Wednesday, April 22, 2009


As Bordeaux and I prepared to leave Southeast Asia, we were faced with the simple fact that we didn’t want to-- couldn’t, really-- leave behind the food, culture, and style that we’d come to love in Southeast Asia. So we decided to take some of it with us. We developed an idea for a Southeast Asian café offering a menu of the dishes we loved. It would have the style of Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Saigon, with a menu that would showcase the diversity and scope of the region’s cuisines. We wanted to create an intimate space where we could show people that Southeast Asian food is so much more than phat thai, pho, and green curry; that it doesn’t have to be fried in a wok or dipped in peanut sauce to be Asian. The name for our concept? Piesang.

Piesang is the Afrikaans word for a banana, and it seemed a fitting name for our idea. The iconic fruit is not only native to tropical Asia, but it’s also ubiquitous in the region’s cuisines. Sweet bananas are served in coconut milk, or grilled at sidewalk stands. Banana leaves are used to steam curries or wrap grilled meats. And the purple banana flower is made into delicious salads and soups.

But there’s another reason for the name, as well. As you may have guessed from its sound, the word does not derive from Dutch. Instead, its origins are in the Malay word ‘pisang’. In the Seventeeth Century, the Dutch brought over a mixed community of people from Malaysia and Indonesia. Along with a flourishing culture that developed into the community known in South Africa today as the Cape Malay, they left behind many words and fragments (like pisang/piesang) that dot the Afrikaans language, revealing its composite cultural origins, and a distant connection between South Africa and the lands across the Indian Ocean. Three centuries later, we’re riding those trade winds again, bringing a little bit of Southeast Asia with us to South Africa.

The dream of opening a café is still a long way off, but we’ll be getting our start on a smaller scale over this weekend. On Saturday, April 25th, we’ll be opening a stand at the Neighbourgoods Market, (which I detailed in my last post), where we’ll be offering a small limited menu of tangy salads, complexly flavored baguette sandwiches, and delicate salad rolls. We hope to change and expand our menu regularly, giving us the freedom to flow with the seasons, experiment with different dishes, and introduce willing diners to a wide range of Southeast Asian flavors.

So if you’re in Cape Town, stop by—we’d love to see you there! For those of you not in Cape Town, check out our progress on the Piesang Blog.

Monday, April 20, 2009

around town/cape town: Good Neighbours.

Have you been to Cape Town’s Neighbourgoods Market? If you live in South Africa, you’ve got no excuse—it’s unquestionably the hottest spot to be on a Saturday. Held at the Old Biscuit Mill in Salt River, the NG Market is a sprawling complex of local designers, boutique shops, and hand crafted foods.

One half of the market is made of dry goods, and it’s a great place to come to see what South Africa’s local designers are up to. You can buy funky underwear or hip jewelry in the designer’s tent, seek our one-of-a-kind home-wares at Plush Bazaar, and browse among the charming textiles of local marvel Skinny Laminx. It’s a great opportunity to shop beyond the malls, and to meet the designers who actually make the goods on sale.

The other section of the market is a cavernous two-room spread of food sellers; the ideal place to enjoy breakfast, brunch and lunch on Saturday. The first room is composed mainly of food artisans, and contains a dizzying array of vendors. You can buy baguettes, cupcakes, cured meats, fresh fish, ripe avocados, tubs of hummus, either to devour on the spot, or to take home for an impressive weekend dinner. The second room contains vendors making more substantial meals. There’s an impressive range of offerings, including South African, Greek, Mexican, and Indian foods.

Where would I recommend eating? The Kitchen Cowboys make an incredible dry-aged beef sandwich; the more-traditional aging process creates beef that tastes exactly like it should. If it’s a sunny day, a bottle of Jack Black beer is ideal. The coffee at Origins is always worth the line and the wait—though you should really prepare yourself for that wait. And while I haven’t had them, the curries at Cumin always smell rich and tempting.

But if you’re coming by next Saturday, the only stand I can really urge you to visit, if I may be so selfish, is ours…

Friday, April 17, 2009

Bad Picture: Afternoon light on Halong Bay

My photography is certainly not of a level that most of my shots are a success—I generally take at least a dozen pictures of a single subject, then later edit and select the decent one or two. Often, many of my photographs come out very badly—they might be blurry, poorly framed, lacking a subject, or looking like I photographed them while dropping the camera. Yet every now and then, one of these ‘bad photographs,’ ends up being appealing to me in some way. While it may not get anything right photographically, it still manages to communicate something about the subject—sometimes even better than a good photograph can.

Like the above shot of Halong Bay, for example. It’s really not something you’d put in a frame—there’s no clear subject, the details of the boat are slipping right of the edge of the picture, and there’s something in the foreground that has been reduced to out-of-focus fuzz. But despite all of this, the picture somehow captures the mood of the afternoon cruise even better than my other pictures. The glowing colour of the light, the rolling forms of the karsts, even the total lack of focus is actually a benefit; it all somehow captures the sense of languidly enjoying the last warmth of an afternoon out on the beautiful green waters of Halong Bay.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

around town/cape town: Salomies at Victoria Food World.

When someone cares about the food that they’re serving, you can really tell. The people at Victoria Foodworld care. The first time we happened on their shop, we were ignorant about most of what they offered. What is a salomie? What is a gatsby? They answered our questions proudly—curry wrapped in a roti, and a long sandwich filled with meat and salad and fries, respectively-- and in almost poetic terms.

Most importantly, we could tell that they cared by how the food tasted. We had to wait, as this wasn’t simply fast food slopped onto a plate. It was carefully constructed in the secluded kitchen, from which we could just detect the fragrant scent of meat and spices. People wandered in off the street, buying bottles of cold soda, or single cigarettes. Finally, our food was set before us. We had each ordered a salomie; the golden rotis were set before us, filled with fragrant curry.

The salomie is a simple combination of three main parts: roti, curry, and salad (optional). Should any one part be lacking or mediocre—the roti dry, the curry commonplace, the salad wilting-- the whole composition will suffer. But every element was executed with precision. The roti was flaky and buttery, the curry so freshly made that seeds and pods of spice burnt as we bit into them, creating a mild fire that the crisp cucumber salad helped to cool.

“Do you work in Woodstock?” the proprietress asked us we paid the check on our last visit. No, but we’ll definitely come back for the salomies.

Victoria Foodworld, Main Road, Woodstock.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Working on:

Hey, how’ve you been? Well, two whole weeks without a single entry posted on Primitive Culture—that might be a new record for me. Not really the goal a blogger should aspire too, though. I could definitely give some reasonable excuses—mainly that we still don’t have home internet, thanks to the confusing systems of South African internet providers. But mainly, we’ve been so busy with some other projects that I haven’t had time to think about this blog.

The past month has been packed, and filled with unusual appointments and activities. To mention a few: we’ve travelled to distant spice shops for palm sugar and five-spice; we’ve gotten friends to write letters on our behalf; we’ve played with fonts, designs, and layouts; we’ve waited in line in government offices; we’ve met with realtors and developers, backing out of a lease at the last minute; we’ve poached pork fat and shelled nearly a kilo of raw peanuts.

The first project is that I am on my way toward getting a permit that will allow me to legally stay in South Africa. With Bordeaux as my sponsor, I’ll be able to keep living here legally—a privilege (or right, rather) same-sex couples enjoy in South Africa. One that we don’t get in the United States, sadly…

The other project… I don’t want to go into it too much right now, there’s still too much undecided. But I will offer one clue: Piesang.