Do you have that one foreign cuisine you keep telling yourself you need to try because you’ve never had it before? Peruvian…Scandinavian…Turkish…it could be anything for different people, really. I’ve had my fair share of “need-to-try”s, but South African wasn’t one of them–and not because I’ve had it before. The thing was, it wasn’t even on my radar! I didn’t see South African food as something exotic that I could be curious about…it was just one big blank. That is, until I went to Madiba Restaurant.
The restaurant is, of course, named after Nelson Mandela who also went by “Madiba,” a name used with respect and affection. It comes from the clan that Mandela was a member of and was the name of a Thembu chief from the 18th century.
Madiba Restaurant is steeped in South African culture. It draws inspiration from the tradition of a Shebeen, which is “the informal dining halls in South African townships” according to the restaurant website. And something I didn’t realize until now is that the restaurant actually reinvests a portion of its proceeds to South African people through charities like Ubuntu Education Fund and Ethembeni School of the Blind.
South African cuisine is sometimes called “rainbow cuisine” because of its variety of influences. Some typical dishes include biltong (a kind of cured meat similar to jerky), chakalaka (spicy vegetable relish), frikkadel (meatball), vetkoek (fried, stuffed dough balls), boerewors (a type of sausage), and bobotie (similar to meatloaf with raisins and baked egg on top, like moussaka). Just looking through Madiba’s menu shows you how varied the cuisine is. There’s chicken wings, samosas, ostrich carpaccio, stews, curries, seafood, and more.
My mom and I started with the beetroot salad, which comes with red onion, mint, cumin, and garlic. Most of my experience with beets is the canned version you eat during the holidays that still has the indentations on it from the can, so yeah, saying this was a step up would be an understatement!
For our main dishes, we both ordered something from the “From The Sea” part of the menu. She got the Tristan da Cunha lobster tail, which is served with saffron rice and a lemon butter sauce, and I got the Mozambican prawns, which are served in a saffron peri-peri and white wine sauce with yellow rice and mixed greens. Normally, I would choose lobster over shrimp any day of the week, but I had heard a lot about these prawns so I had to give them a taste and was not disappointed. Also, am I the only one who thinks that calling them “prawns” instead of just “shrimp” makes it seem so much more appetizing?? And here’s a little tidbit for you: Madiba gets their seafood from sustainable Indian and South Atlantic sources in South Africa’s coastal waters.
For dessert, we shared the koeksisters (sticky braided donuts in a lemon ginger syrup) as well as the Jenny S malva pu (a spongy caramelized pudding made with apricot jam). The name of the former comes from the Dutch word “koekje,” meaning “cookie.” The latter has Dutch origins as well, although there is some debate about where the name comes from. One theory is that it stems from the Afrikaans word for marshmallow, “malva” because of its texture.
The environment is a huge part of the dining experience at Madiba, so it’s important to mention. Boy, was it bumpin’ when we went! It was a weekend, late at night, and the place was absolutely packed. The bar area is tiny and right by the entrance of the restaurant, and there was a huge group of people crowded around and having a blast. Most of the dining area is in a section off to the left when you walk in, which is decked out in interesting art and artifacts–colorful paintings of Mandela, a coke bottle chandelier, animal print, a subway sign, and this one section at the top that looks like it should be the second floor set for a play or something. You’ll see what I mean when you’re there. The owners wanted to create a gathering place where people could relax, be social, and have fun, and I think they were quite successful.
Madiba is a little funky, totally inviting, and if you’re realizing that you’ve never had South African food either, then it’s a great place to start.
Beetroot, Mozambican prawns, Tristan da Cunha lobster tail, koeksisters, Jenny S malva pu
195 Dekalb Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11205