Why you should care
Because deep-fried dough is the best start to any sandwich.
“We come here for proper vetkoek,” enunciates 89-year-old retired music teacher Ria de Klerk. “Tasty, soft and not at all greasy.” De Klerk and her 96-year-old companion, Steyn Slabbert, are sitting at one of three green-and-white checked tables in the scrupulously clean Vetkoek Paleis (named after a popular ’90s Afrikaans sitcom), waiting for their order of two chicken mayo vetkoeks to go. “Just be careful not to heat it too long in the microwave,” warns de Klerk.
Having flown from Cape Town and driven one and a half hours more to the old-school suburb of Discovery on the western reaches of Johannesburg, I’ll be eating mine as soon as it comes out the fryer. Vetkoek — “fat cake” in English — is a deep-fried yeast bread that can be filled with anything from curried mince to caramel-coated bananas. But I’m starting with a plain cheese variety to give the light, fluffy dough a chance to shine.
Vetkoek was brought to South Africa by Afrikaner settlers hankering for the oliebollen (oil balls) back in Holland, but it’s now a staple of African cooking too. Amagwinya, as they’re known in Zulu, are ubiquitous township street snacks and common side dishes at everything from weddings to funerals. Wynand Pretorius, who owns Vetkoek Paleis with his wife, Rochelle, first helped his mother knead vetkoek dough when he was 4 years old, but spent most of his working life as a prison warden. It’s “hard work,” says Wynand, but buying Vetkoek Paleis three years ago was “the best decision ever.”
Wynand runs the till (cash only), Rochelle prepares the fillings and Thebogo Seane makes the vetkoek. A basic but sticky dough of flour, yeast, salt, sugar and water is mixed, kneaded and left to rest before being beaten down and allowed to rise for an additional one and a half hours. When the dough is springy to the touch, Seane shapes it into perfect spheres, which are transferred to a steel worktop and fried, two-by-two, in the smallest commercial fryer I’ve ever seen. Quite something considering she makes 500 vetkoek (that’s 110 pounds of cake flour) on a normal Friday and much more than that if there’s a bulk order for a church fete or school sports day.
Meanwhile, in the adjoining galley kitchen, Rochelle has her hands just as full. Fillings range from conservative (curried mince for $2.50 or jam for $1) to downright ludicrous (the Army Monster — “PRE-ORDER IF POSSIBLE, PLEASE!!!” screams the chalkboard — is loaded with four burger patties, four eggs, ham, cheese, minute steak and bacon and will set you back $13), and Rochelle makes them all. Not to mention the 70-plus daily takeaway dinners (nothing to do with vetkoek) she prepares for her regular customers four days a week.
… loaded with four burger patties, four eggs, ham, cheese, minute steak and bacon …
After wolfing down the plain cheese version (De Klerk’s right, the vetkoek is fluffier than a highveld cumulonimbus), I sample one filled with curried mince and lashed with Mrs. H.S. Ball’s chutney (that other South African classic). By now I’m full to bursting (in a good way), but journalistic duty still calls …
“What’s your favorite?” I ask Wynand while staring dumbly at the mind-boggling menu. “Or are you sick of vetkoek now?”
“You’ve got to eat your own product,” he laughs. “The Springbok Deluxe is nice.” Laden with rump steak, cheese, burger patties and bacon, the Springbok Deluxe will have to be to go. Later that afternoon, I share it with my brother. “Don’t leave it in the microwave too long,” I say, as if I know what I’m talking about.
GET SOME: VETKOEK
- Where: A 30-minute drive (out of peak traffic times) from Sandton, where most Johannesburg visitors end up staying. Map.
- Hours: Opens at 9 a.m. from Monday to Saturday and usually closes at 7 p.m. (Mon – Thurs). On Fridays, it’s open 30 minutes longer, and on Saturdays, it closes at 3 p.m.
- Hot tip: Springbok Slaghuis, the old-school butchery over the road, makes some of the best biltong (South Africa’s take on jerky) I’ve ever tasted. And I’m a serious connoisseur.
- Avoid this: Don’t think you can escape the drive out to Discovery by trying vetkoek at one of the ubiquitous Fat Cake City outlets. “It’s just not the same,” says de Klerk.