I go weak at the knees for a potato salad. I have loved many in my lifetime. It’s not something I make often because I cannot resist it. It is the only salad I have truly, desperately craved. Leftover potato salad and me? Fatal attraction.
My mother hardly ever made it, perhaps because it was her downfall, too. In the functional notebook in which she wrote down essential recipes when I left home, she gave me her boere potato salad recipe made with mayonnaise, milk, parsley and chopped hard-boiled eggs. I remember the flavours fondly but not fanatically.
Now look, a potato salad is a potato salad, so I would never say no to a scoop or two of mayonnaise drenched spuds, but the potato salads I really fell for as a child were those made by other people’s
mothers. Potato salads made with condensed milk. Their sheer decadence left me breathless.
I would sneak second (and third) helpings at other people’s braais. Or, when someone brought a plastic-wrapped bowl of sweetened potato salad to our house, I would secretly spoon it out of the bowl, lifting only a small corner of the plastic, hoping no one would notice. I was embarrassed by my own greed. I have, until very recently, never used condensed milk in my own potato salad, because my ma’s disapproval stayed with me.
The potato salads of my adult years have been delicious but foreign. I came to adore the Schwäbischer kartoffelsalat (Swabian potato salad) that I first ate aged 22 during the Oktoberfest in Munich. Accompanied by bratwurst and beer, the vinaigrette-soaked potatoes with bits of bacon and finely chopped onions filled me with joy. The French salade de pommes de terre using a vinaigrette of red wine vinegar, Dijon mustard and fresh herbs also made my heart beat faster. Grown-up potato salads, I thought, turning my back on my childhood. These days I make my friend Cara’s sophisticated recipe: boiled baby potatoes are squished with a fork, then dolloped with home-made garlicky mayonnaise and a green pesto made with anchovies and capers and coriander and basil. Served at room temperature with a beautiful fillet it is, and always will be, a showstopper.
But I was reminded of my first love earlier this year when a group of us went away for the weekend. We were at the sea, the sun was hot, the water was cold, and the occasion called for a braai. On the menu were boerewors, lamb chops, braaibrooidjies (buttered on both sides, Cheddar, onion, tomato, white pepper and salt) and potato salad. A typically South African braai. “But not your potato salad,” Etienne decreed, oblivious, as always, to my feelings, suggesting instead that Hannerie make it. “Sy weet hoe,” (She knows how). Hannerie grew up speaking Afrikaans on a farm, which, according to Etienne, clearly made her infinitely more qualified for the job of making potato salad than I, with my suburban English schooled ways.
So Hannerie made the salad the way that Etienne wanted it – with mayonnaise and condensed milk, lots of chopped onion and no egg. And once I tasted my first spoonful, all those sweet memories came flooding back: afternoons of condensed-milk potato salad and Oros-drenched grated carrots, those backyard braai favourites that my ma steered clear of in her pursuit of culinary perfection. And while I’m really glad my mom introduced me to garlic and vinaigrette, and taught me about saffron and paprika, I do wish that she had used condensed milk in her potato salad, because then I wouldn’t feel so disloyal for not serving her version at family braais.
Yes, I am shamelessly going to make condensed-milk potato salad part of my family braai tradition from now on. I will drizzle condensed milk into the mayo and over the potatoes, and always leave enough in the can for Seb and I to scoop out and lick off our fingers. Obviously.
How to make condensed-milk potato salad
Boil 1.5 kg potatoes for 20 minutes until cooked but not mushy. Leave to cool, then remove the skins. Cut each potato into 3 pieces and set aside.
Mix ½ cup mayonnaise, ¼ cup condensed milk, ½–1 t mustard powder and ½ onion and pour over the potatoes. Garnish with 4 thinly sliced radishes.
Cook’s note: This is based on a recipe by Reuben Riffel, who makes his potato salad according to his wife’s family recipe. It is insanely delicious. Down with salad snobbery! I’ve added radishes because their bright pink colour brings me joy. Also, my ma would approve, even though she would disagree about the condensed milk.