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The great Gatsby and other South African potato classics

The great Gatsby and other South African potato classics
A peri-peri Chicken and Cheese Gatsby from The Golden Dish in Rylands. The white paper is opened up to ensure a mess-free table after lunch. (Photo: Somebody Feed Phil)

Potatoes are the vital ingredient in perhaps our most iconic street food, way more revered than plain chips or a twirly-whirly. They’re the heart and soul of the great Gatsby.

“Potatoes give us French fries, crisps and vodka… It’s like the other vegetables aren’t even trying…” I read this on social media recently.

Indeed, the humble potato has versatility going for it. It’s been associated with great times of need and famine – think of Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters – as well as abundance, booming economies and fast food. What would McDonald’s be without their signature shoestring fries? 

In fact, what would any fast food outlet be without potatoes? Regardless of whether you’re a Steers, Wimpy or McD’s fan, potatoes come standard. Even for food carts; think of your beach fix of Chip ’n Dip or the inventive traders in caravans selling those twirly-whirly potatoes strung out over a long skewer at festivals. 

Potatoes are everywhere, mainly because they are relatively inexpensive, but still pack a high energy and body fuel punch. When our bodies are flat out, potatoes provide an instant and bloody delicious pick-me-up. 

My dad put up the first crop circles in our farming community back in the ‘90s and planted them with potatoes. My brothers and I used to fish out the odd-looking ones and display them on the mantelpiece above the fireplace as trophies – much to my mother’s dismay.  

The largest one was nearly 30cm in diameter, my mom remembers. “So huge that they were hollow in the middle.”

Freshly-harvested potatoes in the Sandveld region of the Western Cape. (Photo: Louis Steyn)

We had our fill of spuds growing up. However, we never grew tired of them, perhaps because there are so many different ways of cooking them. One particularly tasty variation I only learnt of later in life.

Potatoes make up the vital ingredient in perhaps our most iconic street food. A dish that is way more revered than plain chips or twirly-whirlys – or even vodka. 

It’s the heart and soul of the great Gatsby. 

I first learned about the Gatsby in Cape Town, when fellow journalist and Cape local Bevan Lakay rocked up at the office with what looked like a whole snoek wrapped in thick white paper, carefully tucked under his arm.

“This is lunch,” he declared and boasted that he could finish half of the mysterious parcel – later found to be a Steak Masala and Cheese Gatsby from Mariams Kitchen in Heerengracht street – in one sitting.

Bevan taught me that a Gatsby was created for sharing, typically cut up in four equal portions and conveniently (and very messily) devoured over the spread-out paper, which could simply be discarded after.

“Look, it’s not for everyone,” he says. “But if you’re in Cape Town in particular, I strongly recommend you try it at least once. It’s very specific to this area.”

The katkop, for example, is a distant cousin of the Gatsby and even this association can upset purists. It’s like a hybrid between a Bunny Chow and a Gatsby, where half a loaf of bread is hollowed out and filled with chips.

It’s more related to a chip roll, but not a Gatsby.

“I have certain expectations for a great Gatsby. The chips must taste a certain way – they must be ‘slap’ with lots of spice – and you can’t be shy with the filling.”

In essence, a Gatsby consists of an ultra-long French loaf, halved and stacked with chips, cheese, eggs and a choice of protein. Then, it may or may not contain some spicy achar, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions, and other tasty additions. And more sauce. “A Gatsby must never be dry,” Bevan says.

It comes in a range of flavours and price ranges with polony and Russians being the least expensive. Seafood and calamari often feature in more high-end versions, and then, of course, there’s iconic steak masala with cheese and egg that can go for a whopping R190 per loaf. Taking into consideration that it’s meant to feed at least four, it’s still not too steep, but more so than the cost-effective R90 option with polony. 

A field of potatoes with the Cederberg Mountains seen in the background. The Western Cape is the largest producer of potatoes in South Africa. Many of these spuds end up on the iconic Cape Town Gatsby. (Photo: Louis Steyn)

Since the bread is so soft and the filling so plentiful, there’s also a certain etiquette if you’re sharing a Gatsby in public; you tear off a piece of the paper and use it as a cover or “holder” to ensure your meal doesn’t go all over the show. 

One of the more popular takeaways where you can get Gatsbys these days is The Golden Dish in Rylands. It’s where self-proclaimed street food addict Phil Rosenthal, from the Netflix hit series Somebody Feed Phil, ended up having his first Gatsby while filming an episode on Cape Town street food.

The Golden Dish Halaal takeaway in Rylands. (Photo: Somebody Feed Phil)

“It’s named after the Great Gatsby because of its extravagance,” Phil proclaimed as he ordered two full-house Gatsbys. The poor guy’s face nearly fell to the floor when two metre-long sandwiches were hauled out from the back kitchen. Phil underestimated our proudly South African generosity but caught on well when he shared the bounty with a couple of bystanders. He even cupped his chunk of the loaf with a piece of paper, just as one should. 

Not far from The Golden Dish is another Athlone hotspot, Super Fisheries. Here, owner Rashaad Pandy claims to have invented the Gatsby back in the ‘70s when he had to feed a couple of men after a long day’s work. “The Gatsby was created by accident,” he told Eat Out in 2016.

“I had four guys with me one evening when we came back to the shop. There was nothing left except chips, polony and some achar. I heated up the chips and the polony and I put the achar on top. 

“One of the guys, named Froggie, took one bite and said, ‘Larney, this is a smash. It’s a Gatsby smash!’” The next day, Rashaad says, he made a couple of samples and put them on the counter for people to taste. “From there, it took off. Something clicked.” 

Thanks to South Africans’ deep-rooted love for potatoes, the fast-food phenomenon spread like wildfire with many variations – even a gourmet meat-free version at Lekker Vegan – getting in on the potato action. 

No surprise then that only around 16% of South Africa’s total potato production is earmarked for processing. A lot of this still ends up as potato-esque products, found in the dry and frozen section of the supermarket. Precooked and frozen fries, wedges, hash browns, mash, crisps… you know the culprits. Of the remaining 84%, I’m guessing most will eventually end up cut up and deep-fried in oil, laden with salt and vinegar and enjoyed the way the heavens intended – as chips.

(In South Africa, we say “chips”, which can refer to either our version of “French fries” or a packet of potato crisps. We distinguish between the two variations solely based on context. And in any context, they’re delicious.)

Other proudly South African potato classics include those ashy braaied ones… wrapped in tin foil and thrown in the coals to cook in a perfect mixture of steam and smoke. Or how about the quartered chunks of potatoes my gran loves to place underneath a roasting leg of lamb… The fat from the meat is soaked into the spuds below, creating a deliciously gelatinous skin as they crisp up. It’s the ideal addition to a South African plate of rys, vleis en aartappels.   

In Afrikaans and Xhosa culture, a mixture of potatoes and other vegetables – often green beans or carrots – is also popular. For this dish, both are boiled together until soft and then mashed with butter, white pepper and salt for a starchy side to serve with stewed meat. And then there’s the must-have cold potato salad which comes standard with any Seven Colours Sunday spread or game day braai. Simply put, a meal is not complete if there are no potatoes present. 

I prefer my potatoes baked with cream and cheese and a packet of brown onion soup – the way my grandma makes her classic potato bake. And when I really miss life in Cape Town, I indulge in a guilty pleasure of having a classic katkop: Steers chips stuffed in a soft roll with peri-peri salt and hot sauce. It’s the closest thing to Mariams Kitchen Steak Masala with Cheese you can get when you’re not in the Mother City.

Gran’s Potato Bake

10 potatoes, boiled 

2 cups cheese, grated, plus more for the top 

1 punnet mushrooms, fried 

2 cups cream 

2 cups milk 

1 packet brown onion soup powder 

Salt and pepper

Cut the potatoes in 1 cm disks and layer with the fried mushrooms and cheese in an ovenproof dish. Season with salt and pepper as you go. Mix the cream, milk and soup powder together until smooth. Pour over the potato layers and bake for at least 1 hour, until thick and bubbly. Add more cheese and grill for 10 minutes or until the cheese is golden. Serve with braaied meat. DM/TGIFood

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