The restaurant Peli Peli, named after bird’s-eye chili, a native South African spice more commonly known as piri piri, is executive chef and owner Paul Friedman’s Houston homage to his native land.
On the cusp of celebrating its fifth-year anniversary, the multi-award winner—the most recent was the 2013 Open Table Diners' Choice award winner for the Top 100 American Fare Restaurants in the United States—serves authentic South African cuisine alongside American fare prepared with a unique "South African twist,” says Friedman.
South African influenced marinades, seasonings, and spices, often fused with passion fruit, mango, papaya or guava, are used to create new versions of traditional American menu items. Chicken Sosaties, or Dutch Kebabs, are skewered bites of Peli Peli-spiced chicken and apricots marinated in a sweet curry sauce. A New York strip steak is seasoned, marinated, and cooked to taste like kudu, an African antelope.
Tiger Prawns with Heads-On are seared in a spicy butter sauce and served with African rice pilaf. Friedman tells diners to eat the prawns' legs and the heads, “or you will be missing out on a unique South African experience.”
For the Chef of Chefs competition in Houston, held June 2013, which he won, Friedman whipped up Bobotie, which was introduced into South Africa in the 1600’s by colonists from the Dutch East India Company. Considered a comfort food, the traditional version consists of minced meat, onions, and plain mashed potatoes, layered under white bread soaked in milk, topped with eggs, and baked. “The Dutch love it,” says Friedman, who admits that interpretation is not a favorite.
Friedman’s take on Bobotie, on the menu at Peli Peli as a first course, brings in the ingredients and flavors of South Africa he embraces. India, England, France, and the Netherlands are all represented. The Indian influence is reflected in the curry, raisins, and apricots; the British influence, in the leeks, carrots, and russet potatoes; the French, in the light pastry puff on top; and the Dutch, in the mango peach chutney topping.
The restaurant’s interior is also reflective of Friedman's background. A giant, 30-foot, abstract acacia tree, surrounded by translucent panels that change colors, dominates the room, evoking his African homeland.
Developing the only South African concept in Texas promised a bumpy road for Friedman, who had owned restaurants in Texas, South Africa, and Germany before opening Peli Peli in 2009. It definitely distinguishes Peli Peli from the more than 7,000 restaurants in the greater Houston area, but it also meant Friedman—especially during the restaurant’s first years—had to work to familiarize the city with the food of his homeland.
When Peli Peli first opened, Friedman actually stood outside the restaurant, cajoling anyone walking by to come in and try his food. The 2010 World Cup, which was hosted by South Africa, helped generate interest. Freidman also used social media to help promote the restaurant.
For Friedman, that Peli Peli exists at all is nothing short of a miracle.
After securing funding in 2007 to open the new restaurant, monsoon-like rainstorms lasting three months delayed construction. By the time the rain had stopped, so had the banks’ interest in lending Friedman money. “We couldn’t get a dime,” says Friedman.
“I turned it into something spiritual,” he says. “I got down on my knees and prayed.”
Someone was listening. After losing nearly $1 million its first year, Peli Peil earned $5 million in 2013 and is on the verge of expansion, with a second restaurant opening in Houston, and another in Dallas.
Who says you can’t go home again?
By Joann Whitcher