New York Conversation with South Africans reveals that a lot of people think of butternut squash soup as the national soup of South Africa -- it's served in restaurants, at home, and even on safari.
"If there's not butternut squash soup on the menu, it's not an authentic South African restaurant," Nicolas Smallberger, a visiting South African chef, explained at a demonstration lunch. "I've traveled a lot in the world and people always are talking about the soups of South Africa."
"Butternut squash for us has big use," said Grant Cullingworth, executive chef at Table Bay Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa. "We call it 'Boer pumpkin.'"
Cullingworth, Earl King, also of Table Bay, Johannes Mokae and Smallberger were among chefs in the city for a week of events celebrating South Africa's 10 years of democracy that included showing off what is sometimes dubbed South Africa's "rainbow cuisine."
In South Africa, they said, the melting pot also is a cooking pot, given the number of ethnic groups the country has -- rather like the United States.
"We took a little from all of them, but basically we have peasant food," Cullingworth explained. "It's very rustic."
In fact, it was the search for food, and especially spices, that shaped the history of what is today's South Africa. While the Dutch East India Company was looking for spices and other treasure in the mid 1600s, its explorers found the tip of Africa a convenient place to rest and restock their ships.
They planted a first farm, then brought slaves from Java, Sumatra and Malaysia to work in the fields because the local black population was not terribly interested in the Dutch (or their cuisine, preferring their own diet of fish and game, wild greens, root vegetables, berries and grains).
Malay slaves brought their spicy and flavorful cuisine, now among the most popular in South Africa. The French Huguenots, who arrived after the Dutch, introduced vineyards, today producing the country's well-regarded wines.
Sugar farmers brought laborers from India to cut the cane. British and German immigrants added European embellishments to the mix. Today, South Africa's population of at least 44 million people represents many races and mixed races.
All these influences and the wide availability of ingredients might overwhelm a chef, but Cullingworth, for one, keeps it simple. His credo is to present no more than three items on a plate, and his cooking philosophy is "to create simple and unpretentious cuisine."
"We are starting to focus on what's in our own country," added Cullingworth, who was born in Zimbabwe, grew up in Johannesburg and now lives in Cape Town.
Every variety of squash grows in South Africa.
"If you gather up all that grows along the side of the road and toss the seeds away, it will grow everywhere," King said.
Butternut squash soup can be plain or fancy. Some cooks add apples or tomatoes, some use nothing else at all.
"It's like a vichyssoise," Cullingworth said. "You can make it as thick or as thin as you like, for the summer or winter."
Curry Spiced Butternut and Sweet Banana Soup
1 butternut squash (about 1 1/2 pounds), cleaned, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons honey
4 tablespoons butter
1 ripe banana, unpeeled
1/2 onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seeds
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup coconut milk
1 cup chicken stock (use vegetable stock for a vegetarian soup), plus extra for adjusting thickness
Fresh cilantro leaves
Juice of 1 lime, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste
Garnish: Fresh cilantro, pumpkin seeds, and pumpkin seed oil (or truffle oil or hazelnut oil, if desired).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Sprinkle diced squash with brown sugar, honey and 2 tablespoons butter and roast in a 350-degree oven until caramelized and soft to the touch, about 20 minutes; roast the unpeeled banana in the oven at the same time.
Melt the other 2 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan on medium heat, and sweat the onion, celery and carrot for a few minutes until tender. Add the garlic, curry powder, coriander, nutmeg and cinnamon, and cook slowly for a few more minutes.
Remove the banana from its skin, slice and add it with the butternut to the pan, along with the coconut milk and chicken broth. Simmer until hot. Blend the soup in a blender until smooth. Adjust to consistency desired with more broth, if necessary. Add fresh cilantro, lime juice and salt and pepper to taste. Blend again until smooth and pass the soup through a chinois or household strainer. The strainer should not be too fine or you will lose the body of the soup.
Serve hot. Reheat if necessary. Pour soup into bowls and garnish with a drizzle of pumpkin seed oil, a few toasted pumpkin seeds and a sprig of fresh cilantro.
Makes 6 small first-course servings.
Recipe by Grant Cullingworth, executive chef at Table Bay Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa.