The South African Food Shop in Matthews filled a national void in international cuisine

The South African Food Shop in Matthews filled a national void in international cuisine
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I watched nervously as the customs dogs sniffed the suitcases of the passengers in front of us. Our flight had just landed from South Africa, and I was carrying contraband that I wasn’t willing to give up.

I was smuggling biltong – a form of preserved meat that some confusingly describe as “similar to jerky.”

Sure, they may be in the same family, but they are far from closely related.

Alas, the dogs reached me and targeted my carry-on. A few sniffs later, and the agent asked if he could see in my bag. I wanted to say no, but I’ve never been one to protest authority outside of my writing.

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I was busted. My biltong was confiscated without even a last taste.

Weeks later, I couldn’t get the cravings for biltong out of my head, and I fired off an angry message on Facebook. “Why oh why can’t I buy biltong in the United States?”

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A Canadian friend quickly commented. “Have you tried the South African Shop?”

I clicked on the link included with her comment. The answer had been in my own back yard this entire time – in Matthews.

A taste of South African in Charlotte

Jeremy Dryer, a South African native, opened the South African Food Shop in 1997 shortly after moving to the United States. While 90 percent of their business is through shipping, they do have a quaint shop located in Matthews where they make biltong.

The business is quite pioneering in many senses. First, Dryer opened the shop with the intention of selling primarily online. Remember, this was in 1997 when AOL and Prodigy were duking it out for Internet supremacy.

Second, biltong had never been made in the United States before. According to Dryer, “It was unknown to the USDA. They didn’t know what to do with it since it isn’t cooked.”

Unlike jerky, which is preserved through pressure-cooking, biltong is preserved through a unique process that involves air-drying (water loss), vinegar and spices — all of which are perfectly acceptable forms of preserving meat as they kill bacteria.

Besides biltong, the South African Shop sells an assortment of other South African favorites like droewors (a dried sausage of lamb and beef), boerewors (beef sausage), piri-piri sauce, chutney, some Cape Malay curries and wine. They also sell some British favorites like meat pies and sausage rolls.

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Why you need to go there

For the biltong. Period. It’s the most authentic you’re going to find outside of South Africa as it’s made through the native process of curing the meat with vinegar and spices (salt, pepper, coriander and brown sugar) and then air-drying it in a cool environment over a couple of days. The result is a flavor that accentuates the savory notes with a very bright overture from the spices.

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While you’re there, pick up some boerewors for the grill. Serve it on a crusty roll with fried onions and spicy mustard. Think bratwurst, but with a sweet, fresh and clean finish from the strong notes of the coriander, cloves and nutmeg. You may never buy bratwurst again.

Both foods are a perfect representation of all that South African food is: a melting pot of nationalities. The food is influenced by a “tremendous cultural diversity of Dutch, British, Malaysian, Indian and African populations.” And that’s what Dryer misses most about the food of his homeland.

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