Rene and her husband returned to their home, South Africa, a country that could not have seemed further away from the United States. And yet, when they were here, they brought with them a tradition that sat very well with their American friends — gathering around a grill, the men tending the fire and cooking various cuts of meat while the women either relaxed (for once!) or cooked a few sides.
We'd all sit outside in their backyard, soaking up the California sunshine and let the children play basketball or secretly practice a song that would be performed after dinner. It was quite idyllic.
In a country with numerous official languages and long-standing ethnic tensions, South Africans unite over the hot coals of a braai, the Afrikaans word for barbecue or grill. The contents of that grill reflect South Africa's diverse history. Dutch settlers brought Indonesian slaves to the country, and along with them spices such as ginger, cardamom and curry pastes, as well as dishes such as chutneys and sosaties (kebabs).
The Dutch also brought spices from their own trade, along with dried fruit. The indigenous people, meanwhile, offered a wide variety of meats, from fish tugged from the waters around the Cape, to mutton and goat further inland. In this way South African barbecues are a delightful global adventure, with everything from local sausage (boerwors), sweet spice-laced chutneys and spicy Portuguese-style piri piri marinades to cheese, onion and tomato sandwiches cooked right on the grill (a kid favourite!).
It's a social affair where friends are welcomed as family. Waiting for the coals to burn allows time to chat, put away the colder glow of digital devices and savour each other's company. It reminds me so much of our own Fourth of July celebrations, where we focus on what we love about America — family, feasting and the long tradition of embracing stranger as our own.
SOUTH AFRICAN BEEF AND APRICOT SOSATIES (KEBABS)
Start to finish: 30 minutes, plus marinating
Large bamboo skewers
1/4 cup sunflower or grapeseed oil
1 medium yellow onion, sliced into 1/4-inch rings
1/4 cup cool water
1/2 cup apricot jam
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons curry powder
6 bay leaves
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon grated fresh ginger
2 pounds boneless beef sirloin, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
30 dried apricots
30 frozen pearl onions, thawed
15 jarred Peppadew or hot cherry peppers
Place the bamboo skewers in a large zip-close plastic bag. Add warm water, then close the bag and set aside to soak.
In a large saucepan over medium-high, heat the oil until shimmering. Separate the onion rings with your fingers, then add them to the saucepan, flipping with tongs periodically until starting to turn golden brown, about 6 minutes. Add the cool water, jam, vinegar, curry powder, bay leaves, Worcestershire sauce, garlic and ginger. Stir together and bring to a gentle boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, uncovered, then remove from heat and allow to cool.
Pour half of the marinade into a large bowl. Add the beef to the bowl, turning to coat. Set aside to marinate for 1 hour at room temperature. Reserve the remaining marinade for serving.
After the beef has marinated for 30 minutes, in a medium bowl, combine the apricots and enough boiling water to cover. Let sit for 30 minutes.
Prepare a grill for medium-high heat, indirect cooking. For a charcoal grill, this means banking the hot coals to one side of the grill. For a gas grill, this means turning off one or more burners to create hot and cool sides.
Thread the skewers, starting with a piece of meat, followed by an apricot, then a pearl onion and a pepper. Repeat until you have 2 to 3 pieces of meat per skewer.
Place the kebabs over the hottest part of the grill, cooking just until each side chars, about 2 minutes per side. Move the kebabs to the cooler side of the grill and cook, rotating every now and then, until the beef chunks read 130 F at the centre, about another 6 minutes. Transfer to a platter, cover with foil and let rest 5 minutes. Serve with the reserved marinade.
Nutrition information per serving: 490 calories; 140 calories from fat (29 per cent of total calories); 16 g fat (3 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 90 mg cholesterol; 190 mg sodium; 53 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 39 g sugar; 36 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Food Network star Aarti Sequeira is the author of "Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen with an Indian Soul." She blogs at http://www.AartiPaarti.com .