‘Just think about it,” says Perky. Graham Perkett, actually, but his friends call him Perky. “Four, five hundred years ago, the Cape of Good Hope was where every ship from Europe had to stop in on their way to India and China. Get fresh water, limes for scurvy, fruits, meats, livestock, flour for bread. So, they started bringing fruit trees to grow in the Cape, to guarantee their supply. And planted veggies, and crops for grains, and grapes for wine — the French Huguenots started growing their vines there in 1652.”
We’re standing in this tiny shop, up here in Kearny Mesa, near the Superior Court. “Then,” Perky goes on, “when they came back from India and the Far East, they brought tropical fruits and plants, not to mention Indian laborers to be cane cutters and Malays to be servants. And they all brought their own eating habits. So five hundred years later, no surprise South Africa has developed the largest original cuisine in the world.”
Wow. Have to confess, I can’t think of one actual South African dish. Now I’m glad I noticed this banner saying “Perky’s,” with a South African flag, hidden in a business park. Inside, two chairs for customers. That’s it. Plus, a laughing portrait of Nelson Mandela, a South African flag, and this guy Roscoe, at a little counter with a hot-food display cabinet on top. It has a lot of labels — “chicken curry pie,” “steak and mushroom,” “ground beef curry,” but not much actual stuff inside, except for three pies.
“We’ve just about sold out,” says Roscoe. “I only have those Cornish Pasties left.”
It seems I’ve landed at the unofficial South African Embassy in San Diego. It is where all the ex-pats — not just from South Africa, but Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, all southern Africa, plus Australia, New Zealand, the UK — come to get a taste of home.
“Mostly, it’s the pies they come for,” says Roscoe.
Roscoe’s dad appears. Perky. Says he actually makes trips to Phoenix, Arizona, L.A., and San Francisco to deliver “care” packages of pie supplies to South Africans and others living there.
But it’s past four o’clock. Wanna eat before they close at five. I’d better go for whatever’s in the hot cabinet.
Meanwhile, Perky hands me a couple of small bits of what looks like black sausage meat. I take a bite. Mm. Is that cloves I’m tasting?
“This is called biltong. Like jerky. It is what the Dutch Vortrekkers took when they made their great trek north to escape British rule in like 1837,” says Perky. “Coriander and cloves and salt and drying in the sun were how you preserved meat.” He makes this biltong himself. My problem: he only sells it by the pound, so that’d be $24. But cost doesn’t seem to matter to his customers. “I made 300 pounds of sausages for Fourth of July,” he says. “We sold out.”
A cheaper alternative ($20 for 2 pounds) is the boerewors, a curled sausage of beef and pork, or just beef (“for non-pork eaters”). Or a great sentimental favorite for his customers: sausage rolls ($15 for 6). And it turns out that South Africa has the largest population of Indians outside India itself. So natch he does a bunch of curries. Prices come to $8-10 per person.
Honestly, a lot here makes me think of English food. Stuff like cottage pie ($8.50).
But the pride of place goes to something pretty different, called the bobotie.
It looks like a big shepherd’s pie, but actually it’s a mix of sweet and savory ground beef mixed with walnuts, raisins and apricots under an egg topping. It’s baked and served with yellow rice. Costs $25 for a three-person pie. “It’s from the Dutch Afrikaans tradition,” says Perky, “but it came from Malays brought in as cooks and house servants. Now it’s our national dish.”
Note to self: this is what you’ll come back for.
Meanwhile, I start in on my hot Cornish pastie. Good. Lots of veggies like corn. And that pastry cover: so flaky, so light, so buttery.
Later, I heat up the frozen steak and kidney pie I got ($7.95). And it truly is great. Plenty of kidney inside, but again, it’s that arty, hand-made pastry top that sells it.
And when I ask for a drink, Perky points me to a chilled drinks cabinet. I clink around, come across this “Preston’s Ginger Beer” made by Perky’s South African buddy, Harry Preston, right here in San Diego. All-organic. Real ginger, and man, you can tell. As you get to the bottom it becomes cloudy, just like my grandma’s homemade ginger beer when I was a kid.
8280 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Suite 117, Clairemont
Perky grew up in Durban. Back in the bad old days of Apartheid. Because his father was European and his Mom from Mauritius, he was classified as “Colored.” No wonder he wanted out.
There’s so much more I wanna come back and try, including “bunny chow,” basically a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with curry, one of the early fast-food experiments by the Indians (probably from the Bania commercial caste), of Durban.
Then there’s putu, or putu pap, Zulu food, a kind of crumbly porridge of maize. Perky makes a dish of it with gravy and meat on the side.
But the biggest kick? At the end I buy a $6 bag of caramel fudge that Perky makes. With condensed milk. And the thing is, it’s not sticky, gloopy. It’s crumbly. Falls off like chunks of glacier into your mouth.
“It’s in the timing,” says Perky. “Take it out of the oven too soon, and it’s sticky, like most commercial fudge. Too long and it burns. You’ve got to find that sweet spot.”
It’s sweet alright. I leave knowing I’m going to have to come back. Even if it’s just two chairs in a room in a business park in a bus desert.
The Place: Perky’s South African Food, 8280 Clairemont Mesa Boulevard, Suite 117, 619-370-8085
Hours: 10:00am – 5:00pm Monday to Friday; 9am – 2pm, Saturday; Closed Sunday
Prices: Sausage rolls, $15 for 6; samosas, $20 for a dozen; cottage pie, $8.50; bobotie (ground beef pie with nuts, fruits), $25 for 3 people; pies, including chicken curry, pepper steak, Cornish pastie, steak and kidney, steak and mushroom, $7.95 each; lamb curry (for 3 people), $30; samoosas, $20 for a dozen; Lammingtons (marble cake soaked in chocolate, rolled in coconut), $15 for 6; fudge, $6 for small bag
Nearest Stop: Clairemont Mesa Boulevard & Industrial Park