South African food at its heartiest

South African food arnold tanzer

By Anna Trapido

Sunday morning finds South African-flavour extraordinaire and chef Arnold Tanzer barefoot, in his open-plan kitchen and surrounded by his children. His Braamfontein-based, Johannesburg catering company Food on the Move has made perfect petits fours for presidents and multiple-course culinary extravaganzas for princes, but as he prepares lunch in his Parkview home he expresses the opinion that “the heart of any national cuisine is what happens at relaxed family meals, not what’s going on in fancy restaurants”. As he slices green beans, the man who was once the personal chef to film star Michael Douglas and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, argues that “South Africa’s core flavours are to be found in what we eat out of the pot on a Sunday afternoon”.

Today, lunch at the Tanzers is a calm, comfortable affair in which South African tastes are treated with playful sophistication. This is new South African cuisine reinterpreted in an über-chic manner. The cooking style is simple because this is his only day off. “For me, Sunday food is about early morning waffle-making with my kids, seven-year-old Isabella and three-year-old Jake, laid-back lunches with friends and boiled-egg suppers.

Sunday is the time for the feet-on-the-furniture genre of soothing meals.” Arnold adds, “I am inspired by honest simple uncomplicated food that I can make with our kids. I think the most interesting South African flavours are found in such moments and that the restaurant food in this country reflects global trends but is largely failing to recognise the value of local tastes.” He has no qualms about cooking such simple food and feels no need to show off his considerable skills. “I have worked in every possible kitchen position. I have even been a dishwasher and I’m not ashamed of it.” What he doesn’t mention is that in addition to his experience at the sink he was South Africa’s representative at the prestigious 2005 Bocuse d’Or culinary competition in Lyon, France and that he is now the director of the World Association of Cooks branch for Africa and the Middle East.

Arnold has invited his friends Steve and Lisa Cavanagh and their children, five-year-old Beth and three-year-old James to join his family feast. The Cavanaghs arrive bearing burgeoning baskets of greenery from Kazi Farms, their herb business at The Cradle near the Magaliesberg.

Arnold commandeers the aromatic melange of chervil, rocket, fennel leaves and radicchio for a salad and hands all the adult guests a generous glass of vodka and mint-macerated ginger beer because “we all need a serious drink by Sunday”. As grown-up guests gather on the sun-dappled veranda, children settle down to a game of garden skittles, which is only interrupted when 10-week-old Labrador puppy Coco Choc-Chip Chanel runs off with the ball. In the kitchen Arnold is basting Karoo lamb with buttermilk and sprinkling cumin over carrots.

“The use of soured milk in a marinade is such a South African cooking method,” he says. “I am sure it reflects a fusion of Afrikaans and Zulu culinary genres. Inkomazi is a common meat tenderiser in Zulu food.” The addition of apricots adds a Cape element to the gloriously unfussy local fusion creation. While the main flavour repertoire has a proudly South African feel there are also other influences at play. “I was born in the Netherlands and my years in The Hague come out in the bean dish – the use of nutmeg with vegetables is so Dutch. It always feels like a very comforting flavour to me; perfect for Sundays.”

Dessert is whipped up and placed in the oven in a manner that encourages minimum fuss and engenders maximum flavour. While the pudding is baking, the chef pours himself a drink and heads for the veranda bearing the apricot-laden lamb. As he brings the traditional boerekos-style sous boontjies (sauced beans) and nutmeg-laced runner beans to the mosaic-decorated terrace table, Arnold apologises for having “cooked enough food for an army” to which Steve replies, “I am an army” and happily piles his plate.

Younger brethren seated at a separate table are eating roast chicken. As Arnold’s wife Marion remarks, Sundays are too short to fight with children about food. There is a minor skirmish when three-year-old Jake announces that he is having all the tomatoes and removes the miniature fruit from the others’ plates, but the general mood is of contented kids accompanied by a happy puppy. When the children approach the main table to ask for more vegetables both mothers are delighted until seven-year- old Isabella explains “we need them to make animals” and it turns out that the vegetables are part of an elaborate sculpture session rather than an eating project.

Once the lamb has been cleared, Arnold encourages Steve and Lisa to try his classic vinegar pudding that has been updated with balsamic to add depth of flavour. The tart, aromatic dessert is complemented by poached plums and crème fraîche. “For children there is ice cream on the grass and we’ll hose them down afterwards,” he laughs. All the children cheer at the thought of ice cream followed by a session of running through the garden sprinkler system. The languorous lunch draws to a close with honey-drizzled Camembert, figs and ginger biscuits.

There is much hilarity when Arnold explains that he is considering putting beehives on the roof of his Braamfontein workspace. Luckily his long-term plans to move into cheese making are taken more seriously. Espresso is served with condensed milk, which provides the ultimate in home-grown chic. Everywhere there is an atmosphere of easy elegance. South African flavours have been reinterpreted in a sophisticated, internationally approachable manner. If this is feet-on-the-furniture food, they are Louboutin-shod and resting on the finest of riempie stools.

Food on the Move, 45 Juta Close, Braamfontein. Call 011-403-1232 or email [email protected]

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By Elsa Young

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