Kraft Macaroni & Cheese was the first meal I learned to cook on my own. I have fond childhood memories of boiling the clear plastic bag of elbow pasta, smothering it with milk, butter, and that special packet of fluorescent orange powder, stirring everything up together, and devouring the entire pot. Mmmmm, nothing like a hearty bowl of synthetic, cheesy-flavored chemicals to chase those adolescent blues away.

I’ve always thought of mac & cheese as an American dish, although Wikipedia tells me it originated in Britain in 1769. Wiki also reports that mac & cheese was first served in America in 1802, at a state dinner hosted by President Thomas Jefferson. (In addition to founding our country, this founding father also founded the American version of mac & cheese. I love it.)

Anyway, British or American origins aside, mac & cheese was a rare commodity when I arrived in Joburg in 2010. I never used to see it on restaurant menus, and South African grocery stores didn’t stock anything remotely resembling the Kraft Macaroni & Cheese that I enjoyed so much as a kid.

But times have changed. Mac & cheese has suddenly become hip in South Africa, and according to Zomato there are no fewer than 14 Joburg restaurants serving some form of my favorite Anglo-American comfort food. I’m in no position to do a comprehensive report on all of Joburg’s mac & cheese offerings, but it so happens that I have eaten mac & cheese twice this week at two different restaurants. Both versions were great so I thought I’d do a quick review.

I had my first South African mac & cheese on Saturday night at the National, a relatively new, upscale eatery in Parktown North. The National has an interesting mix of Asian, American, and South African-inspired dishes. When I spotted the “Smoky Mac & Cheese with wild boar bacon” (R115), I looked no further.

Mac and Cheese-7834I appreciate the inclusion of a cute little pile of healthy micro-greens to offset the giant creamy bowl of pasta, cheese, and bacon.

I forgot to ask the waiter what kind of cheese this dish includes…I think there may have been cheddar, possibly some parmesan. But really, who cares? It’s mac & cheese, with bacon. It was delicious and I ate it all, quickly.

On Monday afternoon I found myself at Mr. Big Stuff, a new hipster diner in Braamfontein. Mr. Big Stuff doesn’t serve conventional bowls of mac & cheese but they do serve a “Mac N Cheese Burger” (R80): basically a cheeseburger but with a deep-fried square of macaroni & cheese instead of the usual melted cheese slice.

I was still feeling gluttonous from the mac-&-cheese-bacon bonanza 36 hours earlier. But clearly the universe was trying to tell me something. So I ordered it.

Mac and Cheese-7898There is even some extra cheese melted on top of the mac & cheese square. Awesome.

Who knew that a juicy burger patty and fried mac & cheese is the most perfect food combination ever invented? Actually, I guess a lot of people knew. Mac & cheese burgers have been floating around on American menus for a while, and obviously the people who started Mr. Big Stuff knew this. But this discovery was new to me. I loved everything about the burger — even the “special sauce”, despite the fact that I am not normally a burger sauce kind of person. (You can also order the mac & cheese squares on their own as a side.)

UPDATE (2017): Mr. Big Stuff has closed.

The good news is that gourmet mac & cheese has arrived on the Joburg restaurant scene. The bad news is that flourescent-orange Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (which reportedly became less fluorescent last year) has not yet made it to South African store shelves. I haven’t researched this myself recently, but a Canadian friend did a thorough search a couple of months ago and came up empty-handed.

You’ll have to channel Thomas Jefferson and whip it up from scratch.

Got other suggestions for great mac & cheese in Jozi? Bring’em on.

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