There is a rumour doing the rounds in Cape Town that First Lady, Michelle Obama, was meant to visit The Test Kitchen at The Biscuit Mill, and not The Kitchen belonging to Karen Dudley in Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock on a recent visit to Cape Town. That somehow there was a mix-up and she landed up in the wrong kitchen. I don't believe it. And nobody else should either. With no disrespect to the lovely Luke Dale Robert whose restaurant is wonderful and whose food is quite-quite magical, but Mrs Obama looks like a woman who knows exactly where she is going. I wonder if it was The Kitchen fans Trevor Manual and Maria Ramos who tipped her off? Or if she read about it in the New York Times. But none of that matters, what does matter is that Mrs Obama-oh-she-with-the-nerdishly-sexy-powerful-husband landed up at the exactly right place. She needed to meet Karen. Because Karen embodies the very best of South Africa. She is not only an incredible cook, but an amazing person. I interviewed her for Taste magazine last year and I've included the interview at the end of this post. She's very special.
So last night we had some of Jacques' colleagues over for dinner. Things have been a little crazy around our house lately and I knew I'd battle to get a meal done, so I called Karen in a blind panic on Thursday evening and asked if she could help out. And she saved the day. Two hours before our guests arrived the food was delivered. A beautiful rare fillet with a tarragon sauce, three different but equally gorgeous salads and her I've-died-and-gone-to-heaven Sesame Yoghurt Cardamom Cake . And I didn't even feel guilty. because if it's good enough for the First Lady, it's good enough for our guests. Who were lovely by the way...
Address: 111 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock
Telephone number: 021 4622201
Opening times: 8.30 to 4pm Monday to Friday
Taste interview with Karen
I first met Karen Dudley when she was head girl of the school I attended 24 years ago. She was a kind, wise face in an otherwise strange environment. I then met her again a few years back when she was making and selling the most amazing sandwiches at the Biscuit Mill in Salt River. Subsequent visits to her small café in Woodstock are equally happy encounters. She is passionate about food, obsessed with flavours, has an innate desire to feed people, to nurture them. Her salads are exotic, almost jewel-like, and her signature sandwiches are overflowing with contrasting tastes and textures; a bit of pesto there, a chunk of mozzarella here, crisp salad leaves, slightly spicy salami, soft ciabatta, a nutty olive oil and a sprinkling of salty crystals. Her food is colourful and creative, but authentic – a bit like my gesticulating, comfortable with both laughter and tears, boldly-beaded friend herself is; exotic and familiar at the same time. I visit her at her home where she makes me anchovy toast. Not just any anchovy toast, mind you. First she toasts the brown bread, then spreads it with her signature garlicky Love Potion, before carefully arranging slices of tomato and anchovy fillets on it and returning it to the grill with a good lashing of olive oil. She then pours the tea from a beautiful old tea pot and we sit at her dining room table surrounded by books, sentimental treasures, vintage crockery, gorgeous fabrics and an assortment of creative clutter.
‘It’s going to be difficult writing about my food memories’, she tells, me, ‘Being Coloured is not so clear cut as being Chinese or Greek. It’s a mish-mash, this Coloured thing – a bit of this, a bit of that. But it’s who I am. What I celebrate.’
‘My mother’s father was the only dark person in his entirely white family so he had to marry a Coloured woman. My mother had white cousins who they never really saw. It was awkward when they became teenagers – a typically sad kind of South African scenario. My mom was a town girl, she grew up in Green Point before Group Areas. She was all about Bo-Kaap, District 6; kind of hip. She was familiar with the Cape Malay flavours as well as the crayfish sandwiches being sold for 2c by the hawkers heading back up to town from the docks. She became an extraordinary woman, she would travel on ships to what was then, Lourenco Marques, something young Coloured women didn’t ordinarily do.
Whereas my dad grew up in Genadendal in a family of hardworking religious people for whom God and education was everything. He was a plaasjapie, never wore shoes till he was 12 years old. When not studying he was working on the farm. He’s never forgotten his origins – as a successful businessman who has traveled the world, he will still reminisce about onions this size, and pumpkins that size. But somehow they met, my mom drove a scooter which my dad fixed for her when he was still working at the City Council, where he was apprenticed so that he could study further.
Anyway, my mom, having grown up on the fringes of Malay culture, knows how to make Boeber. But she would not make it for Eid, to break the fast the way the Malays do, she would make it for us when it was cold. It’s one of my favourite things. I love the warm, fragrant, sweet milkiness of it. The cinnamon and the all-important cardamom are the flavours I crave. I make it now as well. I brown the vermicilli in butter, I crack open the cardamom pods with my teeth, the way my mom does, I add extra condensed milk because it is the sweetness of my childhood that defines me.
I know that I continually reach for the flavours of my childhood. Sometimes I can recreate them, but sometimes they are elusive like my granny’s tomato spaghetti, which although savoury has a sweetness to it. I’m still trying to replicate the cardamom puddings my mother made, she makes a milk tart, not like the Afrikaans one, hers has a cardamom flavour to the custard, with a sweet nutmeg topping. I’m always searching for those flavours. I want to pass them on, because if you know my flavours, you will know me.
I’m also still grasping for the sweetly sour taste of my mother’s Hong Kong chicken, I sometimes find it in the sweetly sour tangy chutneys, or when I buy meebos (sweet but tart dried fruit rolls or squares). I remember stealing meebos out of my granny’s cupboard, this huge dark cupboard that was full of mystery. The meebos came in little packets that you used to get from Wellington’s Fruit Growers. Who can every forget that particular Wellington’s smell…
I also remember going to the Grand Parade for a soda float, You know those hokkies that have now been commercialized and all look the same. Well it wasn’t always like that. There was this one place we used to go to. They had all these amazing homemade cordials; pineapple, raspberry cream soda, pina colada, which they kept in bottles with sticky corks on top that always had bees fluttering around them. They would put ice-cream in a cup, put the cordial that you selected in , mix it up with a special long spoon, then fill the cup with the soda water. This is the stuff of my childhood. Always the sweetness. My granny made a wonderful pineapple foam pudding by mixing Ideal Milk and pineapple jelly which I loved. And I would also create my own desert by mixing one tin of condensed milk with two tins of ordinary milk, mix it together then place it in the ice –cube tray in the freezer till frozen solid for a cold sweet treat.
But is was religion that made me love food. The church community and the extended family is a big thing for us. My parents were very involved in the church and our home was like a railway station. There were always strangers who later became friends who would come and stay with us. So there was always food in our house, people were always coming in and meeting around a table. Talking intently, singing songs. As a child I understood that you eat, and you talk and you pray. Church people always eat well. They are usually the few that have the really good recipes. Who are well known for certain dishes. So at the church gatherings you would go for auntie so and so’s chocolate cake, or auntie Dulcies almond squares…
So there were these local flavours these traditional dishes, but my parents would also travel to Europe in the 70s, experiencing the freedom there, seeing all these new things, and they’d bring back exotic things like olive oil, and herbs, and recipes for paella. They were quite radical for their time. They tried to instill in us the idea that we were universal children. That were were not second class citizens of this world. That while South Africa may look all weird and horrible, we were not bound by this; that there was another way, a different way, a better way. They actually tried to free us of the baggage of apartheid, to free of those lies that constrained so many. In much the same way as they tried to do when they sent my brother and I to private schools. So that we would never think we were different. And so because of this, their exposure to the world, because of the church presence, because of the train station phenomenon in which all these different people came into our lives, we didn’t see ourselves as inferior in any way.
In my family you always have to have something on hand. So that you would always have food to give to or to share with people. And this is part of me, now, I’m like my mother, When my parents sent us my brother and I to private schools and were beginning to socialize with white people, my mother was horrified and would tell her friends ‘ they only offered us a packet of shop biscuits’. In our community, you baked, and you made things pretty for your guests…
Like the legendary Steak Normandy. Where did the name come from? A fancy dish with a fancy name, it probably came from ‘one of those books’. A dish which, when, if you were having fancy dinner parties in the 70s, was the piece de resistance. The flavours are tangy and comforting, slightly sweet, slightly savoury, but it was in it’s presentation, in the puff pastry topping and the elegant name that it’s magic lay.
I still make Steak Normandy when I want to make something special and comforting for my friends and family. And I still make the puff pastry shapes that sit on top. And I serve it on beautiful plates, because like my mother, I believe that if I can feed you well, then you will understand my love for you.'
A SHORTENED VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN TASTE MAY 2010
A SHORTENED VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN TASTE MAY 2010