Cobbled together of salvaged wood and Quonset-hut tin, it might be a grog shop in Soweto. There’s a shelf crowded with handwoven baskets, a couple of ostrich eggs, and a row of kero- sene lanterns suspended near the ceiling—as if the electricity might flicker off at any moment. In the open kitchen, a multihued crew turns out wildly divergent fare reflecting influences from India, Malaysia, England, France, the Netherlands, and Portugal. Madiba is New York’s first South African restaurant, and rarely has the energy and culture of a foreign country been so dramatically evoked in one tiny space—like an Epcot Center diorama, only good.
Already the room feels like a friend’s shack, the lights turned dim for a late-evening visit. First to hit the table is umgqushu stambu ($3), a tasty samp of crushed hominy and kidney beans that, for many cash-strapped South Africans, constitutes an entire meal. There’s also a tribal homemade bread called useque, sliced on the kitchen counter from a steaming loaf and strewn with parsley. It’s humid and chewy and irresistible. Skip the salads, which are often included with the entree, in favor of Cape Malay mussels in a mellow coconut-milk curry, only $8.
The flavors of the so-called safari platter ($12) open a window into the world of the Voor-trekkers, the contentious Dutch homesteaders who vied with the Zulu to rid the territories north of the Cape of their indigenous inhabitants and, before they were through, invented apartheid. Included are strips of biltong, dried beef cured to an intriguing semirancidity with salt, brown sugar, and saltpeter; and crumbly sticks of dröe- wors, which taste like Slim Jims buried underground a few years. The meager servings (even in South Africa these delicacies are expensive) are supplemented with an excellent carrot-and-raisin slaw hitting unexpected notes of clove and cayenne. A notably delicious dish originated in Portuguese Africa: peri-peri chicken livers, which come planted on a piece of toast that absorbs the spicy cooking oil. Sometimes you’ll also be given a free bowl of pap, a farinalike millet porridge fondly known as “mealie-meal,” pleasantly clumped and smothered in a limp relish of onions and tomatoes.
Unfortunately, the entrée prices average $14, reminding you that you’re in chichi Fort Greene instead of Johannesburg. Luckily, many of them are large enough to share. Sosaties are kebabs based on the Malay model, but instead of little tidbits of chicken or pork, you get six massive beef-and-mutton meatballs redolent of onion, clove, and ginger. Bobotie is also Malay, a great round pie filled with curried meat and boiled eggs. This bland rendition omits the boiled eggs, and arrives in a loaf pan filled with ground beef and raisins and topped with a soufflé. Reflecting the Huguenot heritage, oxtail poitjie dumps prodigious hunks of bony meat in a red-wine gravy loaded with vegetables and garlic.
And who could ignore a dish called bunny chow? Though it sounds like an invention, it’s a favorite fast food of KwaZulu-Natal, featuring a vegetable curry poured into a hollowed-out loaf of bread. This fortuitous collision of European and South Indian eating habits is typical of the melting-pot juxtapositions at Madiba. If only politics were that simple.