeks of moving there, the scent of fresh bread wafting from the other end of our street drew us to a local bakery, where we quickly became regulars. We’d wait every day for the baker to pull fresh loaves out of the oven, who would bag them up for us and always call out, “Baie dankie!” as we were leaving. (Afrikaans for thank you very much.)
When we discovered Nando’s, it became a mainstay for my family, who fell head over heels for the Peri-Peri chicken. The historical roots of Peri-Peri sauce date back to the time when Portuguese sailors established a port in Mozambique and eventually colonized the area. These settlers were introduced by the local Africans to a tiny red pepper called the Bird’s Eye chili, or “Pili-Pili” in Swahili. Mispronouncing it as “Peri-Peri,” the Portuguese incorporated it into their own cooking. Thus Peri-Peri chicken was born, a dish composed of flame-grilled chicken with a very spicy and tangy pepper sauce, made famous by Nando’s, which started in South Africa and has since grown worldwide.
In further exploring the South African cuisine, one very memorable moment for me involves baby marrow. As a vegetarian, and uninformed teenager at the time, I first heard the words “baby marrow” and cringed, immediately picturing the gelatinous bone marrow of some poor baby animal. There were, after all, some dishes with exotic game meat featured on menus. But much to my surprise and delight, I learned that baby marrow is actually just what South Africans call zucchini. I had a good laugh over that one, and from that point on, baby marrow became one of my favorite things to eat, especially on the grill, but also battered and served like fries.
Amarula is another cultural gem we discovered in South Africa. Made from the fruit of Marula trees, it’s a cream liqueur with a caramel-like taste and fruity, slightly citrusy notes. The Marula tree is also known as the elephant tree since the gentle giants love to eat its fruit. Indeed, there is a local myth about elephants becoming intoxicated from eating too much rotten Marula fruit after it has fallen to the ground and naturally fermented. Though the myth has been busted, there are still many travelers’ tales circulating about seeing tipsy elephants stumbling around in the wild. True or not, I certainly can’t blame the elephants for indulging themselves, as Amarula is simply delicious! It’s wonderful served on its own over ice or mixed into a cocktail. Whenever I traveled back to the States, I always had Amarula bottles clanging around in my suitcase, given the explicit requests for it amongst family and friends. Naturally, I was elated to find a few bottles of it here in LA.
Cooking these dishes brought back a wave of memories from my time in South Africa. Moving there at a hugely impressionable age, the natural splendor and diverse culture left an indelible imprint on my heart. I’ll never forget the warm days spent on safari trying to catch sight of the “Big Five,” or squealing with excitement when we spotted hippos on the riverbanks, or as we watched in complete stillness and silence, all of us wonderstruck, when a herd of elephants quietly crossed the dirt road in front of our car. I can still feel the copper rays of the African sun on my face as we trekked eight miles into the bush in search of an elusive white rhino, tracking its prints and dung for hours, just in the mere hopes of seeing it. So too can I still hear the drops of water dripping from the stalactites in the Wonder Cave, when we took an elevator deep into the cavernous earth known as the Cradle of Humankind, where my brother unwittingly drank from a puddle of water formed by fossilized skeletons. I will always laugh at the memory of my sisters and I being jarred awake from a sound sleep by baboons jumping on our thatch roof, sending all of us running and screaming from our camping hut into the pitch black night.
In fact, some of my most shivering moments of excitement, adventure and awareness occurred in South Africa. There is something about the sweeping panorama of open land stretching for miles and miles and seeing the silhouettes of wildlife on the horizon that gets to you. Something happens, something indefinable. Perhaps it’s that the circle of life is greatly magnified on safari, but you are humbled by the vastness of the land and life around you as you gain an overwhelming sense of how small you are as one individual in the thick of such grandeur. Needless to say, this was a very enlightening period in my life. For that, I’ll always look back fondly on my time there, treasuring the days of my girlhood on the other side of the ocean, in South Africa, under the fabled trees.
PERI-PERI CHICKEN (For the Hunters)
Ingredients (serves 4):
4 chicken breasts, boneless and skinless
4-6 Bird’s Eye chilies (a.k.a. Thai chilies), stems removed *use 2-3 for mild, 8-10 for hot
3 garlic cloves
1 lemon, juiced
2 tsp paprika (and extra to season chicken)
1 red onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 cup olive oil (plus more to cook veggies/chicken)
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
3-4 thyme sprigs
Salt and pepper
Cilantro sprigs for garnish (optional)
Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in sauté pan and cook onions, garlic, red bell pepper and thyme sprigs until soft, about 5-6 minutes. Add bird’s eye chilies to pan, season all with salt and pepper, and sauté 2-3 minutes. Pull out thyme sprigs and add veggies/chilies to blender. Add lemon juice, olive oil, vinegar and paprika, and blend together until liquefied. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper. Preheat outdoor grill or grill pan. Coat chicken with olive oil and season liberally with salt, pepper and paprika. Grill chicken until well done. Serve with Peri-Peri sauce on top or on the side. Garnish with cilantro, if you please.
PERI-PERI TOFU (For the Gatherers)
Ingredients (serves 4):
Same as above except substitute chicken with 12 ounces of extra-form organic tofu
Follow the same directions and ingredients above except substitute tofu for the chicken. Slice the tofu into thick triangular steaks, season with salt, pepper and paprika, and sauté in a non-stick pan coated with cooking spray. Cook 4-5 minutes on each side, until browned. Serve with Peri-Peri sauce on top or on the side. Garnish with cilantro, if you please.
BAKED BABY MARROW FRIES
Ingredients (serves 4):
2-3 medium-sized baby marrow (a.k.a. zucchini)
½ tsp garlic powder
½ tsp onion powder
½ cup almond meal
½ cup Parmesan
¼ olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 400°. Slice baby marrow (zucchini) into strips about the size of french fries. In a bowl, mix together the almond meal, Parmesan, garlic powder and onion powder. Coat fries in olive oil. Roll fries in almond/Parmesan mix and coat all sides. Season with salt and pepper. Spray baking sheet with cooking spray and arrange fries on sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, turn over and bake another 10 minutes.
Ingredients (serves 1):
2 oz Amarula
1 oz Bourbon
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of instant coffee grinds
Shake Amarula, Bourbon and ice together in shaker and pour into a cocktail glass. Sprinkle top with cinnamon and coffee grinds.
Gesondheid! (Cheers/good health in Afrikaans.)
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