French fries, pommes frites, potato chips … Nomenclature aside, surely we can all agree that these deliciously unhealthy chunks of deep-fried potato should be served hot, salted and crispy? Not in South Africa — we like our chips slap, and the slapper the better.
Slap (pronounced “slup”) is an Afrikaans word that means limp, flabby or — in another context — disorganized. Not usually the kind of adjectives you’d associate with scrumptious food, but don’t knock ’em till you’ve fried ’em. Slathered with salt and vinegar and wrapped in thick white paper, a good “parcel” of slaptjips is one of the few things that draws all members of the Rainbow Nation together.
Slaptjips are so good they don’t even need ketchup to be enjoyed.
Originally nothing more than the boring half of the menu at Cape Town’s iconic fish-and-chips shops, slaptjips have established themselves as a South African classic in their own right. They’re sold at takeaway joints throughout the country — the grimier the neighborhood, the better. Some of the best I’ve ever tasted come from Trueman’s Fish & Chips in Cape Town’s light-industrial suburb of Retreat. Owner John Virissimo, a second-generation immigrant from the Portuguese island of Madeira, says the main secret to making decent slaptjips is frying the potatoes once and once only. “Never pre-fry,” he says, before admitting that even Trueman’s pre-fries on busy Friday evenings.
Owner John Virissimo says Trueman’s Fish & Chips goes through around 40 bags of potatoes on a Friday.
But there are other factors at play. The potatoes must be fresh, of course, and you need the right cultivar. “Vanderplank and BP1 make the best slaptjips, but you can’t always get them,” says Virissimo. Once the potatoes have been peeled and cut, the chips should sit in buckets of water before frying. This doesn’t just prevent them from oxidizing and going brown — it also removes some of the starch, thus combating burning.
Deep-frying the chips is “not rocket science,” says Virissimo. Simply set the temperature to 220 C (428 F) and toss in a basketload. When, between eight and 10 minutes later, the chips float en masse to the surface, they can be removed and set aside to drain. After a few minutes’ rest, they’ll start turning slap, a process further aided by lashings of vinegar and the condensation that takes place inside the thick paper parcels. “When I was a kid, we used to wrap them in newspaper,” says Virissimo, recalling his father’s fish-and-chips shop in another part of town. “But we had to put a stop to that a while back.”
The chips are doused with vinegar and wrapped in thick paper, which turns them “slap.”
Slaptjips are so good they don’t even need ketchup to be enjoyed, and they also feature in some of the country’s other classic dishes — like the Gatsby, the decadent foot-long sandwich named after F. Scott Fiztgerald’s dilettante hero, which may include steak, polony sausage, calamari, egg and Russian sausage. But the presence of slaptjips is non-negotiable. The chip roll — a soft white bap (small roll) dwarfed beneath a mountain of slaptjips — is another favorite.
Just as I’m about to ask whether the carb-free revolution has affected business, the day’s potato delivery arrives. How long will that last? I ask. “Tomorrow’s Friday,” says Virissimo, laughing. “I’ll get through 40 bags, no problem.”
That’s more than 880 pounds of potatoes in one evening.