When lockdown steals a happy story, reality bites

Chef Themba Mngoma’s perfectly portioned steak tartare. (Photo: Supplied)

This was planned as a story about an innovative chef and a hot new Durban restaurant. But the booze ban and curfew killed the venue. At which point an image evoked thoughts of steak tartare, family matters, Poland and the value of friends.

New Year’s Eve: the afternoon of. Prawns resting in my kitchen in a juicy mush of olive oil and crushed garlic, smoked Oryx Desert Salt pulling flavour. Ostrich fillet marinating too. While I sit, laptop on lap, in the lounge, tweaking my first story of 2021 for TGIFood. A happy story. About the journey with many hurdles of Chef Themba Mngoma, whom I first wrote about in 2012 and who finally has a restaurant home. His New Year menu posted on Instagram has made my mouth water. Especially the champagne-poached crayfish and clam starter served with saffron risotto and the whole-baked red snapper main with sumac, tabouleh and kachumbari salad.

When my phone rings and I see it’s Mngoma, I assume he’s calling to answer the half-dozen gap-filling questions I messaged him.

But no. “Stop writing!” he says. “Today might be my final day. I will confirm tomorrow.” He is pretty sure the investor is going to pull the plug. The initial lease was through to the end of March, enough time to truly get going. But just one month in, “the alcohol ban and 9pm curfew have killed us”.

Because, let’s face it, while one might go early for an exceptional dinner then head home for dessert and coffee, one does want a glass of wine with dinner. Possibly a cocktail beforehand. Not so that one will then go out and stab one’s spouse, prang one’s car, jam the ER room. But just because it’s what people partial to a good meal are inclined to do.

And yes, I appreciate our President is doing his best. And, had the multitude of morons who refuse to wear masks and keep their distance done these simple things, he likely wouldn’t have felt compelled to impose laws around mask-wearing and all the rest of it. And more people wouldn’t be losing their jobs, their income, and having their hopes and dreams dashed. 

Mngoma calls the next day and confirms that his time with the restaurant is over. It will, he says, limp along through January as the staff – mostly previously retrenched people fabulously passionate about their new gig – require a month’s notice. But the one-time Little Havana head chef, more recently in banqueting at the Elangeni Hotel… Well, hold thumbs for him and know you’ll read about it here when something new pans out.

New Year’s Eve. A bit stunned after his call, looking at my photos all ready to ship via WeTransfer, thinking of my promised New Year story, now a Covid casualty, the image of Mngoma’s steak tartare sets me thinking of a New Year long gone. The first New Year’s Eve I associate with food memories.

I might mention, steak tartare is a mini-passion. Baked Alaska, beef stroganoff, crêpe Suzettes, steak tartare. Four favourites from my late dad’s culinary repertoire; especially the tartare.

The thought of it, of him, of this being New Year, takes me to Poland.

Although not exactly Poland. To Poland via the East German town his Polish dad was living in when father and son were reconnected through, I was told, some kind of missing persons’ bureau after each believed, for several years post World War ll, the other was dead.

I am 10 years old. It is snowy. And not too long before the Wall goes up between East and West Berlin. And much later, comes down. Which is perhaps a lesson in impermanence and change and a reminder that this too, this torrid time we’re living through, will pass.

Back then, my late Polish grandfather and his German wife are living in Stalinstadt, a town founded as a socialist model city in 1950, named for: you can guess. Renamed Eisenhüttenstadt during de-Stalinisation a few years later. Worth notching up as another lesson in impermanence and change?

Upscale bar food: steak tartare and chips at the Sofitel Victoria in Warsaw. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

That New Year’s Eve is an abiding memory because never before had I experienced an evening planned around four distinct meals. And never had I known anyone go and purchase a fish and put it in the bath to swim around so it might be dispatched of just before its frying pan fate.

I write now, of course, as an adult. As a child, my preoccupation was feeding the fish, which I was told not to do, several times a day with bread until the bath water was like soggy dough. Then dissolving into catatonic hysterics – introverts will understand – when it came time for the slaughter. The tears only abating when they told me they had taken my friend-fish and swopped it for a stranger-fish. Which story, my mother admitted some years later, was a lie.

Thinking back, all that was enough to give one New Year’s Eve food phobia.

But it didn’t. It just bequeathed me with a memory that pops up every New Year’s Eve. Relentless eating, including of a fish that for some days kept everyone from taking a bath.

The author with cousin and hubby (cousin’s) at a Krakow restaurant. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Of more relevance to my adult self, that visit connected me with my only first cousin in the world. A big deal because I am an only child. My dad had one sister, who had one child. This cousin. I in turn have one child. Or in a sense, had. For a long time things were pretty good.

Until 15 years ago she concluded I had committed a rolling stock of transgressions that shifted and changed for as long as I kept trying to right my wrongs. Till finally I gave up and made peace with her resolve to cut me from her life and ban me from her home.

My cousin was there that New Year’s Eve, pregnant with her only daughter. And my dad? The likely reason he could whip up things like baked Alaska, beef stroganoff, crêpe Suzettes, steak tartare – and became a hotel manager in South Africa – is that as a young man he was chief steward and provisions master on Polish ships. SS Pulaski. SS Polonia. MS Chrobry. Gdynia-America Shipping Lines. Polish-Palestine Line.

Ready to assemble: tasty tartare in the Polish town of Chełmno. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

I can spend hours sifting through the reams of documents I have that were his, none of which I understand and none of which I got to ask him about when he was around to answer. But I visit museums when I am in Poland, see pictures of the ships and read (in English!) the stories.

Back then I didn’t give any thought to these things. Or expect that I would one day spend another New Year’s Eve with this cousin. Meet up with her again 15 years ago and share a New Year’s Eve fondue with her and her husband in their house in a country village near Eisenhüttenstadt. After sending them a message they still don’t know was a desperate plea (we mainly span our language barrier monosyllabically and with gestures): “Can I come and visit for New Year?”

The reply arrived with rapid-fire return from her German husband. “Kommen, kommen!”

That comforting acceptance you hope to get from family but often don’t. And perhaps – no, definitely – are more likely to get from friends.

Tartare with lovage foam at Elixir, a Warsaw vodka-pairing restaurant. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

We shared that fondue on New Year’s Eve and next morning they put me in their car to drive across Poland. My first time there. Past forests wearing their shivering winter sparseness and through small villages, chilly and forlorn. Stopping to eat wild boar. Alternatively, pierogi.

Destination Gdynia, where my dad lived after he ran away from home and before he went to sea. And Gdansk, where, at a restaurant called Goldwasser, we drink the eponymous liqueur with its floating gold flakes.

And I have my first in-Poland steak tartare, surprised to see it on the menu. And yet to learn that steak tartare there is as ubiquitous as burgers are here. The presentation can be simple or quite exotic. To order one is invariably to be surprised. Like with a blind date, you never know quite what you will get. Just Google “Poland steak tartare” if you are curious.

Downscale bar food, basic, tasty and served with vodka in downtown Warsaw. (Photo: Wanda Hennig)

Back to New Year’s Eve. This one. My plan was to stay home. And alone was my initial intention.

As an only child, I have long considered friends as my family. My family of friends. I do sometimes feel like a stray dog that gets taken in. And wag my tail in gratitude. Having said that, being alone – through this circumstance or that – is something I am used to. And solitude has become a choice; often a carefully considered option. More of a treat than doing something or being with someone for the sake of it.

This year, lockdown, another of my ilk – a friend alone through circumstances – took me in for Christmas. Lured me with a kudu braai for the eve and encouraged me to join his vegan daughter and her family’s remote bubble for mushroom Wellington on Christmas Day.

After almost not reciprocating at New Year, knowing it would mean I’d need to shop and cook and – what entertainment could I offer? – when he came to drop off a tub of beetroot moutabel (a spicy beetroot dip) he’d made me, I gave him the option.

His acceptance led to some Instagram browsing for inspiration and a fantasy of grilled garlic prawns. Which didn’t exactly rise to the occasion. And my ostrich fillet. I should have left it gently marinating in soy sauce and garlic; not embalmed in a third of a bottle of leftover Malbec.

But it was pretty decent, ladled onto the bed of greens grown in his garden (watered, to good effect, with worm pee). Mixed in with blueberries and red onion, creamy feta and rocket from my garden.

We raised glasses of chilled Cinsault rosé (me) and a robust red (him). For entertainment we surveyed Durban’s thunder and lightning New Year’s Eve display. Before lighting my meditation candle at midnight in solidarity with Cyril (hoping he was remembering his). By which time the lights had gone out (power outage) and come back on.

So it was that we stepped into 2021, with a little rush of virtual messages of good cheer, including from my cousin and her husband I’ve stayed and adventured with four times now. Or is it five?

And especially enjoying the little gif that arrives with the message: “Day 1 of 365.” Upward and onward. DM/TGIFood

Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer based in Durban. She has worked on newspapers and magazines in South Africa and the San Francisco Bay Area and freelanced extensively. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir…. Reach her via her website


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