Whenever I visit South Africa I eat far too much meat. It is a Braai, here, and a Braai there, and three or four different meat dishes at breakfast and lunch and dinner, so knowing I was going to be in Pretoria for a good three weeks this time I decided I was going to be a vegetarian for the entire time. I announced my intention to the taxi driver bringing me from the airport at 2am in the morning and his response was: “ain’t gonna happen!”
Well, almost 7 days on I can safely say it has happened!
But I say, it has not been easy! And not that the difficulty came from me – once I made up my mind staying off the meat was fine; it is just that this place is simply not made for vegetarians. Despite the difficulties of finding food, a bonus for me, in the process, has been discovering a few things about South African Cuisine, and even in some ways South African society.
After hearing my request for only vegetarian dinners during my stay , the cook at the guest house I am staying at gave me a concerned look and almost made as if to give me a consolation hug.
“Why don’t you eat meat?”, she wanted to know?
“Well, I always eat too much meat when I am here”, I replied, “and because it is always so delicious and I have no self control I thought the best thing to do was to take it off the menu altogether.”
“Oh. But I can give you little, if you want!” She declared.
“Hahahaha, no, don’t worry about me – I will be fine”
On that first night she gave me some rice and pumpkin and I can’t remember what else, but I remember the pumpkin because it was strangely sweet, as though someone had added sugar. The next morning the tomatoes at breakfast also tasted too sweet, so I asked my South African breakfast companion what that was about and she said they generally added sugar to their veggies to make them sweeter.. I was later to observe the same phenomenon with carrots and peas – what? I had to ask the cook at the guesthouse to please not add any sugar to my food (she ignored me, but OK). Another day all I could eat off the breakfast buffet was beans because all the other dishes contained meat or fish, but what can I say – that’s being vegetarian in Pretoria for you!
And then one of those days I went out to the mall for some shopping (this I was forced to do because KQ misplaced my luggage – it is still missing 7 days later – but that is a story for another day), and to gather some energy for the shopping I decided to nip into a bookstore and bought a novel (the unbearable lightness of being), and a notebook, and sat down for lunch and a glass of wine at an Italian restaurant. Now I must tell you: between my egg allergy and now being vegetarian, I could hardly find any items on the menu to eat! Not even pasta which it turned out they made in-house – commendable but not helpful. Fortunately they make some “pasta” from thinly sliced baby marrow, so I settled for that in a creamy sauce and some “pepperdew” When the meal arrived, I say: I couldn’t even see the fake pasta at first for all the cream it was swimming in! The pepperdew was a revelation, though – it is essentially a preserved sweet pepper that was really quite delicious. A few days later I made the mistake of ordering a similar pasta at the university cafeteria (the choices being very limited); suspecting them of lower means I thought it wouldn’t be as creamy, but this time the pasta was thick with cheese as well; I ate it, but decided that was the last I was going to order that dish.
Come the weekend and I thought I ought to venture further afield in Pretoria, and leave the Eastern Pretoria Suburbs for downtown Pretoria. Chatting with my Uber driver about he fact that all my previous shopping had been at the Brooklyn and Menlyn Malls, he proceeded to tell me that unfortunately I had likely paid too much for everything, since everyone knows that even the Woolworths marks up their prices by a good 20 or 30% over thee downtown prices. I had therefore made the right decision to move my shopping downtown, where the blacks like me and him could get the very same items at far friendlier prices. According to him, those other malls that I had been frequenting were only good for whites; blacks only went there to take selfies to post on Facebook.
Well, downtown Pretoria was a revelation, in any case (the areas around Church and Mabiba streets, to be clear).
First of all, masses of black people in every direction – in the five hours I spent there I saw maybe three whites! And I was looking out for them so I doubt I missed any!
Secondly, not a regular restaurant or cafe to be had anywhere (I had woken up too late for breakfast and needed to get a bite first)! I walked and walked and all I could find were fast food restaurants – KFC, Nandos, Wimpy’s, Steers, MacDonalds, name it! Walking through passages and up and down streets I also came across some nameless local food joints, but these too served heaps of pork and beef ribs and steaks, and vats of oxtail, with maybe some cabbage or shredded carrot here and there, and of course the ubiquitous pap (a maize meal dish). Mind you, these joints were already buzzing despite it’s being 10 O’clock in the morning – wishing for a brunch, at least, and desperate for a coffee in any case, these were not suitable options. Besides, I also wanted to read my book and savour my coffee, and these places were dimly lit, smoky with the cooking, and had at least two TVs in each corner blaring music and sports simultaneously.
Finally I settled on a Wimpy’s, which had a vegetarian brunch option of toast, mushrooms, tomatoes and hash browns, the latter of which I could not eat because they contain eggs, and which I swapped for a small bowl of potato fries. Their was coffee, at least, and the place received some natural light, although it was still a little noisy and smoky from the cooking.
Brunch was followed by a few hours of window shopping and trying on dozens of outfits; finally I purchased a pair of exercise pants and matching top, and knowing my lunch options were bleak at best I called an Uber and hot footed it out of there, back to my East Pretoria Malls. I settled myself down on the terrace of Greek restaurant (Mythos), and proceeded to order a mezze platter for one. Being as there were only three eggless and vegetarian mezze dishes, I ordered all of them: some delicious spinach and feta on black mushrooms, and a less impressive rice in vine leaves, and a rather inedible fried halloumi cheese. This was washed down by a melon G&T (which was too sweet and not alcoholic enough, but OK).
During my late lunch I was again struck by how many white people I saw around me – in my line of sight were a good couple of hundred sitting at nearby restaurants and walking by, and I maybe saw 10 blacks altogether, including myself and a Rwandese family of 3 sitting at the next table. Among these whites was a good smattering of Indians, I must say, but it struck me that the South African Society was still pretty divided. I am aware, obviously, that things are not as black and white as they seem (excuse the pun), so I can only report what I saw as a casual – what this means is beyond me to say.
In any case: the point of this post was to express just how difficult it is to be a vegetarian in Pretoria – so difficult that when a friend invited me to Braai for later today, I decided on the spot that I would only be a vegetarian 6 days of the week, and abandon it every 7th day – so looking forward to it!! 😀