EASTHAM — A couple filming a food show walked into a Cape Town restaurant, fell for the hot peri-peri sauce, and invited chef Sanette Groenewald to work in New York. So began a trans-Atlantic journey for the South African restaurateur, who has since dropped anchor in Eastham.
From Cape Town to Cape Cod reads the slogan on servers’ T-shirts at Karoo Restaurant. It tells a tale of migration and succinctly sums up the chef’s mission to share her national cuisine with American diners. Groenewald opened Karoo Restaurant in 2013. She was warned against opening such an unusual restaurant in an area where visitors flock to savor lobster rolls and fried clams. But Groenewald, 47, is a woman of courage and determination.
Stepping through Karoo’s vibrant orange door, you enter a world far from long, sandy beaches. Wall hangings, masks, and fittings are distinctly African, the air is filled with spicy aromas and the menu with an unusual lexicon. Dishes like chakalaka (relish), pap & wors (sausage and porridge), and sosaties (meat kebabs) encompass both exotic sounds and flavors. Under offerings like bunny chow or monkey ribs, the menu reads: “No bunnies or monkeys were involved in the production.”
South African cuisine is as diverse as its population and Groenewald’s menu showcases the post-apartheid rainbow nation. Delicately spiced Cape Malay shrimp stew competes in popularity with bobotie, a mildly curried meatloaf covered with a savory custard typical of her Afrikaans background. Chakalaka is an African vegetable relish, while the Durban bunny chow delights diners with its mystifying name. It’s a hollowed out loaf of white bread filled with curry, made with lamb or beans. As with most migrants, the dish has had to adapt to its new environment, so a sourdough roll substitutes for the typical unsliced Pullman loaf and the chef has toned down the mind-blowing strength of the traditional spicing. Monkey ribs are St. Louis ribs cooked in a spicy and sweet sauce.
Exotic meats are on the menu: wild boar, antelope, even camel. Groenewald loves to watch kids introduced to something new. “They go back to school and say, ‘I had ostrich satay this weekend,’ ” she says.
Groenewald has taught her staff about South African food and wine. “They ask me, why is there banana and chutney with the curry? I tell them that’s the way you eat it. It’s more rounded, the sweetness and the spice works well together.”
Her American diners have taken to her South African cuisine. “The Cape has a huge retirement community,” she says, “a lot of well-traveled people. They are looking for what they had in the city, ethnic food that has flavor. My food is foreign, yet familiar.”
Together with a diverse group of visitors on Cape Cod, Karoo’s regulars relish food that pushes the boundaries of their experience and offers an alternative to the ubiquitous fried seafood platter. “I grill chicken wings and people say, ‘What is this?’ I tell them it’s flavor, it’s taste, it’s fall off the bone delicious,’ ” says the chef. Her deeply satisfying dishes keep customers returning. “‘I don’t think any other restaurant in America is going through 20 pounds of curry powder in a week,” she says. “That’s why it works, your senses are awake.”
The authenticity of the dishes is of prime importance to Groenewald. Karoo’s sauces and relishes are all homemade. “You have to stay close to the original,” she says. Walking around her kitchen, she shows off her trusted operative, Big Red, a grinder she uses to make a South African sausage called boerewors, which has a distinctive coriander flavor. “We grind it, we mix it, 150 pounds every two weeks,” she explains, patting her favorite gadget fondly. Alongside, vats of chutney are simmering — the restaurant uses a gallon each night — while Groenewald whisks up her sauces for dinner. Diners can take home her spices and chutneys sold from grocery shelves in the restaurant, an African tradition known as a spaza shop.
The word Karoo comes from the semi-arid region where the landscape is dotted with scrub bushes and sheep. And though it is a universe away from the seascape of Cape Cod, Groenewald chose the name because it is close to her hometown.
It translates as “land of thirst,” but Karoo Restaurant feels more like an oasis.
KAROO RESTAURANT 2 Main St., Unit 32B, Eastham, 508-255-8288, www.karoorestaurants.comMadeleine Morrow can be reached at email@example.com.