Close your eyes for a moment and picture South African cuisine. What do you see?
For most, the exercise is more difficult than it seems. People think of many things when they think of South Africa—Mandela, rugby, diamonds, penguins—but the food remains shrouded in mystery, victim to more recognizable world cuisines.
Peli Peli, a blossoming group of Houston eateries serving the only South African fare available in Texas, is out to change that.
First opened in 2009, Peli Peli has since conquered the Houston restaurant scene. It was no small feat—Houston, after all, is a new dining capital in America, a swaggering city that prides itself on its culinary chops. To Peli Peli co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer Thomas Nguyen, that made it the perfect place to bring his concept to life. “I don’t know if there’s a better place for us to have opened than Houston,” he says.
Why Houston? In a word, diversity. “In this city, we’re used to diversity,” Nguyen points out. “You have Vietnamese-Cajun crawfish, you have Indian-Chinese food… It’s such a mix—not just for the sake of mixing, but because that’s what the city is made up of.”
According to Nguyen, Houston’s fusion of flavors perfectly mirrors South African cuisine. “South Africa has so many different cultures that influence the cuisine, from Indian to British to Dutch, Portuguese, and surrounding African countries,” he explains. “Since it’s made up of so many different cultures and people, there are many flavors that people haven’t had before.”
Ultimately, Peli Peli found its way into the hearts of Space City diners through (what else?) their stomachs. The name of the restaurant is a romanization of the Swahili piri piri, and refers to a small, but potent, chili pepper that grows wild on the South African plains. The nod to spice suffuses the entire Peli Peli menu, which is overseen by South African-born Executive Chef Paul Friedman.
“This was Paul’s opportunity to finally be the chef he’s always wanted to be,” enthuses Nguyen, and one look at the menu reveals the unmistakable work of an artist in the throes of delight.
Consider his award-winning Bobotie, a distinctive take on the South African national dish. Curried ground beef and carrot bredie are encased in a flaky pastry crust and finished with a jolt of mango chutney. A dizzying array of perfectly-prepared seafood forms the Cape Town Skillet, which makes its home on a bed of South African rice and is topped by a pair of exquisite tiger prawns. Even Friedman’s Charcuterie Board is an exercise in culinary glee, from the spicy-sweet tang of stuffed peppadews to house-made biltong, a kind of soft, South African beef jerky that rockets South African guests (and, one suspects, the chef) back to their childhoods. It’s not hard to see that this food is prepared from the heart.
High local demand reflects that love for the cuisine. With three fine dining locations now open in Houston, plans to open in downtown Austin early in 2018, plus a casual concept called Peli Peli Kitchen off the Interstate 10 Frontage Road, Peli Peli is taking South African food to the masses.
“South African food is something that’s been overlooked just because no one’s been paying attention,” says Director of Growth & Development Michelle Cimafranca. “Back in the ‘70s, no one cared about Chinese food! But now, if you talk about Chinese food, people tell you, ‘Yeah, I had it last Friday!’”
This was Paul’s opportunity to finally be the chef he’s always wanted to be.
Cimafranca sees a similar phenomenon happening now with South African food—and drink. Peli Peli’s bar menu is full of thoughtfully-crafted specialty cocktails, each of which nods to South African flavors or ingredients to mouthwatering effect. But it’s the wine that truly stands out.
“There’s a valley in South Africa called Hemel-en-Aarde, which is very similar to Burgundy in France,” Cimafranca explains. “So they make great Pinot Noirs. Then you have Stellenbosch, which is very similar to Napa, Sonoma, and Alexander Valley. They can make incredible Cabs! Incredible Chardonnay!” As the head of the restaurant’s liquor, beer, and wine program, Cimafranca has embraced the opportunity to shine a spotlight on South African wine, which now accounts for 90% of the bottles in Peli Peli’s cellar. And why not? “If you go to a French restaurant, it’s an all-French wine list,” Cimafranca points out.
As word continues to spread that South African cuisine is among the world’s finest, Peli Peli is becoming an integral part of the city’s fabric. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Nguyen reports, Peli Peli supplied “over 10,000 meals for first responders” and teamed up with the Red Cross for 20,000 more. “All three owners are immigrants, and we’re very appreciative of being in this country,” he says by way of modest explanation. “I think we have a responsibility to give back.”
Close your eyes again, and think of South African cuisine. The food and drink of Rainbow Nation is befitting of that inclusive nickname, and of the city of Houston. Diverse by its very nature, it is a crucible of flavors and cultures at once familiar and unexpected. Think of your favorite Indian spices. Think of British comfort food, Portuguese fish, and the clarity of Asian seasoning. Now think of it all coming together to form one inimitable cuisine, an ultimate celebration of food and of eating.
Does anything sound better?
Featured photo by Two Cats Communications